Fine art and sculpture in Colombia

The colonial art of Colombia is rich and diverse, perhaps reflecting its geographical position between the Caribbean and the Pacific, but also because of the early rivalry between the two first important colonial settlements of Bogotá and Tunja. Both cities boast numerous museums and religious foundations with good collections of painting, sculpture and decorative arts. Throughout the colonial period works of art were imported from Europe and elsewhere in the Spanish territories, particularly from Quito to the south. Artists came from far afield to work in the wealthy Colombian centres. In contrast to colonial practice in Mexico and Ecuador there seems to have been little attempt to train native craftsmen in the dominant European artistic modes of painting and sculpture, perhaps because indigenous expertise lay in pottery and metalwork rather than carving or painting.

Early art from Spain

The conquerors brought the Christian religion and Christian art. The cathedral sacristy in Bogotá preserves what must be one of the first European imports: a fragile silk standard traditionally believed to have been carried by Jiménez de Quesada's troops at the foundation of Bogotá in 1538, and known as the
Cristo de la Conquista
. The emaciated, blood-spattered figure of Christ is in a mixture of paint and appliqué, with a swirling length of loin cloth around his hips. This seems to billow in the breeze, an impression that would have been all the stronger in its original context. It is hard to imagine anything more alien to native beliefs or native forms of art. Other early Christian images, especially pictures of the Virgin, must have tapped into local beliefs because they soon became the focus of popular cults: the
Virgen de Monguí
, for example, is a 16th-century Spanish painting, which tradition holds was sent over by Philip II, while the
Virgen de Chiquinquirá
, the patron of Colombia, was painted by the Andalucían
Alonso de Narváez
who settled in Tunja in the 1550s. Neither is outstanding as a work of art but both have been attributed with miraculous powers and versions can be found all over Colombia.

Although religious commissions dominated artistic production throughout the colonial period some remarkable secular wall paintings survive in Tunja that show another side to colonial society. In the late 16th and 17th centuries the houses of the city's founder, Gonzalo Suárez Rendón, of poet Juan de Castellanos and of city notary Juan de Vargas were decorated with colourful murals based on a wide range of printed sources. Those in the
Casa Vargas
are the most sophisticated, the combination of mythological figures, exotic animals, grotesques, heraldic cartouches and occasional Christian monogram resulting in a complex humanistic programme, probably devised by Castellanos. The diversity of style reflects the diversity of sources, which can be traced to French, Flemish, German and Spanish originals. The rhinoceros, for example, is derived from Dürer's famous woodcut of 1515 but reached Tunja via a Spanish architectural treatise by Juan de Arfe, published in Seville in 1587. The murals in the
Casa Suárez Rendón
derive in part from those in the Casa Vargas, but are less philosophical, more straightforwardly decorative. Nevertheless, these paintings imply that a highly cultured society imported the most-up-to-date books and prints from Europe.

Woodcarvings and sculpture

The new religious foundations in the Americas created a huge market for paintings and sculptures with which to adorn their altarpieces, and workshops in Andalucía flourished as a result. An outstanding example of imported polychrome sculpture is the dignified Crucifixion group of 1583 on the high altar of the chapel of the wealthy Mancipe family in the cathedral in Tunja, sent by
Juan Bautista Vázquez
(died 1589) from his workshop in Seville. Sculpture workshops were soon established in the Americas, however, and Colombian churches preserve a wealth of carved and polychrome wooden altarpieces, choir stalls, confessionals and pulpits, as well as decorative wooden ceilings, screens and wall panels. An early example is the ambitious high altar of the church of San Francisco in Bogotá. The central bays were redesigned in the late 18th century but the wings date from about 1620. The tightly ordered Renaissance structure frames panels of relief carving in two distinctive styles: in the upper storey each has a single, clearly defined saint, while in the lower storey the panels contain crowded narrative scenes, overflowing with energy (the torso of the figure of St Jerome leans right out towards the high altar) and lush vegetation. The unknown artist was probably trained in Andalucía.

