After creating a substantial corpus of art that was political in the sense that the female body and social justice are political, but which had not dealt with national politics, the Colombian painter Débora Arango (1907–2005) embarked on an extended series of works that chronicled and critiqued politics and politicians during the undeclared civil war known as la Violencia (c. 1946 to 1965). This essay examines Arango’s first five paintings about the national politics of Colombia and, by extension, the role of the artist as witness.

Arango’s earliest political paintings represent the Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the rioting that erupted after his assassination in Bogotá on April 9, 1948, and the government’s suppression of Liberal rebels in Antioquia. This essay documents her personal connection to Gaitán, considers the cultural politics of the era, places the paintings in historical context, and analyzes the stylistic changes and international sources Arango employed to visualize the abuse of power.

The undated watercolor Gaitán (by 1948), which portrays the politician speaking to a vast, enthusiastic crowd, is the only political painting she ever created that does not criticize its subject. After Gaitán’s murder she switched to a more expressionistic visual language to condemn the violence that followed, first in Masacre del 9 de abril, then in three paintings that depict the transport of rebels in railroad boxcars in ways that evoke the Holocaust. The five images are the matrix from which her incisive political satire of the 1950s evolved.

Después de crear un importante corpus artístico que era político en el sentido de que el cuerpo femenino y la justicia social son políticos, pero que no se había ocupado de la política nacional, la pintora colombiana Débora Arango (1907–2005) inició una extensa serie de obras en que narraba y criticaba la política y los políticos de la época de la guerra civil no declarada que se conoce en su país como la Violencia (c. 1946 a 1965). Este ensayo analiza los primeros cinco cuadros de Arango sobre la política nacional colombiana y, por extensión, el papel de la artista como testigo.

Los primeros cuadros políticos de Arango representan al político liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, los disturbios que estallaron después de su asesinato en Bogotá el 9 de abril de 1948 y la represión estatal de los rebeldes liberales en Antioquia. Este ensayo documenta la conexión personal de Arango con Gaitán, además de estudiar la política cultural de la época, situar los cuadros en su contexto histórico y analizar los cambios estilísticos y las fuentes internacionales que Arango empleó para hacer visible el abuso de poder.

La acuarela sin fecha que se titula Gaitán (pre 1949), que retrata al político hablando ante una entusiasta multitud, es el único cuadro político de Arango en que la artista no adopta una postura crítica del tema en cuestión. Después del asesinato de Gaitán, la pintora comenzó a emplear un lenguaje visual más expresionista para condenar la posterior violencia. Lo hizo primero en Masacre del 9 de abril y más tarde en tres cuadros que evocan imágenes del Holocausto por cómo representan a los rebeldes hacinados en vagones de tren. Las cinco imágenes son la matriz a partir de la cual evolucionó la mordaz sátira política de esta artista durante los años cincuenta.

Após criar um corpus substancial de arte que era política no senso em que o corpo feminino e justiça social são políticos, mas que não lidara com política nacional, a pintora colombiana Débora Arango (1907-2005) embarcou numa longa série de obras que registraram e criticaram a política e políticos durante a guerra civil não declarada conhecida como la Violencia (c. 1946 a 1965). Este ensaio examina as cinco primeiras pinturas de Arango sobre a política nacional da Colômbia e, por extensão, o papel da artista como testemunha.

As primeiras pinturas políticas de Arango representam o político liberal Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, os tumultos que eclodiram após seu assassinato em Bogotá em 9 de abril de 1948, e a repressão do governo aos rebeldes liberais em Antioquia. Este ensaio documenta sua conexão pessoal com Gaitán, considera as políticas culturais da época, situa as pinturas em um contexto histórico e analisa as mudanças estilísticas e as fontes internacionais empregadas por Arango para visualizar o abuso de poder.

