Would you mind speaking a little louder?” frets the great master of painting as he works through the morning in his studio in Paris, waiting for a phone call from his native Colombia. “I might be going a little deaf,” he remarks. It’s not every day one gets to talk to Fernando Botero (Medellín, April 19, 1932), without doubt the most important Colombian artist alive, known worldwide and considered a key figure in the history of art.
Botero’s work has a global following as his portraits are as corpulent as they are a depiction of the Colombian character – from the larger-than-life paintings of bishops, aristocrats or everyday workers, one can recognize the work of a creative genius; and an artist, whose language and style takes the viewer to relate to colour and often controversial themes. “ I don’t paint to be politically correct,” says Botero in an interview with The City Paper, regarding his series ‘Vía Crucis’ (Way of the Cross); and which are currently being exhibited in Pereira as part of the 150 years celebration of the city’s founding. “My paintings have very concrete themes.”
From his studio in Saint Germain, where he returns to work after having opened an exhibition of drawings and paintings in the Swiss pinacoteca Communale Casa Rusca of Locarno, Fernando Botero’s religious series refers to the stages endured by Christ from the time he was arrested to his crucifixion and burial. The passion of Christ has been a dominant theme in the history of art, especially during the Italian Renaissance with the Florentine school of Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Donatello and Michelangelo. “I was drawn to one of the great themes of humanity,” says the maestro. “If Michelangelo could do the crucifixion, so could I.”
As much as Botero has the stamina to address universal themes of suffering and injustice, such as his 2005 series ‘Abu Ghraib,’ and which depicts on canvas the humiliation endured by Iraqi prisoners in the notorious prison, Botero’s work is linked to a Colombian and Latin American identity. Creating a unique and vigorous visual language, completely original in form, is his most important and lasting achievement.
Because of his aesthetic convictions, Botero, is an artist admired at home and abroad. His donation to Colombia of countless works of art during his lifetime shows a commitment to keeping culture vibrant in this country, and accessible to the general public. The Museo Botero in Bogotá and the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín (which houses many of his monumental sculptures and paintings) are a testament of his love for his country.
Fernando Botero, along with novelists Gabriel García Márquez and Alvaro Mutis, have often taken up causes of national pride, as was the case back in 2001, when Colombians were subjected to the European Schengen visa. The intellectuals denounced this act claiming they would not return to Spain as long as these restrictions were in place (see article: ‘An end to Schengen?).
Although Botero visits Colombia several times a year, he spends the summer in his home in Pietrasanta, Tuscany, where he works on his sculptures, as the medieval town’s proximity to the legendary marble quarries of Carrara date back to the days of Michelangelo. “I couldn’t work in Colombia,” claims Botero. “You can’t find the kind of plaster I need for my work outside Italy.”
While Botero’s sculptures have graced the most famous boulevards, piazzas and museums around the world, he claims that as an artistic form, it is limited. “It comes down to men, women and animals.” Botero’s sculptures have the same robust characteristics as his paintings, but can exceed 10 feet in height and weigh more than a ton.
Botero does not just look for corpulent forms in his work. For the artist, roundness is an exalted form of sensuality that strengthens figurative images in an original way, to let them acquire their own meaning. He is not an artist interested in accurately portraying reality – although as a realist artist – his main subject is “memory.” His work exalts volumes because “it conveys the sensuality, the exuberance, the profusion of the form I am searching for.”
Botero is also a tireless worker. At 81, he fundamentally believes in what he does and has a profound love for his craft, devoting himself to his work, everyday for eight hours, and regardless where he is. He even finds time to read the digital editions of Colombian newspapers to stay on top of current events. “I am very optimistic about Colombia. I read very positive stories about my country,” he says. “But I believe our greatest problem is poverty.”
Some of Botero’s most poignant paintings – and which are exhibited in the Museo Botero – depict scenes from the dark years of the drug violence, such as the massacre in ‘Mejor Esquina’ or his ‘Death of Pablo Escobar.’ Without pretense that his work can change current realities, Botero is pragmatic when it comes to understanding the human experience. “Life is cruel,” he answers when asked about his series on bull- fighting. “Nature is cruel. Nature is the worst thing that exists. Just look at National Geographic when they show some hawk with an animal in its beak.”
When Botero talks, one is drawn into his vision of life, passions and world culture. This is how he has established a dynamic relationship with audiences for more than a half century. During an interview with The City Paper the focus is religion and his touring masterpiece: ‘Way of the Cross.’
Botero is not coy about his vision of Christianity and its role in the modern world. “Religion is being seriously questioned right now. People are very focused on materialism,” he remarks. Hence ‘Vía Crucis’ is making its way around the world: from its birthplace in Italy and France, to New York -a city which vigorously had embraced his art (two large male Botero sculptures tower of the entrance to the Time Warner building in Manhattan). The painter’s Passion of Christ was also exhibited in Il Braccio di Carlo Magno; a sacred exhibition space within the Vatican walls.
As a young student of Catholic priests in Medellín, Botero has kept his faith without the dogma. Religion – he believes – is indelibly drawn in our consciousness, like art, because it is an experience and part of life’s ritual. “It’s a noble theme for what it is. Take Michelangelo for example. What would he have painted had he not had religion?” Botero, then makes the case that “not one important painting exists of a hunting scene.”
Botero has managed to develop an intelligent and respectful relationship with his dealers, which select new places to exhibit his work. Appreciated by collectors because of the aesthetic pleasure his work inspires, a Botero painting is also a solid investment. At international auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, his works have never been sold lower than their asking price. A work by Botero is a must-have in any important art collection of the 21st century.
Botero painted many themes and subjects throughout a 70-year career. His first one-man exhibition took place in Bogotá at the Leo Matiz Gallery in 1950, where he exhibited 25 watercolors, drawings and oil paintings. He has painted still life, portraits, old masters, town and country scenes, as well as nudes.
His sculptures grace Park Avenue in New York (1993), Champs Elysées in Paris (1992), Belvedere Castle in Florence (1991), and the Casino in Monte Carlo (1992), among many others.
As one of the most respected living artists, Botero shies away from commenting on the contemporary art scene. While one sees a connection between his work and those of the Italian Renaissance, Botero views “ephemeral” the installations which cause so much sensation in contemporary art. “It’s a minor manifestation,” claims the maestro of monuments and masterpieces.
Editor’s note: Fernando Botero died on September 15, 2023, age 91 at his home in Monaco.