The weather was hot, about 90 degrees. The sun was wet and blinding. Men on the street were selling water for a dollar a bottle. Other men were selling sombreros, and were persistent about it, going so far as to place a white sombrero on my head, uninvited. The streets were busy, but relatively quiet.
In the middle of all this, in Cartagena, Colombia, within walking distance of the Caribbean Sea, is the Museo de Arte Moderno. The museum is part of the Walled City, a city within a city. And the museum is its own city within that inner city, with rows of ceiling fans rattling from above and attempting to cool the environment and provide relief.
A review of Museo de Arte Moderno
The first room of the museum displayed art from the 1950s, which is when modern art began in Colombia. Modern art was born as a response to the religious Baroque and Rococo art that had been in favor before. The work of the most famous artist from Colombia, Fernando Botero, was not shown in this room, but two paintings by Alejandro Obregón, another of the five cofounders of the modern art movement in Colombia, were there, as well as a small bronze sculpture of a bull that Obregón made in 1984.
The first painting, ‘Dedalo,’ is a large acrylic painting from 1985. The composition and the figure of Dedalo at the center of the canvas both look stiff and amateurish. But then, a few paintings away, is another Obregón, ‘Condor,’ from 1959, and it is wonderful.
Dry brushstrokes move rapidly from one part of the canvas to another while letting the texture of the canvas show through. The viewer can feel the movement, especially when the brushstrokes change direction. The painting looks abstract. In this museum, the more abstract a painting looks, often the better it is.
The figure drawings by Enrique Grau, one of the founders of the museum, look like the result of two fifteen minute poses of an anonymous model in a sketch class, for example.
This is not true of modern Colombian art in general, however. For the price of a plane ticket, one can fly from Cartagena to Medellin and visit their modern art museum and see some of the paintings of Debora Arango.
However, the Colombian abstract art in this museum has an imagination and an electricity that its more figurative counterparts (in this museum) are lacking. Cecilia Porras’s ‘Rehilite’ is one of the better figurative works; its colors and the shape of the woman’s profile have some Chagall in them.
Oswaldo Vigas’s ‘Objeto negro’ from 1967 is a nice abstract piece, as is Eduardo Ramirez Villamizar’s ‘Negro y oro’ from 1957. The difference between the Colombian abstract art in this museum (other than the Villamizar) and abstract art done by someone like Hans Hofmann is in the treatment of texture. Hofmann has texture in his work, but his main concern, from what I can see, is how colors relate to one another on what is supposed to be a flat picture plane. The Colombian abstracts are more overtly three dimensional because of their texture. Many of the forms have a front, side, and top plane, further enhancing the 3D illusion. A Hofmann texture, on the other hand, is a happy accident based on the unplanned interactions of the paint.
Armando Morales’s ‘Fruta Nocturna,’ painted in 1923, has three-dimensional forms in a picture plane that has not been compressed (a la Cezanne, for example). My eyes have been trained to explore the issues of push-pull (a Hofmann theory that states that the same color can both come forward and recede into the background at the same time, or very close to the same time, creating a movement back and forth of one color in relation to another color that is closely nearby. For example, a blue square that partially overlaps an orange square will both want to come forward because of overlapping and appears to be in front of the orange square, while at the same time, the blue square has an equally persistent desire to recede back in space because cool colors go back in space and warm colors push forward.)
In another room, August Rivera’s untitled painting from 1972 is enigmatic and thought-provoking. A man and woman appear to be sitting at the edge of a bed, unclothed, with their shoes casually dropped to the floor beside them. The woman is leaning in the direction of the man, but her eyes are almost closed and she appears to be looking down, away from his gaze, hoping he will notice her. The man has broad shoulders and a thick chest; his only facial features are a pair of open eyes and a thin, “hawk-like” nose. Both figures are partially laid out with a thin black line. This quality, along with the hatching that goes with it, brings to mind the American cartoonist, Edward Sorel. This is a compliment. I enjoy gazing at paintings that reveal only some of the story, leaving the viewer to contemplate the rest.
Some of the modern art sculpture spilled out onto the street. One sculpture is immediately outside the entrance to the museum. The nearest Botero, ‘Reclining Nude,’ is a small bronze sculpture that is several blocks away. It faces a church. Despite their political and philosophical differences, the church and the bronze nude were able to peacefully coexist with nary a stern word being spoken between them.
I learned a lot about Cartagena and even more about Colombian modern art during my brief visit. The neighborhoods were safer than I would have expected. The people were friendly for the most part, but it was very difficult to take more than a few steps (literally) outside without someone invading my personal space trying to sell me something. The Museo de Arte Moderno de Cartagena is a small museum, and I was able to find many interesting paintings within its walls to enjoy. The museum also was a sanctuary for me to escape the heat and the mood of the streets. I just wish it displayed only the best of Enrique Grau, Alejandro Obregón, and the others, and did so with lighting that minimized the glare. I am grateful, however, that I had the opportunity to experience this artwork in person.
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