Fernando Botero: An Exultation of Volume

An intimate look inside the life of Latin America’s most famous living artist

By John D. Adams

Art aficionados recognize the paintings and sculpture of Fernando Botero by his signature style, also known as ‘Boterismo,’ which joyously depicts people and figures in large, exaggerated volume. Widely considered the most famous living Latin American artist, Botero’s works are found in prominent galleries, museums, and residences globally. While we see him as a cultural icon, Juan Carlos Botero knows him simply as “Papá.” South Florida Opulence sat down with father and son to learn more about Fernando’s artistic style, his strong convictions, and his philosophies on life and art.

Fernando and Juan Carlos Botero

Fernando and Juan Carlos Botero

Family ties
“Joyous. Beautiful. Comforting.” These are just a few words that Juan Carlos Botero uses to describe his father’s art. The words also resonate as adjectives to their familial relationship. Juan Carlos has explored his own artistic persona as an award-winning  novelist. His father is his greatest supporter. In 2012, to coincide with Botero’s 80th birthday, the two collaborated on the book: The Art of Fernando Botero, in which Juan Carlos deciphers Botero’s aesthetics and universality. “It was a great experience writing the book because he [Botero] is the one who requested it. This book was a must-thing to do.”

Juan Carlos has had a front row seat to his father’s life and work, but he learned more while writing the book. “What’s really amazing to me is his profound conviction that art should celebrate life,” says Juan Carlos. “His work is very different from the more tormented works by artists like Edvard Munch or Francis Bacon. They are full of life and light, sensuality and beauty. I find this truly admirable from someone who had such a hard time in his own personal circumstances. He grew up around poverty in Colombia, his father died when he was 4.” Despite these dire
situations, Botero’s passion to create art propelled him to Europe where he studied the great museums, artworks and artists. Through these experiences, Botero developed a deep conviction regarding the history of art. In his father’s opinion, Juan Carlos said, “If you study the history of art up to the 20th century, most was about beautiful and uplifting things. During the Renaissance, you see works that denounced atrocities through violent images, but they were also always very poetic and beautiful. Even if the lives of the artists were tormented, their works always portrayed an exultation of life. That is the tradition of art that he wants to belong to.”

Fernando Botero surmised, “Learning to paint requires great effort, a true calling, and many years of dedication. But today, one has to learn this all by oneself. Before, in the Renaissance, for example, artists began as child apprentices to village masters, and in their studios they became familiar with the techniques, resources, methods and artistic innovation of their time. But today’s universities do not fulfill this function, or they do so very poorly, so the student has to learn by himself, practically from scratch. And very few have the patience. In art, what matters in the end is what remains, and the mediocre tinkering of conceptual artists whose only goal is to momentarily shock their viewers will certainly neither survive nor surpass the implacable test of time.”

El Arrastre (Dragging away the Bull), 1992, oil on canvas. Private collection

El Arrastre (Dragging away the Bull), 1992, oil on canvas. Private collection

Not Fat, but Immense
Botero’s signature style, depicting an exaggerated “fullness” in his subjects, is occasionally viewed as “fat people and animals.” But Juan Carlos emphasizes that is a crude underestimation of the artist’s intent. “That poetry of volume and form is essential to my father’s work that some people misunderstand. He is conveying an exultation of volume. Volume has been one of the most important elements in painting from the Renaissance up to the beginning of the 20th century when abstract art appeared. It is a perfect form to communicate sensuality and beauty while at the same time enhancing and glorifying reality. That’s what his work is about.”

Fernando, the artist himself, added with a wry smile, “A large, immense apple is more of an apple than the commonplace apple of everyday life. The purpose is to magnify the essence of things.”

Bullfighting
“As an authority on art history, Fernando Botero has known the most fecund ways of creating lasting art is to have acquired a virtuoso mastery of one’s craft and to build one’s work on the foundations of an important pictorial tradition that has been exposed to the inexorable test of time,” said Juan Carlos.

Connoisseurs of Botero’s work know the main subject of the master’s work is Latin America. For years, he made nothing other than paintings of bullfighting. “He was influenced by his uncle, Joaquin, an enthusiast of bullfighting, who motivated the artist to see the art of bullfighting as practiced by the most illustrious matadors of his time,” Juan Carlos said. “Fernando explored the subject of bulls with boundless passion…such as in the scene [shown on page 132] of the tumult of dragging the bull out of the ring.”

Alof de Vignacourt as Seen by Caravaggio, 1974, oil on canvas. Private collection

Alof de Vignacourt as Seen by Caravaggio, 1974, oil on canvas. Private collection

Historic portraits
This Colombian master is also revered for portraits of famous people in history – for their good or bad actions. About this, Fernando Botero said, “It is very difficult to make a portrait of someone in real life without violating the principles of one’s artistic style.”

“Some have even been re-envisioned from the canvas of other artists,” explained Juan Carlos. “For example, he reinterpreted the superb knights of Malta like in Alof de Vignacourt by Caravaggio” [see Botero’s interpretation shown upper left page].

Pedrito on Horseback, 1974, oil on canvas. Medellin, Museo de Antioquia

Pedrito on Horseback, 1974, oil on canvas. Medellin, Museo de Antioquia

On other occasions, Fernando Botero has made portraits of people he knew in real life. “Special consideration must unquestionably be given to those Botero made of his son, Pedrito Botero, who died at the age of 4 following a tragic car accident in Spain in 1974. He and his wife were overwhelmed by boundless grief. But as soon as he could, Fernando shut himself in his studio, faced his pain head-on and began painting Pedrito [including Pedrito on Horseback shown here]. These sublime creations reflect incomparable love, tenderness and sweetness. In the painting, to the right of the boy is a small toy house with the windows wide open. There, we see the boy’s mother and father looking out at the emptiness that follows a loss of this magnitude.”

Self Portrait, 1994, oil on canvas. Private collection

Self Portrait, 1994, oil on canvas. Private collection

Self Portraits
Fernando also painted portraits of himself, as did many great Renaissance painters. Sometimes he showed himself in specific everyday poses, such as sitting in a barber’s chair getting a haircut [at left].

Now 83 years old, Botero continues to produce a voluminous quantity of painting and sculpture. The artist divides his time between homes and studios in Paris, Monaco, Colombia, Greece and the centuries-old town of Piesrasanta in Northern Italy. “Every time I get the opportunity we go to see him,” says Juan Carlos. “The entire family spends every summer together. I spoke to him today. He is currently doing a stunning exhibition in Zurich. It’s really amazing. It is a new subject matter – the female saints that appear in Catholicism. Each work is gigantic, absolutely monumental and beautiful…

“I think that what he has done is extraordinary; and not only his goals as an artist but also as a philanthropist. He has donated more than 700 works of art valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He has created two huge museums in Colombia, and he has done it all by himself. He doesn’t have a secretary or a messenger. He is an extraordinary human being, so whatever I can do to help communicate that idea is welcome because he deserves so much praise and recognition for what he has accomplished.”

Fernando Botero: An Exultation of Volume