A aquarela sem data intitulada Gaitán (c. 1948), que retrata o político falando para uma multidão vasta e entusiasmada, é a única pintura política que ela criou que não critica o retratado. Após o assassinato de Gaitán, ela se voltou para uma linguagem visual mais expressionista para condenar a violência que se seguiu, primeiro com Masacre del 9 de abril, depois com três pinturas que retratam o transporte de rebeldes em vagões ferroviários de formas que evocam o Holocausto. As cinco imagens são a matriz a partir da qual evoluiu sua incisiva sátira política dos anos 1950.

“Art says things that history cannot tell.”

Beatriz González, 2018

“I am a witness. I must stay in order to testify. Otherwise, what is my reason for being.”

Doris Salcedo, 2001

When she was an old woman, Débora Arango (1907–2005) accounted for the controversial images she had created many years earlier by explaining that she painted what she saw.1 For a corpus of work that confronts the harsh realities of life in Colombia in the mid twentieth century, this assertion proved so apt that the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín employed her words, Yo fui pintando lo que fui viendo (I was painting what I was seeing), for the title of her 2010 retrospective.2 How much Arango personally witnessed has long been a subject of debate, but the dispute does not pertain to her overtly political paintings. Rather, it revolves around the conflict between what a respectable unmarried woman from a wealthy family living in Antioquia in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s was permitted to see and to know, and how, with these limitations, she could have created such a raw record of people at the margins of society.3 This essay focuses on the first paintings she created that deal with the national politics of her country and, by extension, the role of the artist as witness at a time of political crisis.

From almost the beginning of her career, Arango created images that were political in the sense that the female body and social concerns are political, but she did not address national politics until the late 1940s. When she began painting overtly political works, she first depicted the Liberal politician Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who as minister of education had sponsored her first solo exhibition in 1940. By 1947 Gaitán had become the undisputed leader of the Liberal party and was widely expected to be the candidate and probable winner of the next presidential election.4 His assassination in Bogotá on April 9, 1948, and the violent uprising after his death irrevocably altered the trajectory of Colombian history. For Colombians April 9, 1948, remains an infamous and tragic date that is regarded in collective memory as the beginning of the undeclared civil war in Colombia known as la Violencia (the Violence), which pitted those who adhered to the Liberal and the Conservative political parties against one another. While most historians now place the start of the conflict earlier, usually in 1946, many Colombians still situate mid-twentieth-century events by saying whether they happened before or after el nueve de abril. Gaitán’s murder and the riots that followed “split the nation’s history in two.”5 The year 1948 also marked a major change in Arango’s art.

This article examines a small but pivotal part of Arango’s oeuvre: her first five political paintings. (In this article I use the word political only in the restricted sense of pertaining to government or political parties.) The five paintings, which represent Gaitán or events following his assassination, are undated, but it is reasonably certain that she created all or most of them in 1948. I discuss the historical context of the images, which portray a Gaitán rally prior to a Pan-American conference, the violence of the Bogotazo (the rioting in the capital in response to his murder), and political turmoil in the region of Colombia where she lived. I trace how after depicting a festive Gaitán rally while he was alive, she switched to a visual language of anguish to condemn the violence following his death, which she first recorded in Masacre del 9 de abril (Massacre of April 9), and then in three paintings that address the Conservative repression of Liberal rebels in Antioquia in mid April. In the paintings she created after nueve de abril she drew on national and international sources to create a compelling visual language to condemn the abuse of power.

