If only we all had Fernando Botero’s irrepressible artistic spirit and his equally tenacious work ethic. The Colombian painter and sculptor may be in his mid-80s, but he continues to produce his pieces at a steady clip – a source of much delight across the art world, given collectors’ voracious appetites for his work. His 1979 painting, The Musicians, was auctioned by Christie’s for a record USD2.03 million in 2007, while Sotheby’s 2011 Fernando Botero: A Celebration sale amassed a total of USD7.5 million.
Even leaving the numbers aside, Botero remains a remarkable tour de force in both the art industry and wider mainstream culture. His distinctive artistic style, which features characters with round, voluptuous shapes, means that the viewer not only sees a painting or sculpture with their eyes but registers the work on a deep-rooted, instinctual level in the way it inhabits and shares the space it’s been placed in. (If you’re keen to experience it for yourself, head to the Drawing Room of The St Regis Kuala Lumpur, where an enormous 2.5-tonne sculpture, simply entitled Horse, overlooks those enjoying their afternoon tea.)
So what qualities, then, are embedded in his art that makes these creations so relatable and universally appealing, yet intriguing enough to capture our attention time and time again? It is, as he explains, a matter of language – one that speaks volumes in every way.
TRUE TO FORM
Born in 1932 in the Colombian city of Medellín, Botero experimented with drawing and painting as a child and, despite being enrolled in a training school for aspiring bullfighters by his uncle, displayed far more interest in making watercolours of the bulls than putting them to the sword. Ever the precocious youth, by the age of 16, his first illustrations had been published in one of the city’s major newspapers, followed by his first solo exhibition three years later in Bogotá.
After winning second prize in Bogotá’s Salón Nacional de Artistas, he travelled to Europe with a group of fellow artists, spending a year in Madrid copying the Prado’s Old Masters, before moving to Paris and Florence, where he studied the Masters of the Italian Renaissance. However, it wasn’t until 1956 that Botero famously experienced his ‘eureka’ moment while he was living in Mexico City, when he drew a mandolin with an exceptionally small sound hole. It was an awakening that ignited his awareness of exaggerated, almost balloon-like proportions, shaping his artistic aesthetic into the signature style that Botero is celebrated for today.
“It was absolutely pivotal,” he responds, when asked about the significance of the moment in relation to the evolution of his career. “I wouldn’t be the artist that I am – the person that I am – if I hadn’t had that moment in my career where I discovered my style. But, anyway, it was bound to happen: if it didn’t happen, then it would have happened at another time, through another subject. In any case, I would have discovered my style. As an artist, I have always been intensely drawn to volume, to celebrate existence, to accentuate the voluptuousness and exuberance that lies in nature by exaggerating the volume present in all forms.
“So, when I drew that small hole in the mandolin and observed how the volume immediately expanded and became monumental by the introduction of this small disproportion in the form, I was only doing what I was always meant to do: to discover my style.” Through his gaze and in his hands, Botero leads us into a world where beings and objects – matadors, ballerinas, cats, saints, violins and watermelons – swell with the fullness of life, acquiring a reassuring plumpness. Distorted they may be, but his figures never seem monstrous or kitschy: there is something enormously relatable and gloriously real about them.
“I do think there is a natural human inclination for the sensuality of the form and the voluptuousness and exuberance of nature expressed in art,” the artist muses. “The sensuality in art is very important because it is what artists often communicate: nature is often dry, so the artist has to present it abundantly and sensually. When you see the landscapes of Van Gogh, obviously the colours of these landscapes were not as coloured as Van Gogh made them. They were more or less grey and olive, but he put in tremendous colours to express them. So did painters like Rubens and Giotto.
“They all have painted and expressed a great sensuality in their work, and that’s part of the pleasure of art. It doesn’t explain the popularity of my work, but rather, the need human beings have for art and the pleasure they get out of it.”
Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Botero’s career is that he’s made it a point to paint from his imagination, rather than becoming – as he put it in a previous interview – “a slave to reality”. “I have had the fortune to choose the subjects of my paintings and this freedom has characterised the evolution of my career as an artist,” he says. “However, this external freedom has a counterpart in an internal necessity: my subject has always imposed itself upon me, leaving me no choice but to explore it through my art. I have painted, drawn or sculpted what I felt I had to work in each particular time.”
In his navigation of the push-and-pull forces of imagination and reality, Botero has not shied away from difficult topics such as Colombia’s turbulent history, the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and the 1995 bombing of Medellín (during which the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia destroyed one of his own bronze statues of a bird). “The Abu Ghraib series came to me when I was on an airplane reading Seymour Hersh’s article in The New Yorker, and I immediately felt that I had to do something about it. I had to raise my voice as an artist to denounce the horror committed by the United States, and the hypocrisy of their denunciations of human rights violations in other parts of the world.
