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 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 US$2.03 million in 2007, while Sotheby’s 2011 Fernando Botero: A Celebration sale amassed a total of US$7.5 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 its environment.
So what qualities, then, are embedded in his art that make 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 Medellin, 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 Bogota.
After winning second prize in Bogota’s Salon 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 says, when asked about the significance of the moment, in relation to the evolution of his career. “As an artist, I have always been intensely drawn to volume, to celebrate existence, to accentuate the voluptuousness and exuberance that lie 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. “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 those 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.”
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 Medellin (during which the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia destroyed one of his 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 its 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. But, of course, after working on such a grim and depressing topic, I was 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. 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.” He 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.”
“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… HE SHOULD DO IT.”
“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.”
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BODY OF WORK
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 artworks at such a prolific rate. “I am extremely passionate about painting, drawing and sculpting. 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.”
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.”
This article was originally published in The Peak Malaysia under the title “Turn up the Volume”.
Photos: Getty Images