Until mid century, Colombian painting and sculpture encompassed a wide
range of figurative styles, but little use of abstraction. While some of
the figurative works were modernistic, the few examples of abstraction to
be found were relatively simple compared with art in Europe and the United
States. It was not until the early 1950s that several Colombian artists
of the rising generation-among them Alejandro Obregón, Enrique Grau,
Edgar Negret and Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar-began to take new directions.
The late blooming of Colombian art can be partly explained by the region's
complex geography. Mountain barriers have always separated Colombia's human
settlements. Even after achieving independence from Spain in 1819, the provinces
remained quite distinct in culture and economic life. Their lack of communication
resulted in a cultural diversity across geographic zones that modern telecommunication
still has not erased.
For example, modernization occurred faster in Antioquia than elsewhere.
The city of Medellín by the 1920s was Colombia's most important industrial
center and home to several outstanding sculptors, notably Marco Tobón
Mejía and José Horacio Betancur. Influenced by Mexican art,
a group formed in Medellín that has been called the second greatest
mural movement in the Americas. Its leader was Pedro Nel Gómez, a
Renaissance figure who practiced not only drawing, oil painting, fresco,
watercolor, sculpture in wood and stone, and bronze-casting, but also architecture
Particularly through his teaching, Gómez was able to introduce
new ideas to Colombian art. With much patience, he began to influence the
antiquated, academic tastes of the new commercial and industrial class taking
shape in opposition to Antioquia's farming and stock-raising society. Eventually
he succeeded in penetrating into official spheres and the economic elite,
and received many important commissions throughout his long career. Gomez'
1941 Self-Portrait in a Hat (a hat he continued wearing until his
death in 1984) displays his familiarity with work of Gauguin and Van Gogh.
His later Self-Portrait (1949) reflects his admiration for Cézanne,
and his lengthy series of Barequeras (female gold prospectors) recalls
the work of José Clemente Orozco.
An outstanding sculptor of the 1930s was Rómulo Rozo, who lived
in Mexico for many years. Second in importance in the same generation was
José Domingo Rodríguez, whose bronze Horse is included
in this exhibition. (Sculpture for purposes of patriotic allegory continued
into the 1970s, as attested by the monumental work of Rodrigo Arenas Betancur,
another native of Antioquia.)
Artists of an older generation, such as the landscapist Ricardo Gómez
Campuzano, remained faithful to their early training. His highly proficient
Street in Cartagena, painted in 1944, shows the influence of the
Post-Impressionists and of the French academic style. Printmaking was practiced
by artists of great skill, such as Pedro Hanné Gallo. A few artists
engaged in irreverent forms of expressionism and were rebelliously critical
of religion, morality, and politics. Examples of these are Carlos Correa,
the author of Nature in Silence, and particularly, Débora
Arango. Their works resulted in social ostracism, which in Arango's case
persisted for decades.
One successful painter who could be called a modernist is Ignacio Gómez
Jaramillo, whose works Portrait of the Greiff Brothers and Nude
(Rear View) are included in this exhibit. Early in his career Gómez
Jaramillo achieved high aesthetic standards. A sincere love of his native
land is reflected in his identification with Colombia's themes.
Another group of Colombian artists followed the techniques of Mexican
muralism, a style that carried over into Art Déco illustration, as
exemplified by the work of Santiago Martínez Delgado and the advertising
designs of Sergio Trujillo Magnenat. European artistic influences extended
as far as Cézanne (sometimes transmitted through the Mexicans, particularly
Rivera), Braque and Picasso.
While few European artists came to Colombia out of the wartime diaspora,
an exception to this was the German-born Wilhelm (Guillermo) Wiedemann (1910-1969).
The painter of Rowers arrived at Buenaventura harbor in 1939, on
Colombia's Pacific coast. During a career of three decades in his adopted
country, Wiedemann remained untouched by changing fashions. Even when he
abandoned figuration to engage in lyrical geometric abstraction, the Colombian
tropics exerted a strong influence on Wiedemann, revealing his naturally
Prior to World War II, Colombia had enjoyed one of the strongest democratic
traditions in Latin America. Early in the 1940s, however, social instability
began to increase throughout the country. The unrest was fanned by political
parties, particularly in strategic rural areas. The traditional parties
were unable to deal with the country's problems, leading to a severe political
crisis. A particularly violent stage was initiated by the assassination
of the Liberal leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, followed by the
1948 riots in the capital known as the "Bogotazo." The crisis
was prolonged by the proclamation in 1953 of the dictatorship of General
Gustavo Rojas Pinilla. The main political parties supported the dictatorship
with the intention of stabilizing the country, but things went from bad
to worse, and came to a disastrous end with the general's fall in 1957.
It is not surprising that artists of the period alternated residence
in Colombia with intervals of foreign study and exhibition whenever circumstances
permitted. Despite this situation, Colombian artists and intellectuals took
pride in a conscious effort to define a national ethos. As in the writings
of Fernando González and the poet León de Greiff, there was
a marked feeling of personal creative power.