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Colombian Art: Emergence and Consolidation of Abstract Art

Colombian Art: Emergence and Consolidation of Abstract Art

Article by: 
Santiago Londono Velez

Cover Article: Guillermo Wiedemann from the book: 

COLOMBIAN ART 3,500 years of history

In the 1950s, Colombian art experienced an opening to the dominant currents of international art, particularly abstract art, which triumphed internationally after the end of the Second World War, becoming an aesthetic paradigm of the so-called free world . Abstraction was enthusiastically welcomed by several of the new Colombian artists, dissatisfied with the indigenist proposal of the Bachué movement and with academic neo-costumbrism. This coincides with an uncertain political moment, which led to a military coup in 1953, a dictatorship that gave way to the National Front (1958-1974), a bipartisan agreement that sought to end the bloody conflict that the country was experiencing until the mid-20th century. The constructivism of the Uruguayan Joaquín Torres García (1874-1949), exemplified by Composition III (1935), had not achieved any resonance among Colombian artists, but he had followers in other latitudes.

Of Uruguayan origin, Torres García traveled to Spain at an early age with his family. He studied in Barcelona, ​​where he experimented with painting, opposed the conventional artistic academy and was a collaborator of Antonio Gaudí. He traveled to New York where he met Marcel Duchamp and then returned to Europe, where he came into contact with the international avant-garde and was part of the famous constructivist group “Circle and Square.” After more than four decades outside his country, he returned to Uruguay at the age of 59. He opened the Taller Torres García in 1943 and in 1944 he made known in Buenos Aires his famous “constructive universalism”, a current totally opposite to the aesthetic conception of his compatriot Figari. His approaches, disseminated in his workshop and in a short-lived magazine that he founded, attracted the most restless young artists, who found in Torres a teacher with his own standards of design, style and color. Among them are Francisco Matto (1911) and Julio Alpuy (1919), represented with the works Construction with Animal (1967) and Still Life and Bottle (1959). In these pieces the central perspective is broken, the depth is flattened and the figures become signs.

Torres García defended the need to create art rooted in American culture, although in his creations he suppressed academic conventions based on the teachings of Mondrian, and became the pioneer of abstractionism in Latin America. Elements taken from the urban environment, signs of diverse origin (clocks, stars, fish, anchors) and allusions to still lifes, appear arranged in a non-realistic way and are part of his most recognized vocabulary.

At the Exhibition of Young Artists of Colombia, held in 1947, the first manifestations of abstract art emerged in the country. The pioneer of this movement was the Bogota painter Marco Ospina (1912-1983), with early works dated that year, when he also published his article “The art of painting and reality”, in which he advocated non-figuration as its own result. of modern society. This position raised a controversy with the Bachués, focused on traditional figuration. Ospina's most characteristic paintings are those in which he reveals the underlying geometry of the landscape. From them he derived towards a kind of geometric abstraction, in which he preserved references to the nature that inspired him. Such is the case of Subachoque (1970) and Tunjuelo (1972). Flat colors, maximum simplification of perspective and a rhythmic sense of composition are typical resources present in these late works that exemplify a new form of representation.

A second stage of Colombian abstraction began in the first half of the 1950s, when the first exhibition of abstract works was presented at the National Library, due to Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar (1923), which had a cold reception from of the public and the press. This exhibition was followed by others by artists such as Marco Ospina, Judith Márquez (1929-1994) and Guillermo Silva Santamaría (1922). By then, “(...)abstract art is still an adventure and not a fashion, as it would be a few years later” (Iriarte, 1984).

“...abstract art is still an adventure and not a fashion, as it would be a few years later”

The most constant and determined cultivators of abstraction were initially figurative artists. Once they adopted the new school, they evolved into various modalities, especially during the 1960s, when abstractionism became the avant-garde of Colombian art. The collection of the Banco de la República has various examples of this aesthetic trend, because its formation coincided with the rise of abstraction. With a broad criterion and for exhibition purposes, the variants that were configured can be classified into two large groups: abstract expressionist and geometric abstract.

Guillermo Wiedemann (1905-1969) was born in Germany and studied in Munich and Berlin. In the 1930s he toured several European cities and in 1939, before the start of the Second World War and fleeing Nazism, he decided to travel to Colombia encouraged by his friend, the photographer and engineer Otto Moll (1904-1994). He entered through the port of Buenaventura, where he found himself facing exuberant tropical nature. He lived in Bogotá and began painting under the impact of the tropics. In 1940 he showed his work at the National Library, where he stood out as a colorist. His first paintings are a hymn to life and the American people, as seen in The Maiden (1941). Until 1956 he concentrated on the expression of tropical nature, on its warm and mysterious light, and on the world of black people. A second sample, in 1945, called “Tropical Motifs”, was made up of 63 oil paintings that were the result of observation trips to different hot places in Colombia. As Howard Rochester wrote about the exhibition, “...before representations of black and mixed-race women, before documents of the American tropics, these paintings are, dryly and triumphantly, painting!” (cited in Iriarte et al., 1985). Indeed, the painter avoided any psychological or social element and concentrated on the shapes, colors and atmospheric effects that he captured with great sensitivity.

