By Hervé BAR
Colombia’s most famous artist, Fernando Botero, who was known for his voluptuous depictions of people and animals, has died aged 91, President Gustavo Petro announced Friday.
Botero’s works of plump and slightly surreal forms — often with a touch of satire or political commentary — are enormously popular and have been displayed in cities around the world, including Bogota, Madrid, Paris, Singapore and Venice.
“Fernando Botero, the painter of our traditions and defects, the painter of our virtues, has died,” the president posted on social media.
Tributes poured in for the painter, and his hometown, Medellin, declared a week of mourning, with Mayor Daniel Quintero saying his works on display in that city “will live forever.”
The artist’s daughter, Lina, said he died in Monaco, where he had been living, after developing pneumonia in recent days.
“He continued painting until the end,” despite a battle with Parkinsons disease which made it hard to walk and communicate, she added.
Botero — who had been dubbed the “Picasso of Latin America” — was a passionate and tireless artist, with an oeuvre of more than 3,000 paintings and 300 sculptures.
Even in his later years, he said he was working 10 hours a day. “I work more now perhaps because I know that there is so little time left,” he said an interview with AFP in 2012, the year of his 80th birthday.
“I often think about death and it saddens me to leave this world and not be able to paint more. I love it so much.”
Mayor Quintero said Botero would be buried in Pietrasanta, Italy, alongside his wife, the Greek artist Sophia Vari, who died earlier this year.
– World travels –
Botero was drawn to art at a young age and by 15 was selling his paintings of bulls and matadors at the La Macarena bullfighting ring in Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellin, where he was born on April 19, 1932, the son of a modest travelling salesman.
After a first solo exhibition in Bogota in the 1950s, Botero left for Europe, travelling to Spain, France and Italy, where he discovered classical art.
He moved on to Mexico, becoming influenced by its muralists, and then to New York in 1960, arriving with “$200 in my pocket”, he said in the 2012 interview.
It was there that he met a German art curator who organized triumphant exhibitions in Germany in the 1970s, launching his name.
“I went from being a complete unknown without even a New York gallery to being contacted by the biggest merchants in the world,” he said.
– Volume, not ‘fat’ –
The trademark oversized dimensions of his work emerged in 1957 in his painting “Still Life with Mandolin”. He discovered “a new dimension that was more voluminous, more monumental, more extravagant, more extreme.”
An admirer of Italian Renaissance art, he does not accept the interpretation that his subjects are fat.
“If I paint a woman, a man, a dog or a horse, I always do with this idea of the volume. It is not that I have an obsession with fat women,” he said in an interview with daily Spanish newspaper El Mundo in 2014.
Sculpture became a major component of his work, developed at a renowned Italian center of sculpture, Pietrasanta.
He lived in that Tuscan town as well as Monaco, New York and other cities, with regular holidays in Colombia.
Botero said he was inspired by beauty but also the troubles of his native country, gripped by armed conflict for more than 50 years.
In 1995 a powerful bomb placed at his sculpture “The Bird” in Medellin killed around 30 people and wounded scores. Botero in 2000 donated a replica to stand beside the exploded sculpture and called “Bird of Peace”.
Some of his work portrays scenes of Colombian guerrilla fighters, earthquakes and brothels.
In a departure, he produced in the 2000s a series depicting abuse and torture at the US-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, saying afterward he was driven by shock and anger.
– Generous donator –
One of the most-sold artists of his lifetime, Botero also gave away much of his production, including about 200 paintings and sculptures to Medellin and many others to the Botero Museum in Bogota.
In 2007 he donated the 25 paintings and 22 drawings of his Abu Ghraib series to the University of California, Berkeley, while many of his sculptures have featured in open-air exhibitions around the world, even travelling to China in 2015.
Experts have estimated the total value of his artistic donations at more than $200 million.
Married three times, Botero had four children, one of whom died in an accident aged four.