Throughout his career, Fernando Botero has had to justify an obsession with fatness. Whether painted on canvas or cast in bronze, his pneumatic, often comical figures have become the hallmark of a style so distinctive it’s earned a name, Boterismo. I’m familiar with the artist’s commentary on the subject; I know that rather than a fetish for obesity, his infatuation with robust forms is purely technical.

Nevertheless, on the eve of our meeting I’m determined to unearth some childhood preoccupation with food or a suppressed memory of a voluptuous wet nurse. “Hello! Welcome!” he exclaims in a thick Colombian accent when I enter his hotel suite. It’s a cold, polluted day in Beijing and his apartment is abuzz with family members, photographers and press offcers. The artist is sharply dressed in monochrome—not what you might expect from the king of colour. His shock of grey hair is combed straight back and his circular, black-rimmed spectacles frame a strong face full of character. “Now, where are you from?” he asks as he settles on the sofa, subtly slapping his palms on his thighs as if to say, “Let’s begin.”

I had expected he’d be tired, perhaps a little senile and surely eccentric. But the 85-year-old before me is vital and engaged. His wife, Greek sculptor Sophia Vari, 10 years his junior, wanders in and out of the room putting on her face as the interview proceeds, while his grandson sits with us to help translate diffcult words. It’s a charming family affair. Botero is one of the most famous—and prolifc—living artists. Renowned for his bright, fgurative oil paintings, he is sometimes referred to as the Picasso of South America. He began painting in his teens and says he has done so every day since, often standing at his easel for six hours or more. “I paint on Saturday and Sunday too because I haven’t found anything that excites me more,” he says. His son, Juan Carlos, vouches for this when we meet later that day. “When my father goes to a cocktail party he is exhausted within an hour, but he works easily  for 10 hours on his feet without showing the slightest sign of fatigue. When he enters his studio he is transported to another world. He truly believes life is worth living, and his work celebrates life. I think that is why he has so much energy, why he has lived for so long.”

The artist has a knack for mixing pleasure with business. His works regularly sell for more than a million US dollars, making him, without doubt, one of the most commercially successful artists alive. He has been honoured with solo exhibitions from Tokyo to Athens and his work is housed in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and various other institutions globally. Regardless of whether you like
his work, his ability to straddle the divide between populism and high art is fascinating.

Right now in Asia, Botero is having a moment. His solo exhibition last year at the National Museum of China in Beijing was so popular that it travelled to the China Art Museum in Shanghai in February. At Art Basel in Hong Kong, Botero’s 2006 painting At the Park sold to an Asian collector for US$1.3 million within an hour of the doors opening. Two bronzes by the artist, from 2006 and
2011, sold by the end of the frst day for US$400,000 each. This month, a collection of his sculptures, including his celebrated Woman Smoking a Cigarette (1987), will go on show on Hong Kong’s Central Harbourfront.

His popularity, he believes, stems from the fact his work “speaks directly to the people.” Innately decorative, his paintings are balanced compositions, rendered in harmonious, bright colours that depict mostly “gentle” subject matter. His son describes them as “magnifcent visual poems” thanks to colours that resonate and cohere. “So often these days,” says the artist, “audiences need to be told why something is important. I believe that art should speak directly. When I’m in front of a great painting I don’t need anyone to tell me it’s great. All the greatest painters, Michelangelo, Giotto, Piero della Francesca, thought in terms of colour and form; they all talked directly to the viewer. I see their work and I want to drink it! But now the trend is to make art obscure, to make audiences believe something is there when usually there is nothing.”

Read more about the maestro's work in our July 2016 issue.

(Text by Madeleine Ross and Photo credits: Zachary Bako and Botero in Hong Kong)

Tags: Art, Asia, Painting, Lifestyle, Hong Kong, Asia Art, Colombia, Fernando Botero, Painter