This interview is part of a series called Turning Points, in which writers explore what critical moments from this year might mean for the year ahead. You can read more by visiting the Turning Points series page.
In a eulogy written for the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, his son Juan Carlos Botero recalled that his father had a favorite saying: “One has to live in love with life.”
“That phrase would always surprise me,” the younger Mr. Botero wrote, “because it was repeated by a man who lost his father at age 4, who lived in poverty for decades, who lost his own son — my little brother — when he was also 4, and who fought against everything and everyone without ever giving up his convictions, and without knowing if one day he would enjoy a modicum of success or acceptance. But that is what my father would say, time and again: ‘Live in love with life.’ ”
Fernando Botero died on Sept. 15 at the age of 91 in Monaco, where he had a home.
Among the world’s best-known and commercially successful artists, Mr. Botero created works that have commanded seven-figure prices at auction for years, and his sculpture exhibits — including an exhibition of 14 bronzes on Park Avenue in New York City and a show featuring more than 30 sculptures on the Champ-Élysées in Paris — always drew large crowds. But it was painting, which he often said he loved to do above all else and continued to do until his last days, that remained central in Mr. Botero’s life. His unique aesthetic, featuring voluminous, bulbous figures, drew detractors now and then, many of them art critics, but his admirers vastly outnumbered them.
Born in Medellín, Colombia, in 1932, Mr. Botero began his career there as a teenager, drawing illustrations for a newspaper and painting scenes of matadors to sell at La Macarena, the city’s bullfighting ring.
As he entered his 10th decade, we asked Mr. Botero in early 2023 if he would speak to The New York Times about his legacy and impact on the art world. We interviewed him over email and began by asking him to select a work of his that best exemplified his career. He selected a painting he completed in 2000, “Taller de Costura” — the sewing workshop.
Excerpts from the conversation have been edited for length and clarity.
“Taller de Costura” is a great example of “Boterismo” — your singular style, featuring bold colors and voluminous proportions. What does this work convey about your life as an artist and your legacy?
This work, like the rest, is a declaration of principles. It’s a manifesto about what painting should be — a synthesis of color, composition, shape and sketching. The topic is almost just a pretext to painting.
It contains some autobiographical elements, portraying three women in a sewing workshop, just like the one my mother had after she became a widow at an early age. [The inclusion of such elements] is not unusual — the Latin America I knew in my younger years is a central theme of my work, and so images from my life in Colombia often surface in my oil paintings and sketches.
We never had painters or intellectuals in my family. My father was a traveling salesman who would cross the mountains of Antioquia with several mules loaded with merchandise. I have almost no memories of him. I was only 4 when he died, but I do remember the place where he kept the mules, and I remember the old man who helped him, Don Antonio.
When my father died, the rest of us (my mother, my two brothers and I) were left impoverished, so my mother supported us using her talent as a seamstress, as is depicted in this painting. Memories like these are evident in much of my work; my homeland has always been the raw material for my art.
As for my legacy, I think it will be my entire body of work — which was created based on my convictions and always consistent with my ideas.
Can you talk about how you honed this style? How did the idea for focusing on volume come about? What made amplified proportions a central aspect of your aesthetic?
Volume was an essential aspect of art in ancient Greece and in Rome. It disappeared in the Middle Ages and was rediscovered centuries later by the first Renaissance artists, starting with Giotto. From then on, volume was prevalent until the emergence of abstract art in the 20th century.
To me, this aspect remains essential. And not only because volume makes three-dimensional effects possible — creating the optical illusion of round shapes and depth on superficial planes like canvas, paper or walls — but because it communicates beauty and sensuality, fundamental goals of my work.
I was lucky to have read Bernard Berenson, the famous American historian and art critic, when I was 18. Berenson offered intellectual clarity and philosophical depth to something that, up until then, had only been an intuitive inclination or preference of mine. He truly made a case for volume and its ability to convey “tactile values,” as he put it, in a painting. His essays made a lasting impression on me.
As a modern artist, I can push my passion to the extreme, and that is why volume is so prevalent in all my work. My interest does not stem at all from what some people interpret as “fatness.” Fat and volume are completely different, because while the former can distort objects, the latter appeals to our sense of touch and evokes beauty and sensuality.
