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In this interview with Débora Arango Pérez by an anonymous journalist for the liberal Medellín-based newspaper El Diario, the artist discusses certain aspects of her life. She also explains her ideas about the nude genre and the relationship between art and morality. She speaks of the innovation beginning to make itself felt on the Colombian art scene thanks to the efforts of some students of Pedro Nel Gómez who put forth what Arango Pérez sees as “a modernist and revolutionary conception.” Arango Pérez explains that she got her start in painting thanks to the encouragement of a nun at the high school she attended. She recalls her experience with Eladio Vélez, her undeclared rival at the time. She describes the initial impact that Nel Gómez’s frescos in the old Palacio Municipal, now the Museo de Antioquia, had on her. Arango defends the nude genre, which she believes serves to “complete” and define an artist’s work. Arango Pérez reports that she had discussed the absolute divide between art and morality with Jesuit priests with whom she was close, asserting that “art, as a cultural expression, has absolutely nothing to do with moral codes. Art is neither amoral nor immoral: at no point does it intersect with ethics.” This position partly explains the scandal that ensued in 1939—at the time of this interview—around the presentation of two of her female nudes in a much discussed exhibition at the Club Unión in Medellín.
After studying with Eladio Vélez (1897–1969) and Pedro Nel Gómez (1899–1984), Colombian painter Débora Arango Pérez (1907–2005) worked largely in isolation from other artists; fellow disciples of Vélez and Nel Gómez rejected her due to her interest in the nude genre, and her mentor Nel Gómez rejected her due to professional envy. This isolation enabled Arango Pérez to develop a freer and more personal form of expression based on a naturalist conception of the human figure that broke not only with the local academic tradition, but also with the social and artistic conventions regarding the representation of the female body in Colombia.
This interview discusses the ideas underlying an important series of watercolors that Arango Pérez had produced, works from what is called her “pagan expression” period. The interview took place in the context of the scandal incited by the public presentation of two of those works, female nudes in watercolor entitled Cantarina de la rosa (no longer in existence) and La Amiga (Museo de Arte Moderno of Medellín) included in a group show organized by the Sociedad de Amigos del Arte and held from November 18 to 26, 1939 at the prestigious Club Unión in Medellín. To avoid scandal, the jury—whose members were Félix Mejía Arango (1895–1978), Carlos Posada Amador (1908–1993), and José Posada Echeverri (1906–1952)—granted the first prize of 100 pesos to Hermanas de la Caridad, a painting depicting a demure group of nuns. The scandal surrounding Arango Pérez’s work soon became partisan, with the liberal press praising the artist and conservative newspapers like La Defensa scornfully attacking her.
This interview, which took place when Arango Pérez was thirty-two, provides crucial information on her life and thought. In it, she voices her convictions with impressive clarity. The modernist aesthetic thinking she upholds was developed in a context of political support for what was called the República Liberal (1930-1946), which was met with serious opposition from conservative forces. This conflict took place in the city of Medellín, which was in the midst of a vertiginous process of industrialization that modernized the economy while local elites remained under the moralist control of the Church.
This article was published in a newspaper from the Department of Antioquia, Colombia that no longer exists. A facsimile version of it was published in the catalogue to the retrospective exhibition Débora Arango: 1937-1984 organized by the Museo de Arte Moderno of Medellín.