PRINT May 1985


Ingrid Sischy: You are surrounded by the cheers of fans and the virtual silence of American art critics. To some you’re a household name, to others you’re the lone sign of Latin America’s presence in the international arena of art. Your work’s been called a parody of the bourgeoisie, but it’s also been dismissed as a bourgeois parody. There are worlds of different opinions on the subject of your work. At the eye of the storm is your obsession with the full shapes that most of us moderns try to stay away from, even if it’s just through mental abstinence. What about these swollen forms? Why have you chosen them?

Fernando Botero: This formation is not something that just came to my mind one day. It has been built through years of meditation. From the very beginning, I had some kind of inclination toward it, then gradually, through experience and knowledge of art history, I was able to rationalize my position, to know why I am doing it.

IS: Can you remember the first time you painted something in the scale and proportions that we have come to expect from your work?

FB: It was a few years after my travels of art-historical detective work in Europe. I was in Mexico. One day I was drawing a mandolin, and I was going to make the hole in the middle of it. I did one little hole that was not in relation to the size of the instrument and to my surprise I saw that now the mandolin had two monumental dimensions—volume and scale. There was something exciting about the dynamic of plasticity in these wild proportions. This was the actual beginning of what I am doing now, but I had been looking for a way to create a language of plasticity that would be effective and that people would be touched by since I decided to be an artist.

IS: I’m always curious about the decisions we make to be something, and especially about the decision to be an artist. It seems to me it always involves some kind of battle—either familial, societal, internal, or through a host of other tests and obstacles. What were some of yours? Let’s start where it starts, with your family, in Medellin, Colombia.

FB: My mother was a sensible woman; she had great sensitivity without being an intellectual at all. My family never tried to stop my decision. There were three or four painters in our town making a living teaching drawing to high school students. When one decided to be a painter, it was like deciding to be a priest.

In my town were no museums, no galleries, no information about art whatsoever. We had a painting of the Virgin Mary in the living room. That was it. The only other art I saw when I was a child were the pictures hanging in the church, which were from the colonial period. They were copies of European prints or paintings. Perhaps my interest in this period comes from the fact that when I went to church I was transfixed by how smooth these pictures looked. For years that was what art was for me. Pre-Columbian art was there, of course, but you didn’t see it. Now everyone has pre-Columbian art, but at that time no one had it. No one could care less. Now there are museums for pre-Columbian objects and people collect pre-Columbian. I didn’t see it. I only saw these smooth figures in church. Now, of course, I study pre-Columbian art a lot because of its history and its element of originality. We Latin American artists have a need to find our own authenticity—some position that is not colonial. Culturally, we have been colonized by the United States and by Europe for centuries. This effort to find our own art has been attempted in many different ways.

The question is, what is Latin American art today. One way to answer that question would be to take those colonial paintings in the church and compare them with the European paintings they are copied from. When you put the two together, there is a difference, and this big or little difference is in essence 20th-century Latin American art. I have tried to understand what this difference is, to see what is in there, because I want my paintings to have roots. These roots give truth to what you do. You can’t take from the air; you have to go from the ground. At the same time, I don’t want to feel as if I’m only allowed to paint peasants. I want to paint anything I feel like. So I paint Marie Antoinette, but with the hope that everything I do will be touched by this Latin American spirit.

I believe I was elected to do this work. Perhaps I had more than most people in Colombia do, and that’s why I was selected for the responsibility of making art today. But it is too easy to do peasants and say this makes me a Latin American artist. The problem is more complicated. I don’t want to be colonized by anyone, to feel that Latin American art is being defined for me. Art should be independent. This is the beginning of real independence; only then can one have independence in thinking, in position, in language.

IS: Why did you leave Colombia and go to Europe?

FB: I was making my living in my home town as an illustrator for a literary magazine, a supplement for the Sunday paper in Medellin, painting and spending time with some people I had met through the magazine. They knew about poetry and spoke of painters like Picasso and Braque, and had such a good time doing so: I thought, I’m going to do the same, and left with the idea of learning. First I went to Spain because of the language similarity and because it was so inexpensive.

One night when I was in Madrid I was walking past a bookstore and there in the window was a book about Piero della Francesca. When I saw the painting on the cover—Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba—it was as if someone had finally shown me the definition of what painting was all about. Everything was there—the most fantastic color—it was the most beautiful spiritual expression of a group I had ever seen. The drawing was incredible, so full, so generous. It was everything you dream of. I went the next morning and bought the book. I’d planned to go to Paris, but I only stayed there a short time because I had to get to Italy to see the paintings. Through Piero della Francesca, I discovered the Renaissance. Once I knew about him I wanted to know about Uccello—I needed to know how all this came about. It was like detective work about the reformation of form in art history.

