TURN UP THE VOL­UME

Famed for his volup­tuously sen­sual fig­ures and vi­brant creative en­ergy, there is no one in the art world quite like Fer­nando Botero. Colom­bia’s most beloved artist tells The Peak Malaysia about his ex­plo­ration of vol­ume, bridg­ing the gap be­tween imag­i­nati

The Peak (Malaysia) - - Contents - TEXT RENYI LIM

Famed for his volup­tuously sen­sual fig­ures and vi­brant creative en­ergy, there is no one in the art world quite like Fer­nando Botero. Colom­bia’s most beloved artist tells The Peak about his ex­plo­ration of vol­ume, bridg­ing the gap be­tween imag­i­na­tion and re­al­ity, and where the essence of art lies.

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 his pieces 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 USD2.03 mil­lion in 2007, while Sotheby’s 2011 Fer­nando Botero: A Cel­e­bra­tion sale amassed a to­tal of USD7.5 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 and shares the space it’s been placed in. (If you’re keen to ex­pe­ri­ence it for your­self, head to the Draw­ing Room of The St Regis Kuala Lumpur, where an enor­mous 2.5-tonne sculp­ture, sim­ply en­ti­tled Horse, over­looks those en­joy­ing their af­ter­noon tea.)

So what qual­i­ties, then, are em­bed­ded in his art that makes 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 Medel­lín, 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 Bo­gotá.

Af­ter win­ning sec­ond prize in Bo­gotá’s Salón 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 re­sponds, when asked about the sig­nif­i­cance of the mo­ment in re­la­tion to the evo­lu­tion of his ca­reer. “I wouldn’t be the artist that I am – the per­son that I am – if I hadn’t had that mo­ment in my ca­reer where I dis­cov­ered my style. But, any­way, it was bound to hap­pen: if it didn’t hap­pen, then it would have hap­pened at an­other time, through an­other sub­ject. In any case, I would have dis­cov­ered my style. As an artist, I have al­ways been in­tensely drawn to vol­ume, to cel­e­brate ex­is­tence, to ac­cen­tu­ate the volup­tuous­ness and ex­u­ber­ance that lies 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. “The 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 these 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.”

PURE I MAGINATION

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. I have painted, drawn or sculpted what I felt I had to work in each par­tic­u­lar time.”

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 Medel­lín (dur­ing which the Revo­lu­tion­ary Armed Forces of Colom­bia de­stroyed one of his own 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 their 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 and said all I needed to say about this sub­ject. But, of course, af­ter work­ing on such a grim and de­press­ing topic, I was left 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 and we went to a show one night. 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. These are ex­am­ples of how re­al­ity can im­pose a sub­ject upon me. But, nev­er­the­less, I never paint what I see ex­actly as I see it in re­al­ity. Re­al­ity can be my in­spi­ra­tion, but it is never the ex­act sub­ject of my work. The pris­on­ers of Abu Ghraib I painted are not the pris­on­ers that ap­pear in the hor­ri­fy­ing pic­tures pub­lished by The New Yorker. My cir­cus char­ac­ters

are sim­i­larly in­spired, but are not the ac­tual mem­bers of the trav­el­ling cir­cus that passed through Zi­hu­atanejo. This is more or less the re­la­tion re­al­ity and imag­i­na­tion has in my work.”

He stead­fastly 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.

“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.”

BODY LAN­GUAGE

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 art­work at such a pro­lific rate: “I am ex­tremely pas­sion­ate about paint­ing, draw­ing and sculpt­ing. I al­ways have been. 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, as I deeply love what I do and can­not think of any­thing else that could give me as much plea­sure and hap­pi­ness.”

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. And then, of course, the lan­guage has to be uni­ver­sal be­cause the sub­ject in the paint­ing must be lo­cal or parochial, but the lan­guage must touch any viewer any­where. Paint­ing has el­e­ments that are global, uni­ver­sal and can say some­thing to ev­ery­one. Take colour, for ex­am­ple: a beau­ti­ful colour har­mony can be un­der­stood by a Ja­panese, Ger­man, Colom­bian or an Ar­gen­tinean.

“Every­body is sen­si­tive to a well­bal­anced com­po­si­tion, to draw­ing and to per­sonal style. All that is some­thing that peo­ple around the world ap­pre­ci­ate and un­der­stand. Each coun­try has a theme that is lo­cal, but it’s the way of say­ing it that it is in­ter­na­tional. One is touched by a paint­ing by Monet, but Monet’s paint­ings are also ad­mired from Ja­pan to Ar­gentina – even if his is­sues are en­tirely French – be­cause there is such a clear and won­der­ful lan­guage.” Is that, then, what makes a true artist? “I’ve al­ways thought that the his­tory of art is the his­tory of peo­ple who have per­son­al­ity, not of peo­ple who are tech­ni­cally skilled in art,” is Botero’s an­swer.

“Many peo­ple can do good art­work, but only those who say some­thing per­sonal, who add some­thing unique to what is known, re­main in our me­mory and in time. The sub­ject is al­ways the same. That is why the still life is such an im­por­tant sub­ject in the his­tory of art, be­cause through­out his­tory, all cul­tures have rep­re­sented what they eat – the most es­sen­tial thing – in their art. But the way you ex­press it is al­ways dif­fer­ent. I’ve said that the horse, the man and the tree have been the same since pre­his­toric times, and, yet, there have been thou­sands of ways to ex­press them. The horse of the caves in Al­tamira, of Ve­lasquez of Car­avag­gio, of Giotto, of Pi­casso... They’re all the same horse, but the way the artists ex­press it is dif­fer­ent.

“That is what sep­a­rates artists from other peo­ple, the cre­ators from other mem­bers of so­ci­ety. Be­cause it is found­ing that per­sonal way of ex­press­ing your­self that is cen­tral to the life of an artist.”

Botero looks at the Pablo Pi­casso’s ‘Mas­sacre in Korea’ paint­ing, on No­vem­ber 22, 2017, dis­played at the Ho­tel de Cau­mont, in Aix en Provence, south­ern France, as part of the ex­hi­bi­tion ‘Botero, di­a­logue avec Pi­casso’

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