Mas­ter of Mirth

He trained as a bull­fighter but be­came an artist. Colom­bia’s Fer­nando Botero, renowned for his in­fat­u­a­tion with the in­flated, is en­joy­ing grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity in Asia, writes Madeleine Ross

Hong Kong Tatler - - Con­tents -

He trained as a bull­fighter but be­came an artist. Meet Colom­bia’s Fer­nando Botero on the eve of an ex­hi­bi­tion of his sculp­ture on the Cen­tral Habourfront

through­out his ca­reer, Fer­nando Botero has had to jus­tify an ob­ses­sion with fat­ness. Whether painted on can­vas or cast in bronze, his pneu­matic, of­ten com­i­cal fig­ures have be­come the hall­mark of a style so dis­tinc­tive it’s earned a name, Bo­ter­ismo. I’m fa­mil­iar with the artist’s com­men­tary on the sub­ject; I know that rather than a fetish for obe­sity, his in­fat­u­a­tion with ro­bust forms is purely tech­ni­cal. Nev­er­the­less, on the eve of our meet­ing I’m de­ter­mined to un­earth some child­hood pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with food or a sup­pressed mem­ory of a volup­tuous wet nurse.

“Hello! Wel­come!” he ex­claims in a thick Colom­bian ac­cent when I en­ter his ho­tel suite. It’s a cold, pol­luted day in Bei­jing and his apart­ment is abuzz with fam­ily mem­bers, pho­tog­ra­phers and press of­fi­cers. The artist is sharply dressed in mono­chrome—not what you might ex­pect from the king of colour. His shock of grey hair is combed straight back and his cir­cu­lar, black-rimmed spec­ta­cles frame a strong face full of char­ac­ter. “Now, where are you from?” he asks as he set­tles on the sofa, sub­tly slap­ping his palms on his thighs as if to say, “Let’s be­gin.”

I had ex­pected he’d be tired, per­haps a lit­tle se­nile and surely ec­cen­tric. But the 85-year-old be­fore me is vi­tal and en­gaged. His wife, Greek sculp­tor Sophia Vari, 10 years his ju­nior, wan­ders in and out of the room putting on her face as the in­ter­view pro­ceeds, while his grand­son sits with us to help trans­late dif­fi­cult words. It’s a charm­ing fam­ily af­fair.

Botero is one of the most fa­mous—and pro­lific—liv­ing artists. Renowned for his bright, fig­u­ra­tive oil paint­ings, he is some­times re­ferred to as the Pi­casso of South Amer­ica. He be­gan paint­ing in his teens and says he has done so ev­ery day since, of­ten stand­ing at his easel for six hours or more. “I paint on Satur­day and Sun­day too be­cause I haven’t found any­thing that ex­cites me more,” he says. His son, Juan Car­los, vouches for this when we meet later that day. “When my fa­ther goes to a cock­tail party he is ex­hausted within an hour, but he works eas­ily for 10 hours on his feet with­out show­ing the slight­est sign of fa­tigue. When he en­ters his stu­dio he is trans­ported to an­other world. He truly be­lieves life is worth liv­ing, and his work cel­e­brates life. I think that is why he has so much en­ergy, why he has lived for so long.”

The artist has a knack for mix­ing plea­sure with busi­ness. His works reg­u­larly sell for more than a mil­lion US dol­lars, mak­ing him, with­out doubt, one of the most com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful artists alive. He has been hon­oured with solo ex­hi­bi­tions from Tokyo to Athens and his work is housed in New York’s Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art and var­i­ous other in­sti­tu­tions glob­ally. Re­gard­less of whether you like his work, his abil­ity to strad­dle the di­vide be­tween pop­ulism and high art is fas­ci­nat­ing.

Right now in Asia, Botero is hav­ing a mo­ment. His solo ex­hi­bi­tion last year at the Na­tional Mu­seum of China in Bei­jing was so pop­u­lar that it trav­elled to the China Art Mu­seum in Shang­hai in Fe­bru­ary. At Art Basel in Hong Kong, Botero’s 2006 paint­ing At the Park sold to an Asian col­lec­tor for US$1.3 mil­lion within an hour of the doors open­ing. Two bronzes by the artist, from 2006 and 2011, sold by the end of the first day for US$400,000 each. This month, a col­lec­tion of his sculp­tures, in­clud­ing his cel­e­brated Woman Smok­ing a Cig­a­rette (1987), will go on show on Hong Kong’s Cen­tral Har­bourfront.

His pop­u­lar­ity, he be­lieves, stems from the fact his work “speaks di­rectly to the peo­ple.” In­nately dec­o­ra­tive, his paint­ings are bal­anced com­po­si­tions, ren­dered in har­mo­nious, bright colours that de­pict mostly “gen­tle” sub­ject mat­ter. His son de­scribes them as “mag­nif­i­cent vis­ual po­ems” thanks to colours that res­onate and co­here. “So of­ten these days,” says the artist, “au­di­ences need to be told why some­thing is im­por­tant. I be­lieve that art should speak di­rectly. When I’m in front of a great paint­ing I don’t need any­one to tell me it’s great. All the great­est painters, Michelan­gelo, Giotto, Piero della Francesca, thought in terms of colour and form; they all talked di­rectly to the viewer. I see their work and I want to drink it! But now the trend is to make art ob­scure, to make au­di­ences be­lieve some­thing is there when usu­ally there is noth­ing.”

