Living (and Loving) Large

Loved by many and ridiculed by some, the work of Fernando Botero is instantly recognizable—his subjects are so fat that they make Rubens's Venuses look malnourished. Here, the artist contests their obesity, explains his connection to Colombia, and discusses the recent record-breaking sale of his painting, The Musicians, for $2 million at Christie's.

You say your subjects are not fat—what do all those extra pounds stand for?
I never see my characters as fat. Nor, I should say, do I see them as skinny. Art is always an exaggeration, and while some artists overemphasize color or lines, I work with volume, trying to emphasize sensuality in my subjects. The fact that this volume can be found in all of my work—still lifes and people alike—shows a coherence in my style. Without that coherence, yes, I suppose you could say they're fat.

You left Colombia as a teenager and have lived in Europe ever since. At what moment did you decide that you would never live in your home country again?
I left for Europe when I was very young because I wanted to directly study the works of the masters, and I just stayed. There's nothing I'd like more than to spend half my time in Colombia, but the situation is still not safe, which makes it near impossible for me to return. In regard to loyalty to Colombia: My union with my country is total. I've lived for fifty years outside, but I continue to be Colombian on my passport and in my heart. My work reflects Colombia.…How else can I prove that my country matters to me?

Any thoughts about the record-breaking sale?
For an artist it's important to know that the collectors appreciate the work. A high price is also a physical protection for the pieces, because something that costs so much will be taken care of in a particular way.

The Museo Botero in Bogotá holds your personal collection, which you donated to the country. What do you say to skeptics who call this a publicity stunt?
In Colombia there isn't a tradition to give to the people, and that means some have doubted the motivation of my donations. Believe me, there are far cheaper ways of getting publicity.