“So, I started to draw right there on the plane and continued to do so after I arrived at my studio for several months, until I felt I had quenched my need to express myself about this situation and said all I needed to say about this subject. But, of course, after working on such a grim and depressing topic, I was left emotionally exhausted and I went away to Mexico with my wife, Sophia.” (Botero has been married to the Greek sculptor and jewellery designer Sophia Vari for over 40 years.) “While I was there, in a small coastal town called Zihuatanejo, a travelling circus passed by and we went to a show one night. I was struck by the colours, the movements, the characters that populate the circus.
“I then started a long period of painting and drawing circus life, which served as a remedy – a contrast to the works I had done about Abu Ghraib. These are examples of how reality can impose a subject upon me. But, nevertheless, I never paint what I see exactly as I see it in reality. Reality can be my inspiration, but it is never the exact subject of my work. The prisoners of Abu Ghraib I painted are not the prisoners that appear in the horrifying pictures published by The New Yorker. My circus characters are similarly inspired, but are not the actual members of the travelling circus that passed through Zihuatanejo. This is more or less the relation reality and imagination has in my work.”
He steadfastly insists, though, that he is not a political artist. “I do not consider myself to be one. I am very sceptical about art’s relation with politics: art has no political capacity to change anything. Art perpetuates things, but it does not effect change. I always say that Guernica, the most famous painting of the 20th century, did not push Franco out of power. He continued for 30 years in power. It is naive to believe that a novel, poem or painting can change something.
“What art can do is to leave a testimony. If an artist has the ability and will to approach political events in order to leave a testimony about the horror, the absurdity, or the injustice of violence, corruption and political stupidity, he should do it. That is what I have done with my Abu Ghraib series, but also my works on the violence in Colombia. And also, more indirectly, with hidden satire at the beginning of my career, through my paintings of military dictators, politicians and the oligarchs of Latin American societies.”
Despite Botero’s rejection of the idea that art can directly influence politics, he clearly feels that art holds a potency that – in a way – reaches far beyond the political spectrum. For starters, it is what allows him to continue producing his artwork at such a prolific rate: “I am extremely passionate about painting, drawing and sculpting. I always have been. It’s hard to regard this as work because I get so much pleasure out of it, but that is why – for me – there are no ‘weekends’, ‘holidays’, or ‘vacations’. I spend around 10 to 12 hours in my studio every day, as I deeply love what I do and cannot think of anything else that could give me as much pleasure and happiness.”
At its very best, art has the ability to transcend cultural and geographical boundaries, uniting audiences while simultaneously giving every individual artist a distinct language. “The essence of art is to be universal,” Botero states. “However, in the history of art, universality has often been attained when artists approach the subject that is most familiar and dear to them: their own local background, the things they have lived, the landscapes they have observed, and the people they know and talk to each day. So it seems that universality in art is reached, paradoxically, through work that is focused on something local and very particular – the French scenes in Impressionist art, the popular imagination in Goya’s work and, of course, the Chinese way of life in traditional Chinese art.
“In my case, the local subject has been the Colombia I grew up in around the 1930s and 1940s. I’ve stayed true to this subject throughout a career that’s spanned over 60 years, and have tried to approach it in all its diversity and complexity: its joy, its beauty, its colour, but also its pain, its violence and its social injustices. And then, of course, the language has to be universal because the subject in the painting must be local or parochial, but the language must touch any viewer anywhere. Painting has elements that are global, universal and can say something to everyone. Take colour, for example: a beautiful colour harmony can be understood by a Japanese, German, Colombian or an Argentinean.
“Everybody is sensitive to a wellbalanced composition, to drawing and to personal style. All that is something that people around the world appreciate and understand. Each country has a theme that is local, but it’s the way of saying it that it is international. One is touched by a painting by Monet, but Monet’s paintings are also admired from Japan to Argentina – even if his issues are entirely French – because there is such a clear and wonderful language.” Is that, then, what makes a true artist? “I’ve always thought that the history of art is the history of people who have personality, not of people who are technically skilled in art,” is Botero’s answer.
“Many people can do good artwork, but only those who say something personal, who add something unique to what is known, remain in our memory and in time. The subject is always the same. That is why the still life is such an important subject in the history of art, because throughout history, all cultures have represented what they eat – the most essential thing – in their art. But the way you express it is always different. I’ve said that the horse, the man and the tree have been the same since prehistoric times, and, yet, there have been thousands of ways to express them. The horse of the caves in Altamira, of Velasquez of Caravaggio, of Giotto, of Picasso… They’re all the same horse, but the way the artists express it is different.
“That is what separates artists from other people, the creators from other members of society. Because it is founding that personal way of expressing yourself that is central to the life of an artist.”
TEXT RENYI LIM
IMAGES GETTY IMAGES AND THE ST. REGIS KUALA LUMPUR