The Aesthetics of Volume
An Interview with Fernando Botero
The paintings of neo-figurative Colombian artist Fernando Botero appear, on first examination, as playful compositions of corpu- lent figures with unique dispositions. But Botero’s work is much more profound; tinted by the artist’s Colombian upbring- ing, each Botero canvas is marked by sub- tle commentary woven throughout the composition. Some paintings explore the history of their characters and the inherent relation of this history to the situation captured—of a moment in time that has become much more than just a moment. They may be calm scenes of a meditative nature or allegorical ones with deeper content and purpose; they may establish a dialog with past historical backgrounds or remain abstractions that reinterpret classic scenes. Regardless, Botero is an iconoclast who breaks boundaries without abandoning technique.
He has made way for new artistic paths in contemporary painting, defying the limits of standard portraiture and combining them with his sharp sense of composition and color combination. The light of certain works recalls the glow of the South American sun and his characters range from Colombian ladies of high society to priests, politicians and bullfighters.
Botero’s investigation of volumes and textures creates a world that seems to invite us to travel inside the artist’s “plump” universe. Michelangelo is known for having exaggerated the proportions of his subjects in order to give them a grand and god-like appearance. A Michelangelo to the nth degree then, Botero works in a style that is revolutionary in its innovative means of expressing volume to its utmost extent.
A and L: Explain a little about the exaggerated figures in your art. Do they intend to challenge today’s aesthetical canon or are they only your particular manner of studying the human body’s representation?
Botero: My human figures can be defined as being volumetric, and so are the landscapes, the still-lifes and the animals that I paint. This deformation obeys my desire to give more plasticity and sensuality to the subjects portrayed. Sometimes, they function as satirical representations of the characters and other times the curved lines trace a sensual, visual voyage for the spectator.
Beauty in painting is not the same as beauty in real life. A beautiful woman, for example, can become trivial when painted even though she projects charm and magic when contemplated face-to-face. In contrast,African art noir holds in itself great beauty even though figures are presented with extreme deformations relative to what they look like in reality.
A and L: We know that you studied in Madrid and that some of the topics of your artwork are impregnated with the essence of Spain. Bullfight paintings and the Spanish Court appear in your works, probably influences of works by Diego Velázquez. What can you tell us about your relationship with Madrid and Spain? How has this country influenced your work?
Botero: When I was very young I spent a whole winter living in a house in the Los Jerónimos quarter, in front of the Prado Museum. I used to work as a copyist there, painting reproductions of the great Spanish Masters:Velázquez, Goya and Murillo.
I am passionate about Spanish art—its colors and topics, the winter light and the oranges in autumn leaves from the Retiro park and surroundings. I enjoy the art of bullfighting. Everything that one enjoys is subject to being passed on to one’s painting. The first work that I ever did was a watercolour of a torero.
A and L: Madrid is decorated by some of your magnificent sculp- ture—the Paseo de la Castellana, for example. We know that your sculptures are exhibited in public areas of many cities. How do you perceive public and urban art? Is it mere decoration or a way of encouraging passer-bys to contemplate and appreciate art?
Botero: Public art—in this case monumental sculptures exhibited on the streets of a city—is the way in which art encounters the public in contrast with the other way around. A minority of people go and find art by visiting museums and galleries and encountering it.Art on the streets has to be seen because it is everywhere. It finds people and grabs their attention by enhancing their daily lives.
A and L: In recent works you confront some of the contemporary world’s injustices. Tell us a little about these works, changes in your style and the reasons why you began painting these dramatic scenes.
Botero: I have made work based on the tortures in the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq. I paint in my own style and use the volumetric figures and the particular universe I have constructed with them, but I have changed my topics from kinder and optimistic ones to these more dramatic and social ones.
As an artist, one’s special sensibility is touched by what is happening in the world; it is impossible to rest passively and not try to evidence some of the injustices that damage our experience of the present world.
A and L: What can we expect from your work in the near future?
Botero: Challenges for an artist are represented by art itself—by the maturing of an idea, of a style, of a quality. It’s not only about finding new subjects and changing one ́s path, but also working on those classical and eternal subjects that painting offers us.
For me, challenges in art mean painting the same thing repeatedly but in different ways, examining and investigating all of that thing’s structural possibili- ties. Innovation can mean changing a subject, using a color one has never used or changing compositions and points of view.
A and L: How do you relate the words “art” and “living”?
Botero: For me, my art has become my own living and my life has become my ar t. “Ar t” and “living” are synonyms of pleasure and enjoyment.
Image: Fernando Botero, Woman Reading. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy Galería Fernando Pradilla, Madrid.