Such altarpieces usually involved several different craftsmen. The carvings for that in the Jesuit church of San Ignacio in Bogotá (1635-1640), for example, were by an Italian,
Gian Battista Loessing
. Another important sculptor working in Colombia in the 17th century was
Pedro de Lugo Albarracín
, whose devotional images of the suffering Christ appealed to popular piety, and several, such as the powerful figure of the fallen Christ known as
El Señor de Monserrate
(1656) in the eponymous shrine on the hill above Bogotá have become pilgrimage destinations. Records of other sculptors with the same surname working in Bogotá and Tunja in the 17th century suggest that Pedro de Lugo was the father of a dynasty of craftsmen.
Lorenzo de Lugo
, for example, executed the eight large reliefs for the high altar of the chapel of Rosary in Santo Domingo, Tunja (c 1686). The architectural frame of this outstanding altarpiece includes numerous anthropomorphic supporting figures,
, a common feature of colonial church furnishings in Colombia, and a change for craftsmen to indulge in fanciful invention constrained by Christian orthodoxy. A famous example is the androgynous figure on the pulpit stairs in San Francisco, Popayán, a basket of exotic fruit on its head, and a pineapple in its hand, but grotesque figures, sometimes semi-angelic, sometimes semi-demonic, can be spotted amongst the fronds of tropical foliage on almost any baroque altarpiece. In 18th century, figure sculptor
Pedro Laboria
from Andalucía introduced a new lightness of touch with his sinuous, almost dancing saints and angels (examples in Tunja cathedral and Santo Domingo, Bogotá).

Early paintings

As with sculpture, the demand for painting was met from a variety of sources. Works were imported from Europe, particularly from Andalucía and from the Netherlands. In the 17th century, enterprising sea captains would find room in their holds for a roll or two of canvases from the workshops of Zurbarán or Rubens to sell in the colonial ports. Itinerant artists worked their way round the viceregal centres in pursuit of lucrative commissions such as
Angelino Medoro
(c 1567-1631) from Rome who also worked in Quito and Lima before returning to Europe . Quito was an important source both of artists and of works of art. Born in Quito, the Dominican
Pedro Bedón
(c 1556-1621) worked in Tunja in the late 16th century and his influence can be seen in the
Francisco de Páramo
(active in the early 17th century), while
Miguel de Santiago
(c 1625-1706) sent numerous works to Colombia, including his esoteric 'Articles of the Faith' paintings now in Bogotá cathedral museum.

Santiago was an important influence on Colombia's best 17th-century artist,
Gregorio Vázquez de Arce y Cevallos
(1638-1711) who trained in the workshop of the extensive Figueroa family of painters but who was working independently by the time he was 20. A prolific and eclectic artist, Vázquez drew on a variety of sources: sometimes his stiff, hieratic figures reveal his debt to popular prints, sometimes his soft landscapes and sweet- faced Virgins demonstrate his familiarity with the work of Zurbarán and Murillo (good examples in the Museo de Arte Colonial, Bogotá). 18th century painting in Colombia follows the well-trodden paths of earlier generations of artists, with none of the confident exuberance found in sculpture. You will find his work in many of Bogotá's churches.

After independence

Independence from Spain did not bring independence from the traditions of colonial art. A survey of the galleries of ponderous churchmen and other civic dignitaries in the various museums suggests a more or less seamless production from the 17th to the 19th centuries: some appear sophisticated, some brutish, and the artist is not necessarily to blame. But if artistic style changed little the struggle for independence did provide some new subject matter. Bolívar is endlessly celebrated in painting. An inventive example is that of 1819 in the Quinta de Bolívar in Bogotá, by
Pedro José Figueroa
where he stands with a protective arm around the shoulders of a diminutive female figure personifying the new and newly tamed republic, dressed in a silk gown, but still with bow, arrows and feather headdress, and seated on a caiman. The events of the wars of independence are recorded by
José María Espinosa
(1796-1883) in a series of paintings of the 1813-1816 campaigns (examples in the Quinta de Bolívar and the Academia de Historia, Bogotá). The painting of the death of General Santander of 1840 by
Luis García Hevia
in the Museo Nacional is sincere in its naivete, whereas
Alberto Urdaneta
(1845-1887) who studied in Paris with Meissonier and is a much more versatile artist, sometimes makes his subjects from recent history seem artificial and melodramatic (
Caldas marchando al patíbulo
, Museo Nacional). But Urdaneta is also remembered as an uncompromising caricaturist, so much so that on one occasion he was expelled from the country. The Museo Nacional in Bogotá has two contrasting portraits of the heroine Policarpa Salvatierra, executed by the Spanish in 1817, one a popular anecdotal version shows her
en route
to the scaffold, the other attributed to
Epifanio Garay
(1849-1903) nicely contrasts the formal society portrait with the drama of the event: she sits poised and beautiful while the ominously shadowy figure of a soldier appears in a doorway behind.