Not only that, volume provides the opportunity to exalt reality. As I have previously said, an apple painted by a master — enormous, colossal, voluminous — is more an apple than the simple fruit of our daily lives. That is the essence of my aesthetic: I seek to exalt volume to communicate beauty and sensuality, and to convey a sense of grandeur.
As you pointed out, memories of your youth deeply influenced your work, including the colonial architecture of Medellín and the shapes and colors of the bullring. In fact, some of your first paintings were of bullfighters. Can you talk more about the ways that the city and life in Colombia inspired you?
I believe that if you want to be universal, you first have to be parochial, and belong to a specific land. That is why we love the art of ancient Greece, ancient Chinese art, the ancient art of India — because those were authentic and local creations.
The art of Goya belongs to Spain, and the art of Monet belongs to France. These artists achieved universality by representing their own worlds, and by tapping into their roots, they tapped into the deepest fibers of commonality that we all share.
When I was a teenager, Medellín was a provincial city, completely isolated from the rest of the country because it is surrounded by mountains, which made building roads and highways very difficult. The city’s mayor was treated like the president, and the local bishop like the pope during the interminable parades commemorating national or religious feast days. Going to Mass [on these occasions] was like going to the movies for me, and all those elements from society left a lasting impression on my memory.
Bullfights were very popular back then. One day an uncle took me to La Macarena, and I enjoyed the spectacle so much that I decided I wanted to be a bullfighter. That was a short-lived dream, of course, but the experience made me fond of bullfighting for the rest of my life.
When I was 15, I started selling small watercolor paintings of bullfights at a shop owned by a tailor, Rafael Pérez, where people could also buy tickets for the bullring. Those were the first paintings I sold. I have produced plenty of oil paintings and drawings of bullfighting scenes since because the theme, like few others, is a festival of form and color.
Back then, I painted the world I saw around me because that was all I knew in my youth — the houses, the myths, the people. But that world has continued to be my principal inspiration.
You’ve said that when you decided to become a painter you thought you were consigning yourself to a life of poverty. But the instinct to create art was so great that it didn’t matter. How would you describe this instinct — where did it come from for you?
I remember when I told my mother that I wanted to be a painter, she said: “Fine, but you’re going to die of hunger.” To be fair, back then, there weren’t that many artists around, and the few who lived in my city survived on miserly wages, giving art lessons to children in public schools.
At 16, I had my first exhibit with a group of artists at the Tejicondor Art Show in Medellín. Then at 19, I had my first solo art show at the Leo Matiz Gallery in Bogotá. There, I presented my most recent work, watercolors and some oil canvases.
One of those paintings, “Crying Woman,” clearly reflected my inclination toward volume; you might think that I painted one of her arms today. But the source of my passion for volume and the strong pull of this vocation has always been a mystery.
A year after that show, I won a painting competition and used the money to travel to Europe for the first time. There, I lived in Florence and dedicated myself to studying the works of Giotto, the great master of volume, as well as all the other Renaissance painters, mainly Piero della Francesca. By then, my preference to create figurative art and draw inspiration from the great art of the past were absolute convictions, as was my devotion to volume.
I do not think words exist that can describe my emotional response to seeing great art. It is like sheer elation. And I feel it every time — it doesn’t fade. That is what I felt the first time I saw Velázquez’s “Las Meninas,” and Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch,” and Hans Holbein’s portrait drawings. To me, these sublime works are unforgettable, and the characters in the paintings feel more real and more present in my life than if they were standing right next to me.
You met Dorothy Miller, a curator at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, by a stroke of luck, and she acquired your painting “Mona Lisa, Age Twelve” for the museum in the early 1960s when you were living in New York. This was a sort of turning point in your professional career. Can you talk about that experience and that period?
Dorothy Miller was visiting an American painter who lived in my building in Greenwich Village, and in passing, he mentioned that there was an artist from Colombia on the floor below who painted “fat people.” She wanted to see my work and came by that day. “Mona Lisa Age Twelve” was leaning against a wall, and as soon as Ms. Miller entered she pointed at it and, without hesitation, said, “We want this one in the museum.” The next day, to my surprise, a van came to collect the painting. It really was a stroke of luck.