“...before representations of black and mestizo women, before documents of the American tropics, these paintings are, dryly and triumphantly, painting!”

-Howard Rochester

Wiedemann participated in numerous exhibitions throughout the 1950s, a time in which the human figure became generalized until it became sets of color, while space lost its three-dimensional perspective and was reduced to the plane. In the national artistic environment, the most important novelty of the moment is abstract art and Wiedemann will not be alien to this innovation, towards which he moves slowly and surely, based on a schematized figuration and barely suggested architectural spaces. By 1958, his abstractionist intention became clearer, since all allusion to the human or animal figure, present in his first works, disappeared in his work. The critic Walter Engel described the 1960 oil paintings as follows: “...from primarily decorative abstraction, the artist has grown toward transcendental abstraction” (cited in Iriarte et al., 1985).

During the early years of the 1960s, Wiedemann produced a truly masterful set of watercolors, followed by oil paintings and collages with various waste elements, the latter works considered by Marta Traba as “...a happy encounter with matter.” , a rejuvenation of expressive possibility.” Pieces such as Bright Color Blocks (1962), Shapes on a Yellow Background (1963) and The Aperture (1964), which are part of a series that was well received internationally, illustrate very well his abstract production and the aesthetic concerns that animated him in the last fifteen years of life.


Guillermo Wiedemann
Bright colored blocks / 1962 / Oil on canvas

Initially trained in German Expressionism, Wiedemann can be considered one of the founders of this movement in Colombia, from which he evolved towards an abstraction independent of reality as a reference. The Banco de la República is the depository of part of its valuable legacy, in which the evolution of a magnificent work, full of color and self-awareness, can be closely followed.

Originally from Germany, Leopoldo Richter (1896-1984) arrived in Colombia in 1929, where he practiced entomology, and from 1955 he became known as a painter and later as a ceramist. His thematic interest focuses on indigenous motifs, in which he avoids realism and prefers to interpret them with a modern language, typified by formal and chromatic freedom. He frequently integrates abstract elements and figurative references into his painting, such as in Indies with Red Cloth (1959). Juan Antonio Roda (1921), after some academic art studies, began as self-taught in the shadow of the classical Spanish masters and later of Picasso. In 1955 he settled in Colombia, and since then he gained well-deserved recognition as a portrait painter and teacher. Although at different stages of his brilliant career he has ventured into figuration as a painter and engraver, perhaps it is in abstract expression where he feels most comfortable. Between Tomb of Agamemnon (1963) and Mountain 7 (1988) there are twenty-five years, but in these works the same painter is found, absorbed in seeking to delve deeper into a plastic language made of stains, lines, graphics, gestures and secret allusions, loaded with intensity. poetics and pictorial wisdom. The first painting was part of a series, exhibited at the inauguration of the Museum of Modern Art of Bogotá in 1963, with which the artist sought to get rid of the influences he had acquired until then. The second painting was painted after a long career in which he ventured into etching and made different sets of oil paintings, such as those titled “Felipe IV”, “Self-portraits”, “Christs”, “Windows of Suba” and “Flowers”. ”. It is part of a series of fifteen paintings, inspired by the Colombian mountains: “...but obviously – as the painter said in 1989 – the mountains are not mountains but respond to an idea of ​​essential structure that develops in the dynamics of the painting and around that there is an approach of color, a problem of a certain violence and tension.”

Roda began metal engraving in 1970, a technique in which he has achieved great virtuosity and extraordinary expressive power, due to the lyrical and symbolic intensity he achieved in various series. With Portrait of a Stranger (1971), he made a personal introspection into a certain underlying romanticism in the faces that could be the artist's masks. Risa (1972) is inspired by one of his daughters and investigates the content of youthful bliss, pleasure and joy as a counterpart to death.