Arango is famous in Colombia but little known in other countries, and the literature about her mirrors the discrepancy between her national and international reputation. Numerous books, exhibition catalogs, and articles have been published about her in Colombia, but relatively little has been published elsewhere or in languages other than Spanish. The following does not attempt to provide a complete historiography of the artist but rather to acknowledge the texts that are the foundation of this article and identify key contributions they make to it.6 Major publications about Arango began appearing in 1984 and contributed to the revaluation of her work. To accompany her 1984 retrospective at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, curator Alberto Sierra produced Débora Arango exposición retrospectiva 1937–1984, which reprinted virtually every newspaper article that had been published about her regardless of whether it praised or condemned her work.7 The catalog laid bare the verbal abuse heaped upon her for exhibiting female nudes, documented her confident defense of her art, and established the polarized and politicized reception of her work as a perennial issue in studies about her. In an interview with María Cristina Laverde Toscano published in 1986, the artist recalled listening to the radio immediately after Gaitán was assassinated and sketching the events as they were reported.8 Santiago Londoño Vélez’s biography Débora Arango: vida de pintora (1997) offers brief information about her acquaintanceship with Gaitán and analyzes most of her political art, including the five paintings that are the focus of this article.9 Londoño and Marta Elena Bravo provide similar but slightly different descriptions of the conception of the three paintings that protest the suppression of Liberal rebels in Antioquia. Bravo’s account, published in “Débora Arango: patrimonio vivo, patrimonio artístico” (2001), establishes the point of departure for my own interpretation of the genesis of the three paintings.10 María del Carmen Suescun Pozas’s doctoral dissertation “Modern Femininity, Shattered Masculinity: The Scandal of the Female Nude during Political Crisis in Colombia, 1930–1948” (2005) focuses on two controversial exhibitions held in Bogotá in the early 1940s: one was Arango’s first solo show, which was sponsored by Gaitán in 1940.11 Suescun Pozas presents crucial information about the cultural politics of the era that affected the reception of Arango’s work. Sven Schuster’s “La obra de Débora Arango sobre la Violencia” (2010), which is the first article to deal exclusively with her political paintings, contains a detailed analysis of her watercolor about the Bogotazo that ties the chaotic imagery to specific events that took place in the capital on April 9.12 In Historia y arte: una propuesta desarrollada en Débora Arango y sus obras sobre el período de la Violencia (2016), Sara Fernández Gómez draws a connection between photographs of Nazi Holocaust trains and one of Arango’s paintings about the abuse of power in Antioquia.13 Fernández also links the renewed interest in and respect for Arango’s art that began in the 1980s to the contemporaneous emergence of the Nueva Historia of Colombia that deconstructs the official history of la Violencia.

Several articles that are not exclusively about Débora Arango but utilize her Masacre del 9 de abril to elucidate broader topics provide necessary context. Among the best of these are Christian Padilla’s “El Bogotazo y los artistas colombianos” (2013), which discusses work created by the first painters to portray the events of nueve de abril in Bogotá, and Schuster’s “El 9 de abril en la memoria visual de Colombia” (2014), which examines Colombian museum displays dedicated to the memory of victims of violence.14

I draw on several histories of Colombia, especially Herbert Braun’s seminal The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia (1985). Books about Colombian history offer an abundance of information and analysis about Gaitán, but scant information about the event in Antioquia that Arango portrayed. Arturo Álape’s innovative “El 9 de abril en provincia” (1989), about what happened outside of Bogotá on April 9, contains two paragraphs about the event.15 I base my longer account primarily on newspaper articles published in Medellín in the spring of 1948.

Peter Burke’s Eyewitnessing (2001) examines the role of images in written history.16 Sara Fernández Gómez’s Historia y arte, discussed above, analyzes the ideas of Burke and other historians in relationship to Arango’s paintings. My epigraphs, which convey Beatriz González’s thoughts about art and history and Doris Salcedo’s words about witnessing, come from published interviews with the artists.17

Despite the substantial literature about Arango and her political paintings, a number of issues and sources remain unexplored and unexamined. After Arango was rediscovered in Colombia in the mid-1980s, she began giving interviews to journalists and continued to do so for the next two decades. Sprinkled throughout scores of newspaper articles based on these interviews are her comments about Gaitán, her political art, and her political beliefs, subjects she had scarcely spoken about publicly before that time. These articles remain largely untapped sources. The ways in which Arango’s first political painting, Gaitán, differs from all of her subsequent ones have not been acknowledged. The historical event represented in the three paintings about the abuse of power in Antioquia is not well known. Indeed, Arango’s paintings are the only high-profile record of what happened, but no one has compared the paintings to what occurred or questioned her claim that she was an eyewitness.

