The National Magazine of the Successful American Latino: Painting life to the full – Main cover: Fernando Botero

Painting life to the full – Main cover: Fernando Botero – Cover Story

Michelle Collins

Fernando Botero artist

“The great public recognizes the fat women, fat food, fat houses, fat mountains, fat generals, fat bishops, fat babies that delight us in the paintings and sculptures of Fernando Botero.” So spoke noted Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa upon presenting the Americas Award 2002, this past November, to the famed Colombian artist and champion of the pleasingly plump. After the award ceremony, LATINO LEADERS Publisher Jorge Ferraez conducted an exclusive interview with the artist in his New York apartment.

Readers familiar with the life of Fernando Botero may express surprise at our selection of him as the cover story for this issue. Botero maintains an apartment in New York, which he occupies two months out of every year, dividing most of the rest of his time between Paris and Tuscany, with the occasional stint in his strife-and crime-ravaged homeland. LATINO LEADERS normally dedicates itself to prominent Americans of Hispanic heritage, but to call Botero an American–in the sense that we of the United States normally use the term–would be misleading. Botero is the most Colombian of artists. And if he is not Colombian, he is Latin American. And if he is not Latin American, he is nothing. In his own words at the Americas Foundation award ceremony: “For many years, I have believed that great art is born as a tree, with deep roots buried deep in the soil. It has sprung from a specific place. Although it is paradoxical, there is a necessity to be parochial to be universal. And every important aesthetic creation has developed with the texture of the land where it has originated.”

Far from a reference to international economics, Botero the expatriate is making an important statement about his craft. Later, during his interview with us at his New York apartment, he amplified: “I try to represent a Latin American world, because I believe that art has to have roots in a place to achieve universality. What I try to paint is Latin America, Colombia, Medellin, with a little bit of nostalgia. That, at bottom, is the theme of my work. Globalization doesn’t work.”

Why, then, did LATINO LEADERS choose to highlight this most parochial of universal artists? Because LATINO LEADERS does believe in globalization, a globalization that is in the same spirit of the Americas Foundation, an organization that recognizes the special bond we of the Western Hemisphere share. Especially now, with the United States flexing its powerful economic and political and cultural muscle in every part of the world, we have a special responsibility to become more aware of and in touch with the people mad cultures of other nations, especially those who like us call the United States home. And so we celebrate Fernando Botero.

Who is Fernando Botero?

Born in the provincial city of Medelln in 1932, Botero lost his father, a traveling salesman, at the age of four. The family was left in economically straitened circumstances, but, fortunately for the young Botero, a concerned uncle took him under his wing. A bull-fighting fan, he sent the boy at the age of 12 to a school for trainee matadors. There, inspired by the fiesta brava, the boy began to draw pictures of bulls and bullfighters. Shortly after, he took his first courses in watercolor and in drawing. It must have felt like being given wings: “From drawings of bulls, I soon went to landscapes and still life. Little by little, I was drawn in without realizing it. And when I did, there I was with an enormous vocation.”

Within four year’s, at the age of 16, Botero had shown his work fox the first time, at an exhibition of artists from his province. Around the same time, he began working as an illustrator for the Sunday supplement of El Colombiano, Medellin’s major newspaper. Still in school, he was formally rebuked by the school’s headmaster for his nude illustrations in the paper. Then, in an art history, book, the young artist happened upon his next important discovery: the work of Picasso. An article he published at the age of 17, entitled Picasso and Nonconformity in Art, got him expelled from school. Although he was able to finish his high school education elsewhere, Botero knew the needed to leave the stultifying atmosphere of his provincial hometown.

In 1952, two months after graduation, Botero moved to Bogota where, within five months, he held his first solo exhibition. A later exhibition won him second prize for his painting, “On the Coast.” The 7,000-peso prize money, plus his savings, earned him a third-class ticket to Europe and away from what he describes as a “desolate” scenario for the arts in Iris native land.

