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Transcript of Episode 20: Big Odalisque Energy

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Welcome to Art History for All; I’m Allyson Healey. (Beat.) I’d like to start this episode off by asking you to picture a human body. What’s the first image that comes to mind?  Have you included a face with that body? Are you thinking about the exterior form of the body, or its interior structures? Is the body masculine or feminine? Is it a body of color, or a white body? Is it fat? Muscular? Thin? Is it “average,” and if so, what does an “average” body mean to you? The default body we think of when we think of the capital-h Human capital-b Body tells us a lot about what we consider “normal.” I know that from my background in the American school system, I tend to think of the “generic” human body as a white male one, with thin-to-muscular build. That’s often what’s shown in biology textbooks and three-dimensional models—but who ever said that the thin white male body was automatically the norm? In this episode, I’ll discuss a work by Colombian artist Fernando Botero, who is well-known for his depictions of round, fat people. But the discourse surrounding the body type of Botero’s figures addresses this in a very odd, often derogatory way, often avoiding acknowledging that real fat people exist, and instead framing Botero’s figures as unrealistic and fantastical. The painting I’m discussing in this episode is from 1998 and is titled L’Odalisque. L’Odalisque further complicates the discussion of the bodies Botero depicts because it is a nude—and not just any nude, but a nude with a title and visual elements that come from a long tradition in Western art of depicting sexy Turkish concubines.  So it’s also an exoticized nude. With these combined elements, Botero’s L’Odalisque offers us an opportunity to discuss the idea of the “other,” the opposite of the norm, in all its forms.

I used a pretty broad variety of sources in researching this episode, most of which are fairly accessible online, especially if you have a library card. One article I wanted to include but was unable to was a piece I came across on Medium just a couple of days before I started writing. It’s titled “The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI,” and it’s by an anonymous writer who goes by Your Fat Friend online. I think it’s pretty relevant to a lot of the stuff I’ll discuss here, but it should be required reading regardless. Now, let’s jump right into things, and talk about Fernando Botero’s L’Odalisque!

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A description of Fernando Botero’s L’Odalisque, oil on canvas, 1998, 20.5 x 16.5 inches. Viewable in a past auction listing on artnet.com. A nude woman sits on a plush red stool. Her body and face are plump and round, and she crosses her right ankle over her left knee. In her left hand, she holds the neck of a stringed instrument, possibly a lute, the body of which rests in her lap. Her right hand rests on the stool. She wears multiple pieces of jewelry: wrist and ankle bracelets, a ring, three strands of beads around her neck, earrings, and a string of pearls in her hair. Her hair is also pulled back with a red scarf, and only a few reddish strands of hair drape over her right shoulder. She is in a room with a beige tiled floor and a deep green wall that contrasts with the red of her scarf and stool cushion—the rightmost third of the back wall is a carved wooden screen. The woman’s face is in a three-quarters view, looking off to the viewer’s left. Her expression is impassive and unreadable, all her facial features concentrated in the center of her round face. The woman fills up most of the image, and there is little depth to the space in which she sits—in fact, her left pinky toe is cut off by the bottom edge of the painting.

