Photo: Jonathan Wong

 

FATHER TO THE MAN I was born in Medellin, Colombia, 81 years ago. My mother was a seamstress. My father died when I was four years old; I only have flashes of him in my memory. He was a travelling salesman; he had mules and he went around the mountains on them because there are no convenient roads in the Andes. He was 42 when he died, of a heart attack, and, of course, there was no money; it was the 1930s, the moment of the world crisis. We had food but we were a poor family.

BULL'S-EYE My uncle, my mother's brother, took me to the corrida, the bullfight, when I was 10. I wasn't scared, I liked the red colour! And then I went to a school to become a matador; every boy wanted to do that. There were no artists in my family, none; my interest only began with drawing the bulls, the matadors, at school. But one day, I did a watercolour, a still-life of jugs and fruit. When you decide to do it in that way, when it becomes the thing you must do - that day, you are an artist.

FREESTYLE At 15, I was painting. At 17, I was in group shows. At 20, I won the national prize for art in Colombia, competing against artists aged 50 or 60. It was a big prize: US$7,000. In those days, Europe was very cheap, you could get a bed and three meals for one US dollar a day. So I went there for three years, and I lived in Italy, Madrid and Paris. Then I went to New York, then back to Paris. Now I have six studios - in Colombia, in New York, in Paris, in Monte Carlo, in Pietrasanta (in Italy) and in Greece. I love to change places to work. I don't paint differently in each of them but I notice that, in the summer, I paint in stronger colours. I never use models - the still-lifes, the landscapes, the figures are all from my imagination. If I used models, I would be a slave to reality and I need to be free. In the 16th century, artists painted from their imagination. When they did those big compositions with 50 people in them, they used their imagination to put them together because they had to. And that's what I do.

BRUSHES WITH DEATH If I had painted the real Pablo Escobar (the Colombian drug baron, also from Medellin), not the one in my imagination, I would be perhaps … (makes a throat-slitting gesture). I did a series of paintings about the violence in Colombia. It was called The Pain of Colombia. One time, 15 years ago, they came for me, at 6am, to my house in the countryside near Bogota. I wasn't there. They killed my two dogs, they tied up everyone. My dogs … after that incident, I never put my foot in that house again. Never again. Now it's fantastic, it's perfect - I spend a month in Colombia every year, but in a different house. I also did a series of paintings about (Iraqi prison) Abu Ghraib because of the hypocrisy of the situation. I was reading about the Americans, how they were torturing people in the same place as Saddam Hussein had tortured them, and I felt charged with the desire to say something. Art can have the direct im- pact of the moment; people remember (the bombing of) Guernica because of the Picasso painting.

SONS AND HEARTACHE I was there, in the car crash that killed my son. He was four. You know the barrier, in the middle of the autostrada? It fell on my car, killed him instantly. Maybe it was a good thing that it was instantly. The whole family was lucky not to be killed. I lost part of my finger and damaged my hand, I was close to not painting again. But the best painting I ever did in my life was the first one I did after the operation on my hand, and it was a painting of my son. I still had the bandages on when I painted it. It was the deep crisis of my life but work saved me. The beautiful thing about art is that I could express what I felt. Another son, Fernando, lives in Mexico. He had a big problem. He did some stupid things, oh that's another story … he was a senator at 30 years old, he was minister for defence, and he took some money from the mafia for a political campaign, went to prison, stupid! I didn't talk with him for three years, I was so upset. Now we have a good relationship. He's my son, I have to see him.

SIZE MATTERS People call them fat figures, and everyone says that's my style. I was always interested in volume, don't ask me why. No! I was never fat - I was very slim! And my wife was very slim, all my wives, I had three, all slim. One time I went to a psychotherapist and I asked, "Why am I doing this powerful form?" The psychotherapist said that perhaps I was trying to replace the absence of my father with these strong figures. That perhaps I was trying to create him in my life, to create his strength. Perhaps. For 65 years, I've been a painter. I keep great energy in my late age. I still have a lot of enthusiasm for what I do.

The label? What label? (sees the label of his Brioni jacket is still stitched to the outside left sleeve). I can't believe it's still on the jacket! I'm glad you said, I didn't realise. (Bursts out laughing.) At least two or three times, I've worn this jacket and I didn't even notice.