Written and verbal accounts of Arango’s political beliefs are not entirely consistent. She told Santiago Londoño that she came from an apolitical family, insisting: “About politics, nothing. We never talked about that at home.”18 Arango’s father was Liberal, while her mother became Conservative after her only brother was forcibly conscripted by Liberals and died in the War of the Thousand Days (1899–1902).19 Having parents with different political loyalties was unusual in Colombia, where party affiliation not only expressed political convictions but was usually a family tradition with entire families solidly liberal or conservative. In the interview with Laverde, Arango observed: “There is a little of everything in the two parties and if there are differences, it is more on a personal level.”20 She elaborated:

I have never lived among the political, nor have I been interested in it. What is more, I consider myself apolitical. For me a godo [literally Goth, a pejorative term for a Conservative] is the same as a Liberal. Nevertheless, as we live in an environment in which many things happen that affect us in one way or another, these events are necessarily present in the work of an artist who thinks and feels as I do. Because of this, various works exist about the period of the Violencia, about the dictatorship of Rojas, about figures like Gaitán, Laureano Gómez, Bertha de Ospina.…For what reason? Simply that artists, I repeat, cannot live separated from the world. On the contrary, this world, this reality that surrounds them goes into their work. Through it we denounce and show what happens. It is our way of committing ourselves to society. Consciously or unconsciously, we do it.21

Colombian women were granted the right to vote in 1954 and first voted in 1957. Arango, however, only voted once, in 1982, for the moderate Conservative presidential candidate Belisario Betancur. She told Londoño that she voted for Betancur because of her low opinion of the local Liberal mayor.22 (Until 1988 mayors were appointed rather than elected, so the only way to oust an undesirable one was to elect someone who would appoint a replacement.) In 1996 she gave a different (but not contradictory) explanation to Vedher Sánchez Bustamante: “Even though I am so Liberal,” I voted for Betancur “because he is a humanist; this country needs humanist presidents.”23 In 2016 Alberto Sierra, who had curated her 1984 retrospective at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, described her as a radical Liberal and completely bipartisan.24 Clearly these statements express a range of political inclinations and contain paradoxes if not contradictions. Sierra’s claim that she was both bipartisan and a radical Liberal epitomizes the ambiguity of what is actually known about her politics from written and oral sources. Her political paintings are clearer.

Arango was born in Medellín in 1907 to an affluent and respected family (fig. 1). She was a devout Catholic who attended mass almost daily, never married, and lived with family throughout her life. In 1932 she began taking painting classes with the traditional painter Eladio Vélez (1897–1967), first in his home, then, beginning in 1933, at the Instituto de Bellas Artes.25 In 1935 she saw Pedro Nel Gómez (1899–1984) painting frescos on the walls of Palacio Municipal (now the Museo de Antioquia), and switched teachers in order to study with the more modern artist, who painted nonacademic nudes, addressed social concerns, and worked in a monumental scale (fig. 2). By the mid-1930s, Pedro Nel Gomez, who had studied fresco painting in Florence, was creating art deeply influenced by Mexican muralism. Arango felt an immediate kinship with his work: “When maestro Pedro Nel Gómez painted the frescoes in the Palacio Municipal de Medellín, I understood that this was my school and that this was my teacher.”26 She studied with Gómez until 1938, when she began working independently. “If I had continued painting with Pedro Nel, today I would be an imitator, but my style, my color, my themes are different,” she observed.27 In 1946 she studied fresco painting at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura in Mexico City.
Figure 1.

Gabriel Carvajal, photograph of Débora Arango, c. 1940 (photograph provided by the Archivo Fotográfico of the Biblioteca Pública Piloto, Medellín, Colombia)

Figure 1.

Gabriel Carvajal, photograph of Débora Arango, c. 1940 (photograph provided by the Archivo Fotográfico of the Biblioteca Pública Piloto, Medellín, Colombia)

Figure 2.