“The native born painters were university professors, but nobody ever sold anything. It was like studying for the priesthood. It was a vocation, and you had to choose it with an awareness of the consequences. I decided to be a painter, but without may expectations.”

In Europe Botero studied first in Madrid and then in Florence and, in an age where the modern style of lyrical abstraction was gaining ascendancy in Europe, became particularly influenced by Renaissance painters such as Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and also later painters Rubens and Ingres. In 1955 he returned to Bogota, where he exhibited his works to universal condemnation from the critics, who took their lead from the current Paris fashions in art. He did not sell a single painting.

Undaunted, Botero continued on his own path. “I’ve never changed a single thing because of a good or bad review. Critics are important in the sense of creating interest in art. But a serious painter isn’t going to change something because of what they say. You are your own most severe and violent critic.”

That year he married his first wife, and together the couple moved to Mexico City. It was there that Botero first began experimenting with the technique of exaggerating the volume of his figures, in order to emphasize their tactile quality, their touchability, in the same sense that a sculpture is touchable because it exists in the round.

In 1957, Botero traveled to Washington, DC, for the opening of his first one-man show there. During his stay, he visited several museums in New York, where he was introduced to abstract expressionism. Upon his return to Bogota, he entered a painting in a national exhibition. The picture was initially rejected by the jury, but a storm of protest by the Bogota art community forced the jury to reconsider and award the work first prize. The next year, Botero experienced major success with his exhibit at the Gres Gallery in Washington, DC, and, that same year, was invited to take part in the Guggenheim International Award exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. The artist “without expectations” had started down the road to international fame.

Since then, Botero’s celebration of fatness has become universally recognized, both in his paintings mad sculptures. Vargas Llosa comments that, “We live in a civilization that has decided that fatness is a sickness, fatness is ugly, something that should be avoided. One of the merits of Fernando Botero, who has never been afraid of going against the current, is to vindicate fatness as beauty.”

But how does the painter perceive his paintings?

Is his a social statement? Quite the contrary, in a recent interview, Botero explained the aesthetic basis and rationale of his work: “The kind of figurative work I do derives in a way from the experience of abstraction. My compositions are based on the requirements of color and form, so I often have to turn a painting upside down in order to view it as an abstract work.”

Botero is a painter’s painter. His goal is not to reflect reality, but rather to interpret it in an aesthetically pleasing and original composition of color and form. From the same interview: “The moment I start painting it, a picture becomes a still life for me. To me, every painting is a still life.”

The comment has been made of Botero’s work that his people are devoid of expression, they gaze impersonally out of the canvas, seeing nothing. “I want to paint as though I were always painting fruit,” continues Botero. “Cezanne used to say to his wife when she was sitting for him: “Just sit there as though you were an apple.’ That’s the way. And when you look at a Cezanne you don’t wonder about what he was thinking at the time: you see fruit; you see a painting. That’s the correct approach. I don’t trust painters who emphasize expression so much that you see only expression and not the painting.”

“I don’t want the people in my paintings to look particularly intelligent. Neither do I want them to look at the viewer–they gaze into empty space. If you look at a person you never really see the person, just the eyes. The first thing I do when I paint a portrait is to say: ‘Close your eyes. I’ll tell you when I’m finished.’ Only then can I perceive the figure, the mass of forms, the volumes.”

In the mid 1970s, Botero decided to explore pure volume and teach himself another medium, that of sculpture. “All my life I had wanted to make sculpture. But to stop painting, to all of a sudden leave it for something I didn’t know, was a serious decision. But in 1975 or 1976, I stopped painting for a year and put all my energies into learning the art of sculpture.”

Not surprisingly, Botero’s sculptures are also fat.

And almost constant, underlying element in Botero’s mature work is his native Colombia. Yet he would hasten to add that his work does not, in any respect, attempt to reproduce what is “picturesque” about his birthplace. Rather, he tries to capture the spirit of what he imagines Colombia to be, a Colombia that is either hidden or emerging, but never physically present except, perhaps, in the shouting voluminosity of Botero’s works.

