Colombian artist Fernando Botero, 82, famous for his voluptuous sculptures, works every day

Works by Fernando Botero (with his painting The Square) on display include oil on canvas painting Couple On The Grass and marble sculpture Sitting Woman (above). -- PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL ART
Works by Fernando Botero (with his painting The Square) on display include oil on canvas painting Couple On The Grass and marble sculpture Sitting Woman (above). -- PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL ART
Works by Fernando Botero (with his painting The Square) on display include oil on canvas painting Couple On The Grass (above) and marble sculpture Sitting Woman. -- PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL ART
Works by Fernando Botero (with his painting The Square) on display include oil on canvas painting Couple On The Grass (above) and marble sculpture Sitting Woman. -- PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL ART
Works by Fernando Botero (above, with his painting The Square) on display include oil on canvas painting Couple On The Grass and marble sculpture Sitting Woman. -- PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL ART
Works by Fernando Botero (above, with his painting The Square) on display include oil on canvas painting Couple On The Grass and marble sculpture Sitting Woman. -- PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL ART

At 82, the Colombian artist still has a desire to learn and wants to lift people's imagination

At 82, Colombian artist Fernando Botero still works every day, and standing up, no less.

"What keeps me going is the curiosity to know what I will say in my next painting and the desire to learn a little in each new work," he tells Life! in an e-mail interview.

Widely known for his trademark corpulent Rubenesque sculptures which accentuate the human body's mounds of flesh, he is among the headliners whose works are being shown and sold at the ongoing Art Stage Singapore, the premier contemporary art fair that ends its fifth run tomorrow. It is part of Singapore Art Week, of which The Straits Times is the official media partner.

While he is not physically present at the fair, there is no missing Botero's larger-than-life works - his 3.5m-tall Standing Woman bronze sculpture, for instance, towers above visitors to the public foyer at the Marina Bay Sands, like a plump, benevolent titan.

His works have made their mark in the region long before Art Stage - two of his statues, the Dancing Nude Couple and the Reclining Woman, have been installed at St Regis Hotel in Tanglin Road since 2008.

An overnight pop-up exhibition of his works here in 2004 at a Keppel Road warehouse drew more than 600 people. Two years ago, one of his oil paintings titled Quarteto was sold to a Malaysian collector for $1.7 million at Hong Kong's Art Basel fair.

Locals and tourists alike would also probably have strolled past or taken a photo with his fat, squat, bronze Bird sculpture that overlooks the Singapore River, at the base of the United Overseas Bank Plaza. Inaugurated in 1990, it represents the joy of living and the power of optimism.

It is also presented in his signature style of rotund, exaggerated proportions, which has been termed "Boterismo".

He says: "I did not choose this style. I started doing these volumetric forms by intuition, then I discovered Italian art that is specially volumetric, like Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca. I realised the importance of these generous and sensual forms in art."

At Art Stage, Botero's representative International Art is showcasing three marble sculptures and nine oil on canvas paintings by the artist, though it is tight-lipped about the prices.

While the sculptures are of nudes in varied poses, the paintings depict middle-class Colombians going about daily life and were inspired by time spent in his birthplace, the valley city of Medellin.

"I selected the works first by quality, then by subject matter. The ones that best reflect the reality in Colombia. The ideas come out of the blue. Usually when I am painting, I stop, make a little sketch and that's my inspiration," he adds.

His gaudy portraits of oversized fruit, pudgy animals and chubby humans have their detractors, including American art critic Rosalind Krauss, a professor of 20th-century art at Columbia University, who has dismissed the bulk of his work as unworthy of being considered as contemporary art.

But Botero is undeterred and, in the later years of his career, has wielded the paintbrush to champion sociopolitical causes.

In the late 1990s, he created a series of oil paintings and sketches to draw attention to the internecine drug violence, kidnappings and massacres that had roiled his homeland for decades. These were later exhibited in Europe, including Paris, where they drew a total of 116,000 visitors.

"I painted the drama of Colombia because I feel the pain of these dramatic moments in our history," he says.

In 2004, he produced a similar series after reading about the atrocities committed by American soldiers against war prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq.

The images are as arresting as they are bloody. In one, a feral guard dog pounces on a hapless, bound man; in another, a prisoner in a blood-soaked blindfold groans in agony.

"I was choked by the hypocrisy of the situation. The Americans were torturing prisoners in the same place that Saddam Hussein (the late Iraqi dictator) used for the same purpose," says Botero.

It is hard to imagine that the son of a salesman and seamstress in rural Colombia, who once dreamt of being a bullfighter, would one day become one of the world's most feted artists, whose paintings and sculptures are in the collections of more than 50 museums. Or that he would own homes and studios in Monaco, France, Greece, Italy and the United States.

Says the octogenarian, who is married to his third wife, Greek artist Sophia Vari: "I hope to keep going as long as possible. I see poetry in the situations I treat. There is no key message in my works, the idea is to create a parallel reality that will lift the imagination. Art is always like that."

jianxuan@sph.com.sg