Pedro Nel Gómez, La mesa vacía del niño hambriento (Empty Tables for Hungry Children), 1936, fresco, 111½ x 131⅞ in. (283 x 335 cm), mural painted at the Palacio Municipal de Medellín, now the Museo de Antioquia, Medellín (photograph provided by the Casa Museo Pedro Nel Gómez, Medellín)

Figure 2.

Pedro Nel Gómez, La mesa vacía del niño hambriento (Empty Tables for Hungry Children), 1936, fresco, 111½ x 131⅞ in. (283 x 335 cm), mural painted at the Palacio Municipal de Medellín, now the Museo de Antioquia, Medellín (photograph provided by the Casa Museo Pedro Nel Gómez, Medellín)

The first of many public controversies surrounding Arango’s art broke out early in her career, just before she began addressing social issues in her work and almost a decade before she began creating paintings about national politics. In 1939 she participated in a group exhibition at the prestigious Club Unión in Medellín, where her Hermanas de la caridad (Sisters of Charity) was awarded first prize. The jury chose the watercolor depicting a gathering of nuns rather than one of her two life-size female nudes, in order to avoid controversy, since nudes and their exhibition were still unusual and problematic in Colombia at that time.28 On the day the prize was announced, an article signed with the initials L. de P. and published in the Conservative newspaper La Defensa called Arango’s Cantarina de la rosa (Singer of the Rose), one of the nudes, a “shameless work signed by a lady that not even a man should exhibit” and condemned the other, La amiga (The Friend), as only appropriate for hanging in a brothel.29

Gaitán’s Sponsorship of Arango’s First Solo Exhibition

During the eight months in 1940 when Gaitán was the minister of education, he promoted the visual arts.30 He knew about Arango because his wife, Amparo Jaramillo, was her friend and former neighbor and spoke highly of her art. After learning about the controversy surrounding her paintings in 1939, he sent her a note inviting her to hold a solo exhibition in Bogotá. Arango went to the capital optimistically, hoping that her work would be received more favorably in Bogotá than in the traditionally Conservative city of Medellín.31 Gaitán arranged for the exhibition to be held in the foyer of the prestigious Teatro Colón. Many years later Arango recalled: “He received me very well, he organized the exhibition at the Colón in the best way possible and said: ‘Go on Débora, you will go very far.’ He was like a small light in my life.”32

Arango’s solo exhibition opened on October 5, 1940, one week before the inauguration of the Primer Salón Anual de Artistas, in which she also participated. At the Teatro Colón she presented fifteen watercolors, including six life-size female nudes, which are listed in the catalog as Bailarina en reposo (Dancer at Rest, 1939), Contraste de líneas (Contrast of Lines) (fig. 3), Friné (Phryne), La mística (The Mystic), Meditando la fuga (Contemplating Escape), and Montañas (Mountains).33 The response to her art was polemical and divided along political lines. Liberal newspapers mostly published positive reviews, while Conservative newspapers tended to print negative ones; this trend continued throughout her career. A full account of the reception of her work is beyond the scope of this essay: I limit my discussion to two newspaper articles that exemplify the way that Arango’s art became a target of intense cultural conflict between Liberals and Conservatives.34

Figure 3.

Débora Arango, Contrastes, (Contrasts) 1940, watercolor, 68½ x 26 in. (174 x 66 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Colombia. The painting was exhibited as Contraste de líneas (Contrasts of Lines) in Arango’s solo exhibition at the Teatro Colón in 1940. (photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

Figure 3.

Débora Arango, Contrastes, (Contrasts) 1940, watercolor, 68½ x 26 in. (174 x 66 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Colombia. The painting was exhibited as Contraste de líneas (Contrasts of Lines) in Arango’s solo exhibition at the Teatro Colón in 1940. (photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