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Fernando Botero was born in Medellín, Colombia in 1932, and is still alive and active today. He was “basically self-taught,” though he did briefly enroll in an art academy in Madrid in the 1950s.[1] As a young artist, he traveled around Spain, France, Italy, and Mexico, eventually settling in New York in 1960.[2] His influences range from Renaissance and Baroque painting to the murals of Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco, and his subjects range from new versions of European works in his own style to more modern scenes and subjects. Perhaps the best-known of his paintings (besides his painting of Pope Leo X after Raphael, which has been turned into a meme)[3] are his Abu Ghraib series, painted shortly after it was revealed in 2004 that the United States Army and the CIA had been torturing prisoners in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.[4] Whatever the subject, the way that Botero paints the figures that populate his scenes is instantly recognizable. A wide range of labels have been used to describe Botero’s figures, from ten-cent terms like “gigantism,” “stolidness,” “benign malleability,” “pneumatic,” and “immensity” to more straightforward ones, such as “overexaggerated,” “doughboy,” “inflation,” and “deformation.” Botero’s fat figures are his trademark, and arguably are what has allowed him to be dubbed “Latin America’s most collectible living artist.”[5] When he was working in this style in New York in the 1960s, Botero says the so-called “dictatorship of abstract art” treated him like a “leper” because of it.[6] A recent Artsy article by Scott Indrisek, in response to a documentary about Botero, specifically mentions how North American critics dislike Botero’s work, in particular noted art historian Rosalind Krauss. Quote: “Krauss finds the artist’s output ‘terrible’ and likens his characters to ‘the Pillsbury Dough-Boy.’ She refers to a major installation of Botero’s public works in the ’90s, on Park Avenue in New York, as ‘an invasion.’ The problem, Krauss explains, is that ‘he’s speaking down to the viewer…I am a viewer who is not convinced, or amused.’”[7] End quote. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s anything particularly condescending about Botero’s work—and also, what’s wrong with the Pillsbury Dough-Boy? Indeed, the perceived charm and accessibility of Botero’s work appears to be an advantage, especially in terms of its marketability. Later in the same article, gallerist Patricia Tompkins says she feels Botero’s work is popular because it is “uncomplicated”, and quote, “easy to understand.”[8] But this statement doesn’t seem to fully encapsulate Botero’s work, either, because to me, Botero’s work is just as complex as any other work of art. Clearly, there is some inability among the art world elite to connect to Botero’s work in quite the same way as the general viewing public.

L’Odalisque is a good example of Botero’s complexity in terms of references and context, because it is representative of Botero’s quintessential style and is rooted in Western art history. The female nude has long been a popular subject in Western art, the ultimate in beauty and sensuality, although many artists seem to have felt the need to contrive quite elaborate scenarios in order to justify painting female nudes. One of these contrivances is the theme of the odalisque. The word is derived from a Turkish word for chamber attendant, but in its Frenchified form in the West it came to refer to concubines or female slaves in the harem of the Ottoman sultan. The concept is particularly visible in 18th and 19th century French art, with a variety of artists tackling the subject of the odalisque with varying degrees of fidelity to the term’s Eastern roots. François Boucher’s 1743 Brunette Odalisque has only the barest hint of Turkish influence, and is quite overwhelmingly a cheeky depiction of a partially nude French woman. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s 1814 Grande Odalisque includes a great many more apparent trappings of Turkishness, such as a turban, a feathered fan, and a pipe, but the fantastical nature of the image is fairly obvious, and it’s made even more so by the fact that the woman’s body is unnaturally lengthened and strangely contorted. Pierre Auguste Renoir’s 1870 rendering of an Algerian woman, which he called an Odalisque, is much more modest than Boucher’s or Ingres’s, but has a heavy-lidded malaise that brings her sensuality to the fore. Renoir’s Odalisque is a woman of pleasure, not a woman of agency. Henri Matisse created a number of Seated Odalisques in the 1920s, and the one currently housed in the Barnes Foundation in Pennsylvania, from 1922, depicts a nude woman in a sheer skirt, lounging in a slouched position with an impassive and almost featureless face. The attention in these paintings is always on the female body, even when it is covered or clothed. Whether their bodies are sensual or strange, lazy or luscious, the odalisque as a theme in Western art is an embodiment of the effeminacy, luxury, and exoticism that the West perceives as an essential element of the so-called “Orient.” The Western fascination with the East, and the way in which the West imagines the East to be, falls under the umbrella of Orientalism, a term popularized by Edward W. Saïd in his influential book of the same name. In Orientalism, Saïd discusses how Western civilization created a distinction between the Orient (the East) and the Occident (the West), from the Renaissance onward. The “figures of speech” that are associated with the Orient, according to Saïd, are, quote, “always symmetrical to, and yet diametrically inferior to, a European equivalent, which is sometimes specified, sometimes not.”[9] End quote. Saïd also notes that, quote, “the essence of Orientalism is the ineradicable distinction between Western superiority and Oriental inferiority.”[10] End quote. Everything that Western civilizations want to project—strength, masculinity, virtue, righteousness, godliness—is opposed in how we have historically constructed the East—as immoral, greedy, lustful, ungodly, weak, and effeminate. The odalisque is a particularly fetishistic expression of this opposition, focusing on an imagined type of Ottoman woman whose primary purpose is to titillate.