Botero’s dedication to his native land is palpable, and his pain at leaving it also. “I left my country because of my work. I couldn’t do the sculptures I do, nor perhaps my pictures either; the materials aren’t there. And I have commitments all over the world with my exhibits.”

“I have a house in Colombia and a big studio,” he adds. “And I used to go there twice a year. But now, with the problem of security I can only make brief visits. But I love my country.”

In 2000, to show that love, Botero offered a great gift to a nation that, in his own words, has a “poor artistic tradition.” He bestowed an immensely valuable art collection to his hometown of Medellin: 76 of his paintings and 14 of his sculptures; approximately 80 other works from his own private collection; including works by Claude Monet, Auguste Renoir, Eugene Boudin, Pablo Picasso, George Braque, Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Miguel Barcelo, Manolo Valdes, Alberto Giocometti, Antoni Tapies, George Grosz, Francis Bacon, Joan Miro, Giorgio de Chirico, Alex Katz, Henry Moore, Marc Chagall, Wilfredo Lam, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, Roberto Matta, and Rufino Tamayo.

Botero has been married twice and has three living children. The only child of his second marriage, Pedro, was tragically killed in a car accident at the age of four. Yet Botero defines his life as “beautiful,” and rebels against the idea of the suffering artist. “It’s a 19th-century myth that an artist has to be miserable. That comes from the age of Romanticism. But great artists of the world, like Velazquez, Rubens, Giotto, did not suffer at all. Nor did Goya or Picasso. Just the opposite, they were people who enjoyed life. To express life in its fullness you need to possess it.”

Or, you might say, you just need to live off the fat of the land.

BIOGRAPHY

1932 Born in Medellin, Colombia

1948 Exhibits his work publicly for the first time in Medellin and begins to draw illustrations for the Sunday supplement of El Colombiano, Medellin’s major newspaper

1952 Moves to Bogota and meets members of Colombia’s avant-garde

1952 Holds his first one-man show in Bogota and later that year buys a third-class ticket to Barcelona

1954 Visits Florence, Italy

1955 Returns to Bogota and exhibits work produced during his stay in Florence–a flop!

1962 Botero’s first exhibition in a New York gallery is severely criticized

1966 Travels to Germany for the opening of the first major European exhibition of his work

1971 Rents an apartment in Paris and continues to divide his time between Paris, Bogota, and New York, where he has a studio on Fifth Avenue

1972 His first major exhibition takes place at the Marlborough Gallery in New York. Buys a house in Cajica, in the north of Bogota, where he lives for part of the year

1974 His first-ever retrospective is shown in Bogota

1976 Devotes himself to sculpture for the year

1978 Abandons sculpture and returns to painting

1984 Donates a number of sculptures to the Antioquia Museum in Medellin. He also donates 18 paintings to the National Museum in Bogota.

2000 Conveys a valuable art collection as a gift to his hometown of Medellin.

2002 Receives the Americas Foundation Award

THE AMERICAS FOUNDATION, INC.

In 1942 a small group of men and women joined together to form the Americas Foundation, to advance the cause of unity among the peoples of the Western Hemisphere. According to Program Director Montserrat Hernandez, the founders felt there was a need for citizen-to-citizen dialogue between Americans and Latin Americans for an exchange of cultural and social ideas. In those days, there were few non-governmental, binational institutions, and most Americans were quite uninformed about the huge continent to the south.

Since then, the Foundation has supplied support in the form of grants and the sharing of program expenses to organizations in education, the media, and institutional development. Additionally, at each convocation since 1944, the Foundation has presented its Americas Award to an outstanding individual.

Hernandez elaborates: “Botero has given so much, first to his native city, in the form of his donation to the Museum of Medellin. then to Colombia, and then to the world. He means a lot to Colombia, which is bleeding firm internal strife. For Bolero to receive the award was magical. It was a marvelous moment for Colombia and for Botero and for the Foundation.”

COPYRIGHT 2003 Ferraez Publications of America Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group