Five days after Arango’s solo show opened, the leading Conservative newspaper, El Siglo, published an unsigned editorial entitled “Desafío al buen gusto” (Good taste challenged). El Siglo’s editorials were usually written by the ultra-conservative politician Laureano Gómez, the paper’s owner and editor who became president of Colombia in 1950.35 He claimed that Arango lacked artistic taste, had not mastered the medium of watercolor, and her work insulted the aristocratic environment of the theater.36 Gómez, however, did not consider Arango responsible for her own exhibition. Rather, he described her as a pawn of Liberals in power: “The fault of this artistic degeneration cannot fall on Miss Arango.…She is only a victim of the pernicious and anti-aesthetic influences that the Ministry of Education is exercising.”37

Art historian María del Carmen Suescun Pozas explains that when Gómez held Gaitán accountable for the alleged breach of morality caused by Arango exhibiting nudes at the Teatro Colón, it was in “response to the reforms of education the Liberal regime had initiated in 1934, which were perceived as endangering morality.”38 The most liberal of the four presidential periods of the Liberal Republic (1930–46) had been President Alfonso López Pumarejo’s first term of office (1934–38), when he launched la revolución en marcha, the revolution on the march. López Pumarejo’s goal was to turn Colombia into a modern nation, and education was the key to this transformation. He sought to increase public, secular education and provide the lower classes with greater access to education and culture.39 The Ministry of Education was charged with incorporating the pueblo into national culture: integrating elite and popular culture was perceived as a way to achieve this goal.40

The cultural programs of the Liberal Republic attracted and promoted the generation of Colombian artists that broke with academic traditions.41 These artists, who included Pedro Nel Gómez and Ignacio Gómez Jaramillo, were called jóvenes artistas (young artists) and artistas rebeldes (rebellious artists) in an effort to explain away their use of styles that were new to Colombia and still controversial.

On October 20, 1940, Arango’s exhibition was mentioned in another El Siglo editorial, “Innoble contubernio” (Ignoble conspiracy), which condemned several projects sponsored by the Liberal government as foolish expenditures: a new campus for the university, a new park, the magazine Revista de las Indias, and a lecture series that sponsored a speech the editor considered impious. The final example of the government’s sins—and clearly one intended to show the depths of its depravity—was the current exhibition at the Teatro Colón. The editorial, which never mentioned Arango’s name, called the show perverse and labeled her paintings “pornographic drawings.”42 “Unfortunately [the paintings] were signed by a woman. That joined two things that should be respectable and cannot be involved in an indecent exhibition: femininity and authority. That ignoble conspiracy shows the abyss into which the country is being pushed.”43

Three years earlier, Laureano Gómez had written an essay entitled “El expresionismo como síntoma de pereza e inhabilidad en el arte” (Expressionism as a symptom of laziness and inability in art), in which he expressed his preference for Classical Greek and Renaissance art, voiced his antipathy to avant-garde art, and revealed his inability to distinguish among the diverse European art movements of the early twentieth century.44 For Laureano Gómez, Arango—a woman artist who painted unidealized female nudes in a style that was too modern for his tastes and who had the audacity to show her work in the elite space of the Teatro Colón—embodied a mortal threat to traditional Catholic and conservative values. Consequently, eight years before Arango created her first political painting, she was dragged into the cultural politics of the nation when her first solo show became a point of contention in the ongoing cultural conflict between Liberals and Conservatives in general, and Gaitán and Gómez in particular.

Throughout the years that Arango actively created and exhibited art, her imagery continued to polarize critics. Controversy almost always erupted, at least once paintings were removed from a show; two exhibitions ended prematurely; and twice she was threatened with excommunication. Several writers have claimed that her solo show at the Teatro Colón was closed early, but that is not true. In 1985 when an interviewer casually mentioned that her paintings were removed from the Teatro Colón, she scoffed at the idea that Gaitán would have let this happen: “No, not from the Colón, ah! With Gaitán?!! That was at another gallery.”45

According to Santiago Londoño, Laureano Gómez called the exhibition at the Teatro Colón “pornographic” in the Congress of Colombia. A number of engaging stories have been told about what occurred, though most of them are probably apocryphal. In one version, which Arango denied, Gómez brought her paintings to Congress and debated with Gaitán about them. Gaitán supposedly later said to her: “I didