Fernando Botero’s well-preserved figures of pleasure and anger

His round, plump figures are dear to art lovers around the world. Likewise his monumental bronze sculptures. Fernando Botero, the Colombian artist and husband of Greek-born sculptor Sofia Vari, is not simply a globally recognized artist; he is sensitive and had the instinct to be the first to create art inspired by Iraq’s notorious Abu Ghraib Prison. The artist was in Athens last week visiting the premises of the National Gallery, which is scheduled to host a retrospective exhibition of his work in May 2006. The exhibition will showcase 200 Botero works, part acting as a retrospective, part featuring pieces from the Abu Ghraib collection, first shown in Russia last June. Clad in a white shirt and striped jacket, the 72-year-old Botero met with local journalists during his visit. Affable and expressive, he managed to present his entire cosmic theory in just 30 minutes. Naturally, the discussion kicked off from this most recent work. «Like the rest of the world, I was utterly shocked by what was going on in the Iraqi prisons, with American soldiers torturing the prisoners,» said Botero during the press conference. «I was angry and that’s how I got inspired for this collection of works.» The artist was not at all concerned with the possible reactions on the part of conservative American nationalists. «We must admire the freedom of expression that exists in the United States. Newspapers publicized the Abu Ghraib case. Besides, the large majority of Americans condemned the torture practices. In fact, I have already discussed the possibility of presenting the works in the United States. Representatives from a major Washington museum traveled to Rome especially for this purpose. However, they had to wait for some kind of approval from the board of directors because some of the public might not approve. I hope to be able to show the works there. Because they have to see them. In any case, if you’re thinking about what kind of reactions your work might trigger, you can’t work. I felt that I had to do it. Besides, though these paintings are dramatic, they can still offer aesthetic pleasure,» he said. The majority of Botero’s works offer pleasure. Quite often, they also incorporate elements of parody and irony. «It’s not my sense of humor which prompts me to work on distorted figures. That’s not my motive,» insisted the artist, who went on to explain that his round silhouettes – so well-preserved – are nonetheless sensual and that it is this sensuality which creates direct communication with the public. Exactly what is the role of art? Even though he has created a series of harrowing works, Botero was firm. «Art has to be amusing to the eye,» he said. «That has always been the role of artistic creation, along with lifting up peoples’ spirits. Besides, it is the artist himself who enjoys it before anybody else does. There are artists nowadays who don’t create pleasurable art because they consider this some kind of prostitution. In ancient Greek art you see vitality and sensuality. Contemporary artists, on the other hand, have lost their sense of direction, the same way that they ignore the reasons why they create art in the first place.» Botero’s overall art philosophy could be summarized in the following phrase: «The artist must be in touch with his roots and his country. My stimulus came from Colombian and South American art in general. In order to attract an international audience, to become global, you have to be local first,» he said. In doing so, Botero was largely inspired by the murals painted by Diego Rivera and Gabriel Orozco in Mexico. «For the first time ever in Latin America, these artists focused and drew on themes from their own country. Before them, everybody had a so-called ‘nostalgia’ for Europe, they painted views of Paris, for instance. Rivera and Orozco, however, turned their interest toward the reality which lay in front of their eyes.» Furthermore, Botero found inspiration in Renaissance art. «When I was a student in Florence, I was passionate about the art of that period. That’s when I realized that everything stems from the same source.» In the end, Botero remains faithful to the paintbrush. «You can’t replace painting by video art – which is more connected to television – or installations, which have to do with theater. You cannot substitute one form of expression with another.»