Tech­nique is Botero’s bedrock. As a stu­dent of the Qu­at­tro­cento mas­ters, he has never warmed to con­cep­tual art. “Now some artists think an idea is enough. Ap­par­ently it’s not nec­es­sary to do the work any­more; it’s enough just to think about the work. I like art that

leaves a foot­print, art that marks a mo­ment in the story of man. This con­cep­tual kind of art just stays in the mind. I’m for the kind of thing that is clear and di­rect and en­dures.”

There’s some­thing dis­arm­ing about Botero’s nar­row, un­fash­ion­able ap­proach to art crit­i­cism. The over­whelm­ing pur­pose of art, in his mind, is to pro­duce plea­sure. In­deed, as you stand be­fore one of his paint­ings, you can al­most feel en­dor­phins gush. “Some peo­ple think it’s wrong to give plea­sure. They think this is pros­ti­tu­tion. I think they are wrong,” says the artist. “The whole his­tory of art is there to prove that plea­sure, whether in­tel­lec­tual or phys­i­cal, is key to great art.”

Plea­sure comes in var­i­ous forms. It’s not just in­spired by beauty, but also by hu­mour. The artist has done many in­ter­pre­ta­tions of his idols’ paint­ings, in­flat­ing the fig­ures of iconic works like those in Jan van Eyck’s 1434

Arnolfini Por­trait. I tell him I can’t help but laugh when I see these ap­pro­pri­a­tions. “Well, I am glad to hear that,” he roars. “When you look at a paint­ing by [Pi­eter] Bruegel [the El­der] you see a touch of hu­mour. You know, at the time he was paint­ing he was called Pi­eter the Funny? There is a lot of hu­mour in so many artists, even Goya and Velázquez. They all had a sense of hu­mour.”

His de­trac­tors have called his work pre­dictable and sim­plis­tic. “Ele­phan­tine and ex­pen­sive,” is the way one BBC jour­nal­ist de­scribed it in a 2007 ar­ti­cle. I ask Botero whether crit­i­cism fazes him. “Ah, these days peo­ple think that we artists are like fash­ion de­sign­ers. We’re ex­pected to change our style con­stantly to stay rel­e­vant. But all the great­est artists in the world had con­vic­tion and a style that re­mained with them for all their lives. Bot­ti­celli was Bot­ti­celli from his first day un­til his last day. Renoir painted like Renoir all his life. These peo­ple be­lieved in some­thing very strongly and this be­lief and this con­vic­tion marked their whole body of work.” Botero’s hands move as if he’s con­duct­ing an orches­tra, al­beit in slow mo­tion. “To be an artist you have to have con­vic­tion. No flirt­ing around!”

For many artists, the stu­dio is a fo­rum in which they can process per­sonal trauma. The work of such artists as Frida Kahlo, Fran­cisco Goya and Tracey Emin is charged with pain. But per­sonal pain is not some­thing Botero feels his au­di­ence need be sub­jected to. “It is not the role of an artist to do psy­cho­anal­y­sis through their work. I’m not a dra­matic per­son. I don’t have demons in­side me,” he pauses and flashes a smile, “well, only some­times. But I en­joy life. I en­joy my work.”

That’s not to say he’s led a life de­void of suf­fer­ing. His son Pe­dro—the child he had with his sec­ond wife, Ce­cilia Zam­brano— was killed in a car ac­ci­dent at the age of five. Botero’s own fa­ther died when he was a child, and his mother, a seam­stress, had to pro­vide for the fam­ily. Nev­er­the­less, asked to re­count the hard­ships of his youth, he brushes the is­sue off. “When you have no money it’s harder to be happy.” I push for sen­ti­men­tal de­tails. “Well, we sur­vived, but I was not jump­ing for joy ev­ery morn­ing,” he says, throw­ing his big, po­etic hands into the air. “When you are a child and you can’t have things that your friends have, it’s frus­trat­ing, but that’s life,” he shrugs.

In 2005, Botero shocked his crit­ics and ad­mir­ers with a se­ries of grue­some paint­ings of tor­ture at the Us-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. What mo­ti­vated his de­par­ture from sunny fa­mil­ial scenes and still lifes? In ad­di­tion to art’s pur­pose as “an oa­sis, a place or refuge from the hard­ness of life,” it can also act as a “per­ma­nent ac­cu­sa­tion,” he tells me. “Be­cause of Pi­casso’s Guer­nica we will al­ways re­mem­ber that the Ger­mans bombed a small town in Spain. Time erases things, but art im­mor­talises them. I was shocked that no Amer­i­can pain­ter tack­led the is­sue of Abu Ghraib,” he says. The paint­ings weren’t en­tirely with­out prece­dent. In the late 1990s

“AH, THESE DAYS PEO­PLE THINK THAT WE ARTISTS ARE LIKE FASH­ION DE­SIGN­ERS. WE’RE EX­PECTED TO CHANGE OUR STYLE CON­STANTLY TO STAY REL­E­VANT. BUT ALL THE GREAT­EST ARTISTS IN THE WORLD HAD CON­VIC­TION AND A STYLE THAT RE­MAINED WITH THEM FOR ALL THEIR LIVES”

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