The last time I saw Fernando Botero, the Colombian painter and sculptor who has just died at the age of 91, was at the celebration of his 80th birthday in Bogotá. The party was at Andrés Carne de Res, an emblematic place of the hectic Bogotá nights where you go to eat corn arepa and lomo al trapo and get bogged down until you drop. Given that Botero’s work was the narrative axis of the party, the producers of the agape managed to have a group of actors give life to some of the characters of our national idiosyncrasy and that Botero had portrayed on his canvases with some satire. The result was an unforgettable party: that night his characters left the canvas and wandered among the guests without their disproportionate volumes breaking the charm. The Army captain was present, dressed in his olive green uniform with a face like ‘I wasn’t there’, the nuncio with his monumental clothing and his small crosier, the bishop with his reverend paunch, the pompous and plump presidential family, the nun, the farm owner and an endless number of characters that Botero portrayed and who are part of our picaresque. Not to mention the dove of peace, a work that has become a reference within a country that does not feel represented in almost anything and that has become as popular as memes.
Days before this party, Fernando Botero had given me an interview in which we had the opportunity to talk about the role of art in society, his satisfaction as an artist and how close he felt to death.
We addressed the issue of the relationship between art and denunciation and I brought up that phrase from Sartre, which says that the role of intellectuals was to expose the contradictions of society. I asked him if there was anything like that when he had done the series on Violence in Colombia, the one about the Latin American dictators, the one about Pablo Escobar and his thugs and the one about the North American jailers at the Abu Ghraib prison. He answered me by telling me that he had painted those series because they were events that had impressed him, especially the series of La Violencia in Colombia, which is what is known as the war between parties that was fought between 1948 and 1958 and that claimed the lives of about 200 thousand Colombians. He clarified to me, however, that the role of the artist was not to expose the contradictions of society but to “paint well and stick to its pictorial dimension, because art had no political power.” “And Picasso’s paintings denouncing the Guernica massacre due to German bombings? And those of Goya who painted the shooting of French troops by Spaniards?” I asked him to fuel the debate. His response was even more blunt. He told me that the painter owed himself to painting and that the proof that art had no political power was that when Picasso painted his famous painting of Guernica, Franco not only did not fall, but he lasted 30 more years in power. . “That’s what I mean when I say that art is politically harmless, but that it has a terrible weapon which is the ability to make people remember something and that gives it tremendous power,” he told me and insisted that when “societies want to forget things, art is there to prevent that from happening.”
Without shame he admitted to me that one of the worst moments of his life had been when his son Fernando ended up in jail in Colombia, after he was linked to the illegal financing scandal of Ernesto Samper’s presidential campaign, which was accused of having received money from the Cali cartel. I was surprised by the frankness with which he spoke. He openly said that because of that episode he had lost communication with his son for several years. “I felt really bad that he had acted that way,” he admitted to me.
After this family drama, Fernando Botero, in an act of philanthropy, very unusual among the select group of Colombians who have become universal, donated about 50 of his pieces to Medellín, his hometown, and gave them to the Banco Museum from the Republic of Bogotá a series of large-format works made by him and his entire private collection of universal art.
I asked him if he was still working like he did 30 years ago, when I interviewed him in his studio in Paris and he told me that he painted without rest every day. With that Antioquia accent so characteristic of those born in that part of Colombia and that Botero never abandoned, despite the fact that he lived more than half of his life outside of Colombia, he answered me that the fear of death had him more alive than ever. and that at 80 he had the same energy for work as when he was 40. “I would say that I have even more energy than before, perhaps because one perceives the proximity of death and feels the desperation to get more pleasure out of this life and For me the best way to do it is by painting. That is why at 80 years old I am more accelerated than ever,” he confessed to me.
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Without me asking, he told me how he wanted to die. “Painters never retire, they don’t have time to die because they are always busy painting and when they die, they do it with the brush in their hand,” he told me as if he had already solved that moment.
Finally he confessed to me that although he felt more active than ever, the proximity of death made him very sad.
“Death makes me sad, because they don’t let you paint there,” he told me. “That terrifies me because I have been painting since I was 15 years old. At 18 when I left home, I began to make a living from painting. Since then I have created a body of work that is very extensive. I have made 3,000 or 4,000 paintings, 3,000 drawings, 300 or 400 sculptures and I don’t think any artist has produced as much as me. I am very lucky.”
Hopefully, the fateful death, which he feared so much, has lifted the ban and is letting him paint.
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