portrait of power The President and His Ministers (2011)
Botero produced a series of works about Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, although these were arguably less confronting—and closer to home. Does he think art has a social duty? “The obligation of an artist is to do great painting,” he says. “If by chance you become involved in a situation and produce great art as a consequence, then you are still fulfilling your obligation.”
Botero finds inspiration everywhere. One of the themes that always excites his fans is bullfighting. In his late teens Botero began training as a matador with the “vague idea” of becoming a professional. “Ah, it was so unimportant, but people keep asking me about this,” he sighs when I ask about those days. He has probably been answering the same questions for more than six decades, yet this is the first time in our conversation that he has intimated any frustration. “I went to a school to learn how to bullfight but I wasn’t there long before I realised I was more interested in painting than bulls.”
Finally we come to the subject of fatness. “Saying my father paints fat people is like saying El Greco or Giacometti painted thin people,” says Juan Carlos. “What you see in my father’s work is an exaltation of volume. He believes volume communicates beauty.” The artist weighs in on another question he’s no doubt addressed hundreds of times before, doing so with keen interest. “For me, fruit will be voluminous and sensual, the same for a dog or a horse or a mountain. I love to express the sensuality of the forms, the plenitude of the forms. I love the loudness of things, the exaggeration. This excites me.”
It’s almost expected that canonical artists will be riddled with neuroses and eccentricities. One need only think of Picasso or Vincent van Gogh. But Botero is, simply, content. There’s a wonderful irony in the fact that the master of fantastical exaggeration is analytical, courteous and patient. An hour has flown by and Botero is due at his next appointment, his minder reminds him. I feel the urge to give him a hug, the way you might hug your grandfather, but we opt for a warm handshake, then a selfie to mark the occasion, and go our separate ways.
Botero in Hong Kong will be on display on the Central Harbourfront from June 3 until August 14. For more information, contact Parkview Art Hong Kong at info@parkviewarthk or visit boteroinhongkong.org