Interest in Colombia's natural resources produced scientific missions that, although organized by foreigners (the first by the Spanish botanist
Celestino Mutis
in the 18th century and the next by the Italian geographer
Agustín Codazzi
in the 19th), nevertheless helped to awaken an appreciation of the landscape, peoples and cultures of Colombia, past and present. The Venezuelan
Carmelo Fernández
(1811-1877) worked for Codazzi in 1851, producing carefully observed watercolours of the peoples and traditions of different provinces (examples in the Biblioteca Nacional).
Manuel María Paz
(1820-1902) held the same position in 1853 and his drawings of the pre-Columbian culture of San Agustín are the first of their kind.
Ramón Torres Méndez
(1809-1895) was not a member of the mission, but like them he travelled extensively in the countryside and his scenes from everyday life helped to make
subjects respectable.

20th century

During the first decades of the 20th century Colombian artists preferred to ignore the upheavals of the European art scene and hold on to the established traditions of academic figure and landscape painting. Almost the only interesting figure,
Andrés de Santamaría
(1860-1945), spent most of his life in Europe and developed a style that owed something to Cezanne and something to 17th-century Spanish art, but with an over-riding concern for a thickly textured painted surface that is entirely personal (
, 1923, Museo Nacional, Bogotá). During the 1930s the more liberal political climate in Colombia encouraged the younger generation of Colombian artists to look for a more socially and politically relevant form of art which, conveniently, they found in the Mexican muralists. Instead of having to embrace the violent rupture with the past represented by modern European movements such as Cubism and Futurism, the muralists offered a way of continuing in a figurative tradition but now with a social conscience expressed in images of workers and peasants struggling against the forces of oppression.
Pedro Nel Gómez
(1899-1984) was the first to paint murals in public buildings, particularly in his native Medellín, and was followed by others such as
Alipio Jaramillo
(born 1913) and
Carlos Correa
(1912-1985). The sculptor
Rómulo Rozo
(1899-1964) was also influenced by the rhetoric of the Mexican muralists but also by the forms of Aztec and Mayan sculpture, and strove to achieve a comparable combination of simplicity and monumentality.

Only in the 1950s did Abstraction have any impact in Colombia.
Guillermo Wiederman
(1905-1968) arrived from Germany in 1939 and after a spell painting tropical landscapes began to experiment with an expressionist form of abstraction, full of light and space and colour.
Eduardo Ramírez Villamizar
(born 1923) also began painting in a figurative mode but moved into abstraction in the 1950s and subsequently into sculpture, to create, alongside his contemporary
Edgar Negret
(born 1920), some of the most interesting Constructivist work in Latin America. Both work in metal and have produced large, often brightly painted pieces for public spaces. Another important artist of this generation,
Alejandro Obregón
(1920-1992), avoided pure abstraction, preferring to include colourful figurative references with nationalistic overtones: carnations, guitars, condors. The slightly younger and internationally famous
Fernando Botero
(born 1932) has also tended to favour national themes. Working both as a painter and a sculptor he takes figures from Colombian society - dictators, drug barons, smug priests, autocratic matrons, prostitutes, spoilt children - and inflates them to ludicrous proportions. His gigantic bronze figures and the angular, two- dimensional sheets of metal of Negret and Ramírez Villamizar represent the two poles of 20th-century artistic expression.

For the subsequent generation of artists Colombia's turbulent political history remains a recurrent preoccupation.
Luis Caballero
(1943-1995) was a masterful draughtsman who expressed his sympathy for the victims of officially sanctioned violence by the tender attention he devotes to their tortured, naked bodies.
Beatriz González
(born 1938) uses a pop idiom to present military and political leaders as big and bold but essentially empty.
Juan Camillo Uribe
(born 1945) manipulates the paraphernalia of popular religion - prayer cards, plastic angels, metallic trinkets - to construct wittily disturbing collages. Younger artists are exploring the tensions between the national and international demands of art, and are experimenting with a tremendous diversity of styles and media. There is certainly no shortage of talent. Many cities in Colombia now boast a lively art scene with regular public exhibitions of contemporary art and a good range of commercial galleries.

Rodrigo Arenas Betancur
(born 1921) followed in Rozo's footsteps to become Colombia's best known sculptor of nationalistic public monuments. His gigantic and often rather melodramatic bronzes can be found in towns and cities throughout the country, as, for example his heroically naked
in Pereira,
Monumento a la Vida
in the Centro Suramericano in Medellín and the complex
Lanceros del Pantano de Vargas
near Paipa which must have been quite a challenge to the foundrymen. His sculptures are eminently worth seeking out.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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