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In the book Problemas sociales en las artes plásticas [Social Problems in the Visual Arts], the critic Walter Engel reviews different periods in the universal history of art, discussing how some cultures and artists depict social issues?such as class struggles, freedom, and war?in their visual arts and architecture. In the final chapter of the book, Engel takes a look at the history of Mexican mural art, which he considers “the first socially inspired, indigenous painting movement in Latin America.” He ponders its inspiration in Old World painting and its profound influence on Latin American painters. In his opinion, they share common roots, however, [he believes that] Latin American painting and European painting are driven by radically different criteria because European art seeks formal and stylistic solutions, whereas the goal of Latin American art is to reflect humankind in its most vital sense. Engel goes on to reference Picasso as an example of an artist who combines both approaches in his painting. After mentioning several Latin American artists who are part of the muralist movement, the Austrian critic ends by saying that the movement “is no longer solely Mexican; it is authentically Latin American.” According to Engel, it shows that art is on the threshold of a new Renaissance as it transitions from being merely an aesthetic pleasure for a minority to becoming an “expression of the people, the voice of mankind’s conscience and human love.”
The chapter reviewed here is the only one devoted to art produced in the New World to appear in the book Problemas sociales en las artes plásticas [Social Problems in the Visual Arts], in which Walter Engel refers to a group of Colombian artists he had discussed separately in his reviews of exhibitions written for the Revista de las Indias [Indies Magazine] (1936–1951), the magazine published by the Colombian Ministry of Education. This was the first Colombian publication to feature the Austrian critic’s writing, which consisted of reviews of works by artists of the Americanist generation such as Luis Alberto Acuña (1904–1984), Pedro Nel Gómez (1899–1984), and Ignacio Gómez Jaramillo (1910–1970), who were all well known in Colombian visual art circles.
At the same time, Engel also highlighted the production of painters such as Alejandro Obregón (1920–1992), Enrique Grau (1920–2004), Marco Ospina (1912–1983), and Guillermo Wiedemann (1905–1969), who were among the generation that produced a new kind of painting that rejected a nationalist approach to art. They unquestionably produced a form of modern art that moved away from Mexican muralist painting to interact with a variety of contemporary languages and cultures.
This essay reflects the prevailing mood at the end of the Second World War and the anxiety created by the radial nationalist movements that led to the two major conflicts of the twentieth century. Engel therefore believes that Latin America?on the other side of the world from where the wars were fought?is the likely place to host the future of a form of painting that combines personal concept and style with social conscience and incorporates an awareness of humanity, the land, the tropics, and the American reality.
The Viennese critic and art historian Walter Engel (1908–2005) received his art training in Europe and settled in Bogotá in 1938, shortly after the Nazi annexation of Austria. He then wrote art criticism for newspapers such as El Tiempo and El Espectador, and publications such as Revista de las Indias [Indies Magazine], Plástica [Visual Arts], Índice Cultural [Cultural Index], and Proa [Ship’s Bow]. In the mid-1960s he settled in Toronto, Canada, where he founded the Walter Engel Gallery.