Our interview with Fernando Botero
A memory of the great master in his Pietrasanta
Pietrasanta is hosting an extensive show featuring over 100 of Botero’s works where the artist recounts his past and present selves. A tribute to the artist and the city he discovered almost forty years ago, in all its bygone roughness. Today, this dynamic contemporary center is going all out to celebrate the master who contributed to making Pietrasanta an internationally acclaimed city. It’s a meeting among titans, just like the Columbian master’s noteworthy sculptures. They look like Aztec gods, yet their eyes shine with a contemporary brand of melancholy.
Pietrasanta in 1983. How much has it changed and how do you remember it?
In reality, I got here quite a while before that, in Seventies. Pietrasanta was an unknown place, very different from how it is today. There were no shops or restaurants. This square was a parking lot. I arrived with my New-York gallery owner because of the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz’s death. At the time, I produced my works in France. Still, I was curious about the foundries here, returning a few months later with a small cast so that I could understand how they worked. I tried out the Fonderia Mariani, where I still collaborate quite a bit today. They did a great job and I moved to Versilia-in Viareggio, to be more precise, Pietrasanta was ugly. I used to stay at the Hotel Astor. After a few years, I bought a house inside the city walls.
But Tuscany-and Florence, in particular-are very important to you, aren’t they?
I arrived in Florence in 1953 and stayed until 1955. Even if I then went back to the United States, my training as an artist is Florentine. I love fifteenth-century Italian art and to be able to experience it so close up was a very important moment for me.
Your figures have elusive eyes that don’t look directly at the viewer. They appear to have been inherited from …
Piero della Francesca! Of course, that’s true. I love Egyptian and Assyrian art and Piero della Francesca. In ancient painting, the subject never looks out at the viewer. The same is true for Piero della Francesca…I like this mystery very much and in my paintings I try to do likewise.
When did you develop the ancient but avant-garde concept that art is beauty, first and foremost?
Today, a large portion of art is conditioned by the fact that it aims to create astonishment—more to generate shock than to give pleasure. I have always believed that art is beauty: that’s the great lesson provided by past masters from Botticelli to Titian, up until the Impressionists.. Millions of landscapes without a single one being depressing! Yet, in my life, I’ve also painted pain.
Especially when you recount your native country using images.
Yes, like one cycle of paintings exhibited in many museums that was later re-baptized The Pain of Columbia. Or in religious paintings like La Via Crucis, which is quite recent. This is also beauty though—the beauty of drama.
What role does religion play in your life, as a man and an artist?
I’m not religious. Nonetheless, today the entire world is dressed in gray and the only way an artist can use color is to paint religious figures: cardinals, popes and madonnas. Even if la corrida and the circus provide an opportunity to engulf a canvas with color.
Were you ever a matador?
I’ve never gone down into the arena. I’ve only been to a school.
Your women (painted or sculpted) are all maternal figures that welcome, protect and provide care. How do you see the female figure in reality?
Volumetric women reflect my artistic language: I make everything volumetric: men, women, things, animals… This way of expressing myself is not reality nor is it a projection of my desires. There is no form of lust behind it. (Editor’s note: he uses the word, ‘gorduria’, which renders the idea even more effectively.) Yet, life is a little dry and this is my personal response to that. Certainly, there’s also a component of sensuality.
What is your creative process like? Is it methodological or do you let inspiration guide you?
I work every day and many ideas come to me precisely as I’m working. I don’t know if my work itself proves to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration for me, but I can say that I’ve never had a problem with what to paint or sculpt. I often take notes or make sketches while I am working on other things. If I look at them after some time has passed, one always stands out and says something more to me than the others. And that’s where another story begins, that of the canvas. Still, the process is quite the same: I apply the color and then I leave the work off to the side for a few months. When I look at it again, I add something or change a color or a detail. In some cases, I turn everything on its head… In the same way you edit a text, I edit a painting.
What will we see in this exhibition where Pietrasanta pays tribute to you on your 80th birthday.
In Piazza del Duomo you’ll find six monumental bronzes, plus one more in Piazza Crispi and one in Via San Francesco. Ten medium-sized sculptures will be placed in the Church of Sant’Agostino together with a series of watercolors on canvas, created especially for this show. Then, there are 40 un-published drawings that I created in the 1970s, on show in the Cloister of Sant’Agostino.