IS: I know I’m not bringing you news when I point out that the response to your continuation of this tradition is often to assign you the role of satirist.

FB: Why don’t people laugh at the proportions when they see Romanesque art or pre-Columbian art? For centuries there was this kind of form, and now all of a sudden it is necessarily a satire. In the very beginning, some of my paintings were done with a satirical idea. But these were almost exclusively in the beginning; as when I did the presidential family, and the dictators. My deeper interest is in the sensual, plastic language of painting and in the expansion of form.

IS: When you eventually came to New York in 1960 there was a very different interest in what you call the language of painting, and yet certain of the developments of the time, particularly Pop art, overlap in a fascinating way with your investigations of scale and your relationship to European art history. Did you feel more connected to Pop than to abstract painting, which was also committed to the idea of a language of painting?

FB: I felt outside it all. The attitude of Pop art was completely different, even in the repainting of art history that went on. When I did it I was saying, I want to belong to the tradition but I need to find the essence of how I belong, how I’m different, and how I can transform form. Pop art was saying that it didn’t want the tradition, didn’t need it, and that it wanted something radically new.

When you are from a provincial country you are in a way handicapped. When you’re American, you’re given internationality as an artist when you are born. Everything you do is international because you are American. Your subject matter is universal. If you do Coca-Cola, for example, it’s universal. If you are from a Third World country you have to find your feeling of universality. It’s not a gift you have when you are born.

Regarding the Abstract Expressionist painters I remember one incident in my studio that should tell something about the period. No one ever came to my place and I started thinking, what difference does it make if I’m doing the greatest paintings in the world and no one sees them. So I invited a group of artists I’d met at the Cedar Bar to come and see my work. One of them brought his son, who was four or five. As I took out my work the man would point to the paintings and say in an infantilizing voice, “a-p-p-l-e, p-e-a-r,” to the child. He said absolutely nothing to me.

Things got more sensitive only when Dorothy Miller, from the Museum of Modern Art, came down to my studio in 1961. The next day she sent a truck to pick up a painting, Mona Lisa, Age 12 [1959], she’d seen, liked, and bought. They hung it in a great position, and it received tremendous comment. After that my work was seen a little, but my first big gallery show was not until 1972. This was the last time I received serious critical response from the New York press. From then on when I did shows there was complete silence. It was like I was a leper. One critic in particular came to see my work and had to stand in front of it without looking because he said it made him sick. From the public I got the opposite attention.

IS: What do you think causes this schism between the public and the critics?

FB: I don’t know. I just make paintings and sculptures the way I like. I have to be the one taken by my work. Some people say to artists that they should change. Change what? It’s like saying, why don’t you walk differently or talk differently. I can’t change my voice. That’s the way I am. I work every day because I have never found anything that gives me more pleasure than painting. Once, when my ideas weren’t clear, when I didn’t know exactly what I was doing or what I wanted to do, it was very painful. When I didn’t have the technical resources to put on the canvas exactly what was in my mind, it was painful, but now it is a great, great pleasure, and provides my stability. It is my continuum.

IS: Do you work from models?

FB: No, for me a model is a limitation, and although I’ve done some portraits I don’t really like to because I’m not able to be as free with them as when I work completely from my imagination. I’ve only made a few portraits; they’re all of people I know so well that even when I have a photograph I already have them in my mind.

IS: You seem to work with objects and people the way an abstract painter uses color and form. How are your decisions of size and scale made?

FB: My paintings start like a cloud. I don’t make anything precise. I just let the thing out onto an uncut roll of canvas until I find the relationships I’m looking for. And when the moment is right, I start to tighten here and there. Basically, the image is an explosion. In the small paintings it is exactly the same as in the big ones: I want to fill the room with one. The force in a painting doesn’t come from its size. You see so many large, empty paintings today, which look overblown because the right scale and proportions haven’t been found.

IS: One of the most intriguing aspects of the dramas of scale in your work is that even when they are reproduced tiny the tension about monumentality remains. Everything and everyone still looks inflated to the viewer but normal in relation to the rest of the picture. These are inflationary times, and as others have pointed out, you’ve come up with that perspective in your figures; but there’s more to it. You’ve been doing the same thing for too long for that to be the whole understanding.

FB: I didn’t choose to make art the way I do with the idea of astonishing people. Such a notion would quickly turn into a cliché and lose the ability to touch honestly and communicate personally and directly, which is what I’m trying to do.