DEBORA ARANGO the intimate universal

1907, womanhood, Colombia, catholicism; facts that became a significant deterrent of the acknowledgement that Débora Arango’s oeuvre deserved, were at the same time the conditions that fueled her lifelong artistic search. Her unrelenting urge to capture and interpret life as a whole, as evidenced through the raw strength of her paintings, watercolors and ceramics, were part of the enduring magnetism that I encountered in her oeuvre, and what drove me to deepen into her life to find a context for her creation.

Colombian by birth, Débora grew up in Medellín, the second largest city in the country and capital of the Antioquia region, historically recognized for the industriousness of its people as much as for their religiosity.

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Playtime, the nuns and the cardinal, 1987. Oil on canvas. 127 x 178 cm

Her talent for drawing was first noticed by a nun, Maria Rabaccia, who as Débora’s high school teacher, would encourage her artistic ambitions. After completing her basic education, Débora decided to seek further training, and 4 years of Fine Art schooling under the tutelage of Eladio Vélez would serve to initiate Débora on the academic principles of realistic representation. While an appropriate teacher at the start, Eladio, a primarily landscape and portrait painter, would be unable to satisfy Débora’s search, which continued to pull towards a more dynamic and forceful way of expressing life. She found in Pedro Nel Gómez, her second mentor, the power and grandiosity of expression she was looking for and she would continue to recognize him as one of the most influential guides in her career.

Débora remained a mentee of Pedro Nel until 1938, time during which she befriended the painter Carlos Correa, with whom she continued exploring social topics and more expressive ways to represent the world around her. In parallel, Débora persistently aimed to master the depiction of nudes, a journey mostly carried in private with the help of her sisters and girlfriends as models, since the choice of subject matter also proved to be ruled by the implicit and powerful gender boundaries that would continue to mark her career and by extension her life.

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Bitter, 1944. Watercolor. 55 x 76 cm

A collective exhibition opened in 1939 at the Union Club in Medellín became the first of many cataclysms provoked by Débora’s work. Catalina de la Rosa y La Amiga, two watercolors where the nude female body is depicted for the first time as seen through the eyes of another woman, disturbed the established role of women as those who passively awaited to be seen and offered them a new position as those that also look.

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Adolescence, 1939. Oil on canvas. 72 x 95 cm

These and other artworks traveled to Bogotá the subsequent year, following an invitation extended by the minister of culture, which would allow Débora to host her first solo exhibition. Shortly after the opening, the ultra-conservative president Laureano Gómez qualified the artworks as ‘a crime against good taste’ and would ultimately demand the closing of the exhibition. Thanks to the liberal vs. conservative debate that ensued, the nudes, once an intimate subject matter, became a public act charged of indelible defiance to the rooted politics of gender.

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Schizophrenia in jail, 1940. Oil on canvas. 165 x 162 cm

A similar defiance would drive Débora to México in 1946, seeking to learn the mural techniques that Pedro Nel Gómez refused to teach her when acting as her mentor. Despite this effort, only one mural: Allegory to the fique growers, would be commissioned to her upon her return to Colombia in 1948, a commission that promptly attempted to anchor her controversial brush in a rhetorical theme.

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Madonna of Silence, 1944. Oil on canvas. 92 x 136 cm

It is natural to see that life as a whole, life as a subject matter, certainly transformed into a politic statement under Débora Arango’s brush. Whether it reflected on the unadorned realities and wonders of the female body, or captured the violent confrontations between liberal and conservative parties, or portrayed the hardship of workers, or exposed and challenge the power exerted by the church, Débora’s work dared to express a point of view. Her courage would be for long unwelcome, just as it did fourteen years later, when the dictator Franco imposed an early closure to the Madrid exhibition where Débora’s paintings were displayed.

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Justice, 1944. Oil on canvas. 121 x 109 cm

After living through almost two decades of rejection and polemic, Débora retired to Casablanca around 1960, where she would continue developing her work until arthritis hindered her movement. It would take 46 years since her first exhibition, for her work to be finally displayed in an overarching retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Medellín and subsequent partial tours in North Carolina and California in 2013. Only after that first retrospective in 1984, Colombia would start to recognize the value of her oeuvre in relation to the local context, and the well overdue recognitions would begin to abate the disparagement endured by Arango for so many years.

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Schizophrenia in jail, 1940. Oil on canvas. 165 x 162 cm | Casablanca, (circa 1960). Ceramic plate. 30 x 30 cm

Well beyond the local recognition and a few timid international attempts to shine light on this artist, it is fair to say that Débora Arango’s work has yet much more to contribute to the current global art discourse. Often compared with Frida Kahlo, mainly on the basis of their Latin American origin, a larger frame of reference places her work at the intersection of Fauvism and Expressionism, while many of her subjects bring her at the forefront of contemporary art.

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Kees van Dongen, Egon Schiele, Alice Neel, Paula Rego, might each be considered partial thematic kins, whereas affinity of form could easily link her with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Marlene Dumas or Chantal Joffe. As most true artists however, her unique vision endowed her oeuvre with characteristics that make it unparalleled and profoundly relevant. Few like her have been able to seamlessly and repeatedly move between the intimate and universal, making her work transcend time periods, geographies and artistic movements. I would dream of finding her work sharing exhibition spaces across the globe with many of the artists noted just to name a few, only if to give art history a chance to be fairer and a bit more complete.

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