«A nude is nothing but nature without disguises»

Débora Arango

Débora Arango

I discovered Débora Arango in a miniseries written by the Colombian Andrés Salgado, whose title seemed very suggestive, poetic, metaphorical: «Débora, the woman who undressed Colombia», broadcast in 2018. Later, her story encouraged me to inquire about this renowned character of Colombian and Latin American visual arts; In this process I found several studies dedicated to her life and work, essays, articles, monographs, and thesis.

Débora Arango, whose artistic career spans eight decades, was born in Medellín, Antioquia, on November 11, 1907, the daughter of an upper-class family. From a very young age she was characterized by being rebellious, by doing things that were forbidden to women. She declared herself against the conventions of the extremely conservative society in which she was born, grew up and had to develop her work.

After dropping out of high school, supported by her parents ─who always did─, she began painting studies at the Instituto de Bellas Artes de Medellín, with the Colombian artist Eladio Vélez (1897–1967), which she abandoned after two years, because her interests were out of the conventional and academic, she always wanted to live, act and do what her feelings and thoughts dictated.

Débora Arango. Desnudo.
Débora, around the 1980s, confessed that “she dreamed of making a work that was not limited to the inert photography of the classical school”. The encounter with another Colombian artist, with whom she also studied painting, Pedro Nel Gómez (1899–1984) ─her mentor, guide, teacher─, had a decisive influence on her training, interest, and artistic orientation. He encouraged her to paint female nudes, which she soon did. The social theme contained in his murals also interested her. The artistic training that Débora received in her country is complemented and enriched by the trips and studies she carried out in Mexico, the United States, and Europe.
Débora was the first woman to make female nudes in her country. Although the nude is the most outstanding facet of her work, and her greatest contribution, she addressed social and political criticism. Through her way of being, acting and painting, she challenged and undressed the Colombian society of her time; It shook their moral, religious, and political values, as well as the traditional values ​​of painting. She also contributed to the modernization of art in her country.
Débora Arango. Esquizofrenia en el manicomio.
Her female nudes generated controversy from the first moment she brought them to public light, in 1939. Since then, attacks on her person began, severe criticism and censorship against her work, led by conservatives, the church and some artists and intellectuals. But some liberals, including Jorge Eliécer Gaitán (1903–1948), Minister of Education at the time, defend, support, and promote her. However, the opinion of the conservatives had more weight in the cultural and social environment.
The criticisms were aimed at both the ethical and the aesthetic, since the artistic style that Débora adopted, with a personal accent, to represent in a stark, critical and incisive way what is forbidden, what offends modesty, such as the nakedness of the body and the social, political and religious problems of her country, was Expressionism, whose main characteristics are individual freedom, the deformation of reality, of the human figure, with an outstanding aspect of the grotesque, satirical and caricatured; perspective alteration, intense colors, aggressive compositions and dramatic scenes.
Her work ─oil paintings, drawings, and watercolors─ inspired by this aesthetic, made her (unfairly) deserving of negative qualifiers such as immoral, obscene, bad painter and terrible draftsman. One of the many criticisms that were made of her, disqualifying, appears in El Siglo de Bogotá, on January 15, 1943, where it is said that «Doña Débora Arango’s nudes are not artistic (…). They are made expressly to represent the vilest of lustful passions (…), in the watercolors of the cartoonist from Antioquia there is a marked sense of lust and a feeling of social subversion of the best moral values».
Débora Arango. Retrato de Colombia.
It is curious, but even the critic and theoretician of Latin American art, Marta Traba (1930–1983), transgressive, irreverent, controversial, and innovative like Débora, questioned the generation of artists to which the cartoonist and painter belonged. Well, according to the Colombian critic and poet, Álvaro Medina (1941), for Traba, Débora lacked sensibility, good taste, and creative ability. Even this critic, in a visit she made to Débora in Antioquia, suggested that she put aside her artistic style and dedicate herself better to abstraction.
Despite having been the object of rejection and censorship, Débora began to receive fair recognition for her career and artistic legacy starting in the 1980s. Since then her work transcends the ethical to give rise to the aesthetic and become part of the official history of Colombian and Latin American art.
Débora Arango died at the age of 98, on December 4, 2005. I infer that she died happy, because she did what she wanted: paint, undress female bodies, undress her interior and the dramatic spirit of the times in which she lived.
Kristy Hernández. Recostada en su cama.

Written by José Gregorio Noroño,

 Arte Original.

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