The editorial categories are research topics that have guided researchers during the recovery phase and continue to be the impetus behind the Documents Project’s digital archive and the Critical Documents book series. Developed by the project’s Editorial Board, each of the teams analyzed this framework and adapted it to their local contexts in developing their research objectives and work plans during the Recovery Phase. Learn more on the Editorial Framework page.
In this letter to Gonzalo Ariza published in Bogotá-based newspaper El Tiempo, Austrian-born critic Walter Engel responds to statements by Ariza, a Colombian artist, published in the same newspaper a few days earlier. Engel asserts that the fact that he is a businessman who works with galleries in no way discredits his work as a critic for Colombian newspapers and magazines. Engel explains that he uses his income from his business activities to support himself and his family, whereas he uses the income he earns as a critic to purchase books and, on rare occasion, works of art. He clarifies that, in his writings on art, he is not motivated by any “political, financial, or social interest.” He further asserts that he is indeed in a position to write about Colombian art because he has lived in Bogotá and observed its art scene for over four years. Engel goes on to recount his studies in art and art history in Paris and Vienna, as well as his travels—and visits to museums—in Italy, the Netherlands, and Germany before he arrived in Colombia. Indeed, it was in those years that he began his collection of European art. He also explains how he began writing in Spanish thanks to an invitation from poet Eduardo Carranza to publish a text in Revista de las Indias. In closing, Engel rejects Ariza’s assertion that he writes for “publications of dubious morality.” He also denies that he engages in “directing and guiding national art” and assures that, in the future, he will respectfully observe the course of Ariza’s artistic development in silence.
This letter is fundamental to understanding the life and work of Austrian-born art critic Walter Engel (1908–2005). It is the only known autobiographical document written by an intellectual who, along with his wife Herta Weinmann, arrived in Colombia in 1938. In addition to working as an art critic, Engel worked in the import-export business. In 1965, he left Colombia to settle in Toronto, Canada, where he died forty years later.
The sole motive for his work in art criticism was love of art. He was able to support himself and his family thanks to “an honorable job in commerce.” According to research by Siglinde Bolbecher on Austrian immigrants in Colombia, the social situation of the refugees who came to the country in 1938 and 1939 was very difficult; they had been deprived of their civil rights—and lost their fortunes and jobs—pursuant to the Anschluss, or the Nazi annexation of Austria. Many came to Colombian escaping from the concentration camps established by Adolf Hitler. Those who managed to find jobs in industry had to learn to get by on the low salaries common in Colombia (see the book Qué lejos está Viena: Latinoamérica como lugar de exilio de escritores y artistas austriacos (Vienna, 1995)).
The letter also sheds light on two artists who were crucial to Engel’s education in art: Joseph Floch (1895–1977) and Ludwig Heinrich Jungnickel (1881–1965). Floch, who was known for his Modernist landscapes and portraits, lived in the United States starting in 1941; he was a professor at the National Academy of Design. Jungnickel was a graphic artist and illustrator close to the Austrian Expressionist movement. He was known for his paintings of animals and for working with Gustav Klimt on the friezes at the Stoclet Palace in Brussels, Belgium.
Though Engel left Colombia in 1965, he continued to be involved in Colombian art. In 1968, he founded the Walter Engel Gallery in Toronto, a venue committed to disseminating art from Latin America and from Canada, specifically work by Canadian artists of indigenous descent. His gallery held exhibitions of Colombian artists such as Guillermo Silva Sanz de Santamaría (1921–2007), Roman Roncancio (b. 1940), and Fernando Botero (b. 1932). In December 2009, Engel’s descendents donated portions of his personal archives to the Biblioteca Luis Ángel Arango (Bogotá, Colombia).