Botero’s L’Odalisque clearly responds to this theme of the odalisque in Western art, but Botero’s unique approach to depicting the human form leads the viewer to question exactly how it is responding to this theme. Botero’s Odalisque is far wider and rounder than the traditional nude woman in Western art, and she and her surroundings are rendered in a somewhat flat, matter-of-fact fashion that doesn’t convey the same lushness as Boucher’s or Ingres’s lounging women. Whereas other odalisques are objects of desire, Botero’s odalisque is not presented as such, but neither is she presented as a subject with agency, personality, or autonomy. This might seem like some kind of commentary on the lack of agency of women in Western art in general, except for the fact that most of Botero’s figures are presented in a similar fashion, with expressionless faces and bodies that, even when in the midst of activities like dancing or acrobatics, feel like they are static expressions of a type rather than representations of real people. The idea of representing “types” has a long history in Western art, primarily for comedic or encyclopedic purposes, as when artists depict broad stereotypes for laughs or depict a quote-unquote “typical” shopkeeper, beggar, or foreign savage in order to illustrate a point. Botero’s odalisque could be considered a part of this tradition of “typing,” save for the fact that Botero’s approach to depicting the human figure is too distinctly Boteroan and stylized to be considered generic. And it’s Botero’s approach to figures that seems to be the sticking point when it comes to discussing his work in general.

In researching this episode, I noticed that a number of authors discussing Botero go beyond just talking about the stylistic treatment of his figures and make a point of noting that they see Botero’s figures as unreal or impossible. Professor of Literature Wendy B. Faris discusses Botero’s figures in relation to the magical realist literature of Gabriel García Márquez, and asserts, quote, “Botero’s people are larger than normal human beings…his figures are all about the same percentage plumper than ordinary people.”[11] End quote. Later on in her essay, Faris also says, quote: “In analyzing Botero’s work, we need to distinguish between the iconic dimensions of his figures—that they seem to depict fat people, and the symbolic dimensions—what that inflation represents metaphorically and stylistically.”[12] End quote. A five-author paper in The Journals of Gerontology on “Obesity in Aging and Art” made particular note of Botero’s depictions of figures, saying, quote, “The human body for Botero is only the starting point, a kernel that evolves abstractly, where any relationship to the real world belongs to the viewer and not to the artist.”[13] End quote. What is implied in these statements is that fat people as Botero depicts them are not real. Certainly, there is a gap between Botero’s images and reality, as there is with most figurative art, but this consistent messaging that the fatness of Botero’s figures is unrealistic comes off as narrow-minded rather than descriptive. The use of words like “hyperbolic,” “distorted,” “inflated,” and “grotesque” in discussing the figures Botero depicts says a lot more about the authors discussing Botero’s work than it accurately describes the figures in question. These terms imply that, at best, fat people are not normal, and at worst, they are monstrous—somehow, their existence falls outside the boundaries of the possible. You can look back at episode 6 of this very podcast for an example that pushes against this idea that fat bodies are not real, or, at the very least, not “normal”. Laura Aguilar’s photograph Three Eagles Flying, and indeed a great deal of her work, focuses on the artist’s own fat body, a very real body that resembles the bodies of a great many other real people. And when I say a great many, I mean a great many: according to the CDC, as of 2015-2016, 71.6% of adults aged 20 and over in the U.S. were overweight or obese based on their BMI.[14] Obese adults comprised 39.8% of the adults 20 and over in that study. With rates like that, characterizing Botero’s figures as unrealistic or abnormal speaks almost of willful ignorance. Botero himself tends to use positive language when discussing his figures, but he also contributes a bit to the characterization of his figures as unrealistic, such as when he says, quote, “I enlarge my people to give them sensuality.”[15] End quote. He implies that rather than simply painting large people, he has deliberately enlarged quote-unquote “normal” figures to achieve an aesthetic effect. Wendy B. Faris expands on this idea of deliberate enlargement in the following excerpt:

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“…as we contemplate Botero’s paintings, the expressions on the faces of his figures are rarely gay—quite the contrary, and yet we viewers absorb a sense of well-being from them. Again, [Botero’s contemporary Mario] Vargas Llosa confirms this aspect of Botero’s work; for him, Botero’s most Renaissance and least contemporary trait is ‘exuberance, joy, vital pleasure’. ‘The happiness is not in the themes of his paintings: his people don’t seem to be having fun, they aren’t smiling but serious and astonished by life, even when they are doing the most agreeable things (dancing, drinking, making love). It is in the luminous, sensual, and joyous form with which their ample curves have been drawn…In that careful and splendid form there is something cheerful and happy….This pleasure, inscribed like an impalpable aura around people and things, transmits a little of their happiness to us’. Botero says that ‘the problem is to define where the pleasure comes from when we look at a painting.’ For him, it comes from ‘the exaltation of life that the sensuality of forms communicates’… Gaston Bachelard confirms these collective feelings regarding amplitude: ‘images of full roundness help us to collect ourselves, permit us to confer an initial constitution on ourselves, and to confirm our being intimately, inside.’”[16]

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While it’s certainly a good thing that Botero’s works bring joy to their viewers, I find there’s quite a bit of dissonance between the great joy that Vargas Llosa, Botero, and Bachelard perceive in the round bodies Botero depicts, and the acknowledged lack of joy of the figures themselves. Certainly, Botero’s Odalisque does not seem at all happy, in contrast with her odalisque sisters depicted by earlier artists, who at the very least seem comfortable. Her pose seems stiff, and what little we can see of the room around her appears fairly bare, as though there is nothing else for her to do but sit on her stool, hold her lute, and stare into space. The lute might not even be playable—as my musician father pointed out to me when I showed him the painting, the lute doesn’t even have tuning pegs to adjust the strings. Abundance and joy seem far less present here than in other Botero works, and if communicating abundance, joy, and sensuality is a key factor for Botero, then why is the Odalisque so void of these things?

I can’t help but wonder if the “joy” we are supposed to derive from Botero’s fat folks is the same type of joy that people used to get from looking at “fat ladies” in circus side shows. Is it a fascination with strangeness, or “otherness”? This term, “otherness,” or the idea of “the other,” brings us back around to the fascination with the exotic that birthed Western art’s fascination with the odalisque in the first place. The West set the East up as our distaff counterpart, our opposite but complementary culture that emphasizes our own apparently positive traits. I argue that a similar kind of opposition has been constructed between the fit, thin body and the fat body in our modern world. Where the thin body knows restraint, is strong, is beautiful, is powerful, the fat body is linked to poor impulse control, ugliness, and weakness, both of body and mind. The fat body is the “other,” reinforcing the positive qualities of the fit body by opposing them. Like the qualities ascribed to the East by the West, the qualities ascribed to fatness are by no means intrinsic to or accurate descriptors of fatness, but they have been so intensely reinforced in our society that their accuracy no longer matters. They are even reinforced in humor: fatness in itself is considered funny, while fitness is something to be taken seriously. This is backed up by the numerous references to humor I’ve found in literature on Botero while researching this episode. A 1997 study of how children perceive humor in art asked children to respond to a 1970 Botero painting entitled Melancholic Transvestite. Multiple children found the work funny, both because the figure was fat and because the figure was cross-dressing. One child’s response set up an interesting duality: quote, “Sixth grader Stewart said that it was unusual for her to see chubby people in paintings and that ‘he [the artist] draws people the way he sees them…pretty neat.’ When asked if the same image was a photo, she replied ‘it would be mean [not funny] because it would mean that they were not taking care of themselves.”[17] End quote. When fatness is hypothetical, just the stylistic quirk of an artist, it’s funny or “neat,” but when it’s photorealistic, it is all of a sudden unacceptable. Another child’s response to a Botero work, recorded in their father’s Tweet from 2017, said that upon seeing the 1969 painting “Sailor Boy” in the Tuscon Museum of Art, the child laughed “for like six minutes.”[18] In a later reply to the same tweet, the father said, quote “It’s totally valid and I didn’t even attempt to shush him.”[19] End quote. I retweeted this tweet when I found it and my podcast friend T.H. Ponders, who runs another great art history podcast called Accession, responded by asking a sort of chicken-and-egg question: quote, “[Are] the comic elements of Botero-ism rooted in fat phobia? Or is our rejection of the comic elements in Botero-ism rooted in fatphobia?”[20] End quote. I think that to ignore the apparent humorousness of Botero’s work is to ignore a large part of its popular appeal, but at the same time, we need to look at that humor in the larger context of how our twenty first century society views larger bodies. We’re making a lot of progress in that arena, but there’s still a long way to go.

