“Many people know me as the painter of the ‘fat ladies,' and it doesn't disturb me,” said the Colombian artist Fernando Botero recently from his home in Monaco, one of six studios around the world he still maintains at age 84.
In fact, the artist's love of generous proportions has largely never wavered over the last six and a half decades, making for a style that turned heads when he first took up painting in the 50’s, and has since made him Latin America's most collectible living artist. His voluminous figures of everything from pieces of fruit to the Mona Lisa routinely sell for millions, though they can also be appreciated in their full glory in the collections of over 50 museums — and in Botero's new, fittingly supersized eponymous tome with Assouline, out later this week. “I’ve had many books published about my work, but this is the most important one,” Botero said of the title, which clocks in at nearly a foot and a half tall (and comes with a sizable $845 price tag to boot).
A jetsetter in his heyday, Botero is still bouncing between his homes in Monaco, Colombia, Greece, and New York, working on his paintings daily with the same pulley system he’s used for decades. He paused to reflect on it all, here.
Looking back on your career, you’ve said that you had a breakthrough in 1956. Are there any other moments in particular that have formed you as an artist?
In '56, I did a painting of a mandolin with a generous outline and some tiny interior details. That contrast between the big and the small was very effective and marked more or less my expression from that moment on. But you never finish learning and making progress in your style — maturity comes when you have total coherence in what you want to say.
You’re best known for your paintings and drawings, but you’ve also produced over 200 sculptures. How have those works been received as public art?
I did 20 exhibitions of my monumental sculptures all around the world, with the first in Monaco in 1991. In Paris, in ‘92, I showed 32 monumental pieces on the Champs Elysées. The mustaches of a bronze cat were stolen, and this small event was published in the press everywhere!
You've also made a few forays into fashion. What was it like, for example, to work with French Vogue?
In the 90’s, the director of French Vogue, Francine Crescent, asked me to do a Botero version of the fall/winter high fashion collections for the magazine, and I went with her every day to see them. She would select a dress that she found especially original and send it to my studio. I did a large watercolor, larger than a meter, every day, using my figures like models that I would dress with my imagination in the clothes selected. The whole thing had to be done very fast because it was journalism! I did 35 pages and I was exhausted!! But I did it!
Recently, I also did a number of paintings of Santas dressed more or less in the fashion of today, but without following any special designer. My idea has been always that fashion has been very important in the evolution of art history because the dress usually covers most of the space in the canvas. Think only about Velázquez and his princess — the head and the hand cover a minimal part of the painting, while the dress covers the main part.
Do you keep up with public perception of your work? Has that changed over the course of your career?
Many people know me as the painter of the “fat ladies,” and it doesn’t disturb me. Of course it is not that, because when I do a still life or an animal, or a landscape, the deformation is the same as for a human body, because I think volume is a very important element in the art of painting.
Are you ever inspired to paint contemporary figures, or work from contemporary culture?
Not really. When I was very young, like 13 or 14 years old, I was fascinated by the [Alberto] Vargas girls I saw in an Esquire magazine. I did some copies in watercolor. Perhaps they were the first things that I did. Then I discovered real art and forgot about Vargas.
Do you ever look at social media? I’m curious in particular what your thoughts are on selfies and celebrities who specialize in them, like Kim Kardashian.
My work is the result of a long time reflection of what art should be. It has nothing to do with contemporary culture, social media, selfies and Kim Kardashian.
In the past, your work has also represented political issues like drug violence in Colombia and torture at Abu Ghraib. Are there any issues currently at hand, such as the election, that you’ve been working with lately or ruminating on?
Like everybody else in the world, I was surprised by the results of the election and worried. I doubt that I will do something in my work related to Mr. Trump. I never know what I will do next, but something unexpected and fresh always comes out!
Who are the contemporary artists that you admire today?
I don’t have a special admiration for any contemporary artist. My admiration is mostly for the old Masters, especially Italians of the 14th and 15th century like Giotto, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Mantegna, etc… They are the greatest.