Among the painters and sculptors who have worked in the field of geometric abstraction are Édgar Negret (1920) and Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar. Negret, born in Popayán, studied drawing, painting and modeling in Cali, Colombia. In Popayán he met the Basque sculptor Jorge Oteiza, who had been hired as a teacher, and who would ultimately be a fundamental personality in his artistic training. In 1949 he moved to New York, where he discovered the work of Alexander Calder. In Paris he abandoned the reference to concrete objects that his work had until then, and in Mallorca he began to trace the definitive abstract foundations in his aesthetics. With a scholarship he returned to North America, where he studied the magical art of the Navajo Indians and was part of a group of non-figurative sculptors who in New York opposed action painting, a work in which the assembly of metal modules is already present. with visible screws, and which condenses the searches of that time, is Mapa (1960). The technical purification and solution of complex sculptural problems is found in Edificio (1967), a piece that makes obvious allusions to a poetics of technology and human constructions, and contains external and internal tensions governed by the law of a singular and inspired rational will. Beginning with a trip to Machu Picchu in 1980, his work found inspiration in pre-Columbian sources, maintaining a coherent language. Both color and shape concentrate on symbolic meanings of universal value, endowed with musical and religious resonances.

Edgar Negret
Map (from the Magical Devices series) / 1960 / Relief in wood and metal

Ramírez Villamizar studied architecture and was initially an expressionist painter, a trend against which he reacted through a gradual simplification of the figures, until he delved into two-dimensional geometric abstraction, in paintings such as El Dorado No. 2 (1957) and Horizontal Verde. blue (1958). By the time he produced these pieces, his work had gained wide recognition in the United States. He began to suppress color until evolving towards completely white three-dimensional reliefs. From reliefs he moved on to sculpture, a technique in which he found his most personal expression. In Ramírez Villamizar, the creative process is dominated by a strictly rational design, in which modular composition, rhythm, balance and a secret symbolism without major external references gain definitive importance, as in Mural horizontal (1965) and in Homenaje al poet Jorge Gaitán Durán (1964). Also stimulated by pre-Columbian culture and in particular by the Inca culture, the artist has produced in his most recent work a sober iconography, based on the geometry of the rhombus and diamond. Both Negret and Ramírez have created austere and inspired metal constructions, in which the taste for order and interior space take on special aesthetic significance, while opening wide and new paths for Colombian sculpture.

Omar Rayo (1928), after a first period as a figurative illustrator, has explored Op Art in a very personal way, to produce imaginative work, full of visual surprises that do not exclude playful content, as in Trio con brio (1965). David Manzur (1929), under the influence of the sculptor Naum Gabo, developed constructive abstract works based on geometry and, starting in 1974, he returned to figuration, with refined personal allusions to Renaissance art. Carlos Rojas (1933-1997) and Fanny Sanín (1935) are painters who have made geometry and color their main artistic object, opposing chaos and confusion, order and structure, as in the case of Landscape (1972 ) and Untitled (1973) by Rojas, and Acrylic No. 4 (1986) by Sanín. Meanwhile, Manuel Hernández (1928) evolved from a first figurative stage, illustrated with Piña Cortada (1960), towards an intellectual abstraction of soft geometric forms, centered on a personal symbolism stripped of rhetoric, which appeals to signs and memory, with subtle vibrations and color harmonies, as seen in Blue and Pink Sequence (1983).

Omar Rayo

Omar Rayo
Trio with brio / 1966 / Acrylic on canvas.

At the Latin American level, manifestations of kinetic art prospered, produced by artists who obtained international recognition. Among the most notable representatives of this current, we can mention the Venezuelan Jesús Rafael Soto (1923) and the Argentines Julio Le parc (1928) and Rogelio polesello (1939). From the first, who has defined himself as a non-objectual artist interested in showing “the abstract value of pure structure”, is the piece Kinetic Acrylic Structure (sf), equipped with mobile elements that are intended to produce unexpected optical effects, which They are modified according to the movements made by the observer. Le parc, for its part, explores in Composition R-27 (1970) the visual consequences of undulations and metallic reflections. The painting Laca Number 7 (1967), by polesello, investigates the chromatic results of the displacements of color plots on a plane.

The most irreverent of all Colombian abstract artists was undoubtedly the sculptor Feliza Bursztyn (1933-1982), both because of the condition of the metallic waste she used, as seen in Encaje (ca. 1964), and because of her libertarian attitude. His work introduced a kind of formal anarchy in national sculpture. He used materials such as scrap and transformed his raw material into images full of intentions, humorous or biting allusions, with which he critically confronted the rational neatness and constructivist decorum of geometric sculpture. “The scrap metal acquired in their hands,” according to Marta Traba (1985), “that ductility and that sort of fluid free association essential to not turn it into a shapeless mass lacking meaning [...] it consequently settles into scandal. , bordering on sculptural indecency.”

Later in three series titled “Las hystericas”, “Las cujas” and “La baila mechanica”, the artist created objects with their own movement using electric motors, located in environments that included light and sound. These works had a marked experimental and playful sense that alluded to human behavior, and aroused multiple reactions and perceptions in the spectators.