I had been in New York only a few years, living like a pauper and with little success. But with a painting prominently on display at MoMA, the most important modern art museum in the world, gallery owners were suddenly interested in my work, and my professional situation shifted markedly. From then on, famed dealers represented my work, including Claude Bernard in Paris, the Marlborough Gallery in New York and Ernst Beyeler’s gallery in Basel.
Eye-catching forms and sly humor are hallmarks of your art, traits that have drawn numerous admirers to your work. In a documentary about your life, you commented that many artists and critics think that “if art gives pleasure, it’s been prostituted.” You called this notion ridiculous. Do you think that art today has become overly complicated, or too intellectual, or too serious?
Art was created to give pleasure. When you take a panoramic view of the history of art, you find that 99 percent is based on themes that are mostly pleasant. Moreover, in previous centuries almost every painting was a portrait, or a religious scene, or a landscape or a still life — pleasant themes bringing pleasure to viewers.
Humor is also a familiar element in the history of art, and can act as a wink, a window inviting viewers to come into the artwork. It’s present in the paintings of many important artists, among them Pieter Bruegel, Bosch, Goya and even Velázquez, who painted dwarfs in the Spanish royal court with both humor and tenderness, and also painted Mars, the god of war, as a vulgar figure.
The great masters of the past have always been an inspiration in my own art; this is why you can also find satire, humor and tenderness in work. And I have never painted one single line without the authorization of history.
In any case, much of today’s art is anything but intellectual. It pretends to be, but it’s not. Many artists fresh out of the academy find a way to paint, but that is very different from honing a style. The great masters each created a unique and distinctive style, developed over time and with hard work, the result of a lifelong reflection on excellence. Such a style is a compendium of an artist’s ideas, evident in every single work. It’s a visible philosophy.
Not all your work is humorous or satirical, of course. In 2024, it will be 20 years since you started creating the Abu Ghraib series, based on the photos of tortured prisoners taken at the infamous prison in Iraq. A few years before, you painted “Death of Pablo Escobar,” depicting the killing of the leader of the Medellín cartel, along with related art about the dark days of Colombia’s drug-related violence. What drove you to create these political works and influence public discussion?
When I found out about the use of torture at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, I was compelled to say something because of the utter outrage I felt, and I was surprised that not many other artists did the same.
I didn’t paint anything else for more than a year, and I completed the series of oil canvases and drawings that I later donated to the University of California, Berkeley, and the American University in Washington. When I finished, it once again became evident to me that nothing is more important than style, because when artists are true to their aesthetic, people will always be able to tell who the creator is, no matter what they paint. Because of the style.
I did also produce a series dealing with the subject of violence in Colombia in the 1990s, in which I painted guerrillas, paramilitaries and narco traffickers, including the criminal Pablo Escobar at the time of his death. By then Escobar was already a national myth, and I painted him lying on the roof of a small house, half-naked.
I don’t think art can change reality, but it can certainly make an impression on the collective memory of humanity. The best-known political painting of the modern era, Picasso’s “Guernica,” could not stop Franco from staying in power for almost 40 more years, but today the horror of that tragedy is clear in our minds because of that masterpiece.
So moral obligation was the reason behind my series. I just couldn’t stay silent in the face of such brutality, and because I believe that art can indeed help us remember the horrors of the past and move people to never accept the unacceptable.
You once said in an interview that you “represent the opposite of what is happening in art today.” What do you think of modern art these days?
Someone once said: “To make art, you need to do something that resembles art.” What is done today does not resemble art.
In a few centuries, when archaeologists dig up the ruins of our great cities, they will struggle to determine, out of everything they find, what we considered art in our time. It will be indistinguishable from much of the contents that they’ll find in dumpsters. That was not the case in the past. It used to be that when a farmer found pieces of an ancient sculpture or vessel in a paddock, he immediately knew that it was something valuable, a work of art. Refined and cultured or not, he knew it. The quality and value of art were evident to anyone.
That isn’t the case with what is produced nowadays, with much of what people call art.
Are you still painting?
I still work every day — not in the large formats I worked on with oil paintings my whole life, but I am painting watercolors, which brings me a lot of pleasure. That’s how I started, and in the end, it feels like coming home.
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