"I don't paint fat women," says Fernando Botero. "I try to express volume as part of the sensuality of art."
Throughout his career, the Colombian artist has used strong colors and curved lines to compose scenes of chubby characters appearing everywhere from popular dances to bullfights. It is the result, he says, of searching for his own style in his work.
The painter and sculptor has spent 2012 celebrating his 80th birthday, showing his unmistakeable work at different exhibitions around the world. Now, the retrospective Fernando Botero. Celebración, an 80-painting selection from a bigger show presented in Mexico back in March, arrives at Bilbao's Fine Arts Museum, complemented by one of his enormous bronze sculptures, a figure of a horse, installed on the city's Gran Vía boulevard.
Botero's fat women - and fat men - appear in the nude, in circus scenes, in portraits of priests and in his reinterpretations of some of the great works of art history. The fruits that make up his still lifes are as rounded as the hooded men he painted in the series dedicated to Iraqi prisoners tortured at Abu Ghraib. He treats his figures "as if they were almost food," he explains. And no detail escapes his zeal for rounded shapes. "There is coherence in all the painting's figures in a stylistic desire to give prominence to volume."
Behind him is a professional career that began in 1948 as an illustrator on the newspaper El Colombiano in Medellín. He presented his first solo show in Bogota three years later and soon after moved to Madrid to study at the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy. After time living in various European cities and New York, in 1973 he took up residence in Paris, where he started producing sculptures of his rotund figures.
The show, curated by his daughter Lina, begins by reflecting on the influences on his early work from the Italian Renaissance to Mexican muralism and the Colombian tradition. Works inspired by Latin America and scenes of bourgeois life give way to series dedicated to the clergy, the circus and the Abu Ghraib paintings.
Botero remains active today and his latest series is dedicated to the Stations of the Cross. "Twenty-first-century art has tried to replace painting with other forms of expression," he says. But Botero believes video works are closer to cinema and installations closer to theater. "Painting still has a way to go. Why replace it?"
Fernando Botero. Celebración. Until January 20 at Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao, Museo Plaza 2, Bilbao. www.museobilbao.com