“The scrap metal acquired into his hands”

- Marta Traba

The founders of abstract art were responsible for “updating” Colombian art with respect to international art, just at a time when the country was experiencing the so-called era of violence. They demonstrated that it was possible to create works far from national realities and the conventional artistic academy, and they assimilated the postulates of international trends. Abstraction adopted the rationality and sobriety of geometry, a logic of modules that evolve in space, arbitrary color rhythms, the freedom of informalism and experimentation with chance, the language of stain and calligraphic gesture, spontaneity. expressionist and the poetry of unreal forms.

After the rupture introduced by the pioneers, abstract painting had a large group of followers during the decades from 1950 to 1970, widely represented in the Bank's Collection, as a result of the exhibitions sponsored by the Luis Ángel Arango Library. In this regard, it is worth remembering one of the most notorious incidents of the time, when several traditional painters, opposed to abstraction, dressed up as blind people and visited the exhibition "abstract painting of Colombia" in the rooms of the Library in 1958, an act of protest with which they wanted to imply that there was nothing to see there.

Among those who practiced an abstraction characterized by formal freedom and chromatic spontaneity are Luis Fernando Robles (1932), with Pintura No. 5 (1956); Michel Cardena (1934, nationalized in Holland), with Number 45, work 56 (1959); Alberto Gutiérrez (1935), with Blue Abstraction (1959); Justo Arosemena (Panama, 1929; in Colombia since 1955, died in 2001), with Intimidad (1960); Alfonso Matéus (1927), with Abstraction (1961); María Tereza Negreiros (Brazil, 1930; in Colombia since 1964), with Painting No. 2 (1961); and Augusto Rivera (1922-1982), with Untitled (1967).

Another group of painters adopted terrigenous elements and allusions to the Aboriginal past, as in the case of Antonio Grass (1937) in Escudo ritual (1965), and in that of Jorge Riveros (1934) with his work Chibcha No. III (1973). Among the artists who chose allusions to nature in a broad sense as a starting point for their abstract production, whether within geometry or informalism, are: Jan Bartelsman (1916-1998), with Satori (1965); Armando Villegas (Peru 1928, in Colombia since 1945), with Nacimiento de un meteoro (1965); Álvaro Herrán (1937), with Signal for a galaxy (1966); Nirma Zárate (1936-1999), with Great Block of Dream Stone (1967); Beatriz Daza (1927-1968), with Still Life with Flowers (1968); Hernando del Villar (1944-1989), with Amanecer (1970); and Édgar Silva (1944), with Partial eclipse of the sun not visible in Colombia (1973).

Armando Villegas

Armando Villegas
Birth of a meteor / 1965 / Encaustic on wood

Olga de Amaral (1932) has combined the pre-Columbian manual and symbolic tradition in the art of weaving, with references to nature and the imaginative application of pictorial resources of abstract and kinetic art. Through this kind of mixing, his work is characterized by a display of visual and tactile sensitivity, and subtle poetic allusions to ancestral memory, magic and ritual, surpassing the traditional opposition between art and craft.

Olga de Amaral

Olga de Amaral
Woven wall No. 98. / 1972 / Woven with plant and animal fibers

Simultaneously and as in a quiet dialogue with national abstract artists, it is worth considering the work of important Latin American abstract artists who exemplify the different instances that non-figuration has assumed. They are, among others, María Luisa pacheco (Bolivia, 1919-1982), with Mallasa (1980); Armando Morales (Nicaragua, 1927), with Painting (1966); Manuel Felguérez (Mexico, 1928), with Torso Undulations (1967); Vicente Rojo (Spain, 1932), with Old Signal No. 10 (1967); Eduardo Mac Entyre (Argentina, 1929), with Yellow Construction (1969); Milner Cajahuaringa (Peru, 1932), with Archaic sign in trapezoids (1975); Ary Brizzi (Argentina, 1930), with Partition 4 (1971); María Martorell (Argentina, 1914), with Sunya (1971); and Arcángelo Ianelli (Brazil, 1922), with Negro y rojo (1985).

From the emergence and consolidation of abstraction, Colombian art will see various artistic trends prosper that will manifest themselves simultaneously. There will no longer exist, as in the past, an academy that unifies expression. Under the impulse of the critic Marta Traba, and thanks to the activity carried out by new creators, Colombian art will seek to register, decisively and not without internal conflicts, in contemporary art. From now on, multiple influences amalgamated with sensitivity and individual talent will lead to producing works that translate the diverse and changing facets of the world of the moment and international artistic movements.

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