If the sources I used in this episode are anything to go by, the language we use when we talk about fat bodies, even fictional ones whose fatness is at least partly due to the aesthetic whims of an artist, is overwhelmingly negative and dismissive. Looking at Botero’s Odalisque, would we honestly, truly, ever think to describe her as “grotesque,” as a number of commentators have described other Botero figures? I don’t think we would. Not just because it is a cruel word to use, but because it is inaccurate. However,  that sort of language seems to be the thing that many critics have leapt to, probably out of habit more than anything else. L’Odalisque is a particularly good case study to test out these sorts of knee-jerk reactions about body image on, I think, because she is not just a fat woman, she is a nude fat woman placed in a context that is usually highly sexualized. A type of figure we are usually meant to find exotic and alluring is blended with a type of figure we are usually meant to find, at best, comical, and at worst, disgusting. Thus, L’Odalisque resists categorization as a conventional beauty, but due to her stiffness, lack of context, and matter-of-fact portrayal, she can’t be clearly identified as a social critique or parody, either. Other works by Botero, particularly the Abu Ghraib series, are quite clearly commentary on social and political issues. With L’Odalisque we can’t really say the same. She lacks the shock value that often accompanies socially and politically motivated works, and she lacks the levity that often accompanies satire. Perhaps Botero was just revisiting the European art that inspired him in his youth, in the same way he did with his rendition of Raphael’s portrait of Leo X. But even if that is the case, and L’Odalisque is just an exercise in remaking older art for the modern world, what does Botero’s style add to the trope of the odalisque? Should we give in to the characterization of Botero’s bodies as unrealistic, and say that this further emphasizes the unreality of the odalisque as a figure? I think what emphasizes the unreality of this image is not necessarily the woman’s size, but her blank stare, her pegless lute, her stool set exactly parallel to the wall, all of which combine to give the feeling that she is miming, playing a role. The longer I look at L’Odalisque the more I sense discomfort in her stiff pose, and the more I question what exactly the point of this work is. Yet, no matter how long I look, I do not feel compelled to laugh—in part because I, too, am on the larger side, and it would feel like I was making fun of myself. This, I think, is something that isn’t really discussed very much at all in Botero-related content. How do fat people feel about Botero’s work? I believe this is something worth exploring further, and not just in relation to Botero, but in relation to the Venus of Willendorf, and the work of Peter Paul Rubens, and Jenny Saville, and every artist who has dealt with bodies that are are considered larger than normal. What does Botero’s L’Odalisque mean, or not mean, to a woman who looks like her? If you’re at all interested in sharing your perspective on diversity of size in visual art, I’d like to create a bonus episode that incorporates your thoughts. Talk about L’Odalisque, talk about any artist you like—just send a paragraph or two, or a short audio recording, to allysonh[at]arthistoryforall.com by November 30, 2019. I welcome your thoughts and experiences, and hope we can open up a greater discussion about how we view bodies in art and how art influences how we view our own bodies.

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Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, as well as a link to the image and citations, at arthistoryforall.com. Go ahead and subscribe to Art History for All wherever you like to listen to podcasts, follow us on Twitter and Instagram at arthistory4all, with the number 4, and if you really enjoyed the podcast, please consider leaving a tip at ko-fi.com/arthistoryforall. We also now have a channel on the Flick Chat app, where you can listen to the podcast and chat with me and other listeners about arty stuff! Just download the app and use the code arthistoryforall, all one word, to be added.

This podcast was produced and narrated by Allyson Healey, and the theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Credits for other music can be found in the episode description or at the end of the transcript. New episodes go up on the last Monday of every month. Thanks so much for listening, and remember to look closely—you never know what you might see.

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Additional Music Credit:

 

Music from https://filmmusic.io

“Cool Vibes” by Kevin MacLeod (https://incompetech.com)

License: CC BY (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)

[1] “Fernando Botero | | Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao,” Tienda del Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, accessed October 6, 2019, https://www.museobilbao.com/in/exposiciones/fernando-botero-186.

Mariana Hanstein, Fernando Botero (Taschen, 2003): 15.

[2] “Fernando Botero | | Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao,” Tienda del Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, accessed October 6, 2019, https://www.museobilbao.com/in/exposiciones/fernando-botero-186.

[3] “Y Tho,” Know Your Meme, accessed October 17, 2019, https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/y-tho.

[4] Wikipedia contributors, “Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Abu_Ghraib_torture_and_prisoner_abuse&oldid=920046086 (accessed October 17, 2019).

Kenneth Baker, “Abu Ghraib’s Horrific Images Drove Artist Fernando Botero into Action,” SFGate, January 29, 2007, https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Abu-Ghraib-s-horrific-images-drove-artist-2620953.php.

[5] Stephanie Eckardt, “At 84, Artist Fernando Botero Is Keeping Things Supersized,” W Magazine, accessed October 6, 2019, https://www.wmagazine.com/story/at-84-artist-fernando-botero-is-keeping-things-supersized.

[6] Scott Indrisek, “Fernando Botero Became Famous Despite the Art World’s Scorn,” Artsy, June 4, 2019, https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-fernando-botero-famous-despite-art-worlds-scorn.

[7] Indrisek, “Fernando Botero.”

[8] Ibid.

[9] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 25th Anniversary edition / (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), http://catdir.loc.gov/catdir/description/random051/79010497.html. 72.

[10] Saïd, 42.

[11] Wendy B. Faris, “Larger than Life: The Hyperbolic Realities of Gabriel García Márquez and Fernando Botero,” Word & Image 17, no. 4 (October 1, 2001): 339-40, https://doi.org/10.1080/02666286.2001.10435725.

[12] Faris, 341.

[13] L. Ferrucci et al., “Obesity in Aging and Art,” The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences 65A, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 54, https://doi.org/10.1093/gerona/glp166.

[14] “FastStats,” July 23, 2019, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/obesity-overweight.htm.

[15] Botero, quoted in Faris, 346.

[16] Faris, 346.

[17] Sheri R. Klein, “What’s Funny About Art?: Children’s Responses to Humor in Art,” Visual Arts Research 23, no. 1 (1997): 57.

[18] Adam Rex, “Adam Rex on Twitter: ‘Today My Five Year-Old Laughed at This Painting in the Middle of a Museum for like Six Minutes Https://T.Co/AHlNJiZU5R’ / Twitter,” Twitter, accessed October 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/mradamrex/status/947620341676830721.

[19] Adam Rex, “Adam Rex on Twitter: ‘Today My Five Year-Old Laughed at This Painting in the Middle of a Museum for like Six Minutes Https://T.Co/AHlNJiZU5R’ / Twitter,” Twitter, accessed October 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/mradamrex/status/947620341676830721.

[20] T.H. Ponders, “T.H. Ponders on Twitter: ‘@arthistory4all Is the Comic Elements of Botero-Ism Rooted in Fat Phobia? Or Is Our Rejection of the Comic Elements in Botero-Ism Rooted in Fat Phobia? Https://T.Co/XVNDoG8qy9’ / Twitter,” Twitter, accessed October 24, 2019, https://twitter.com/thponders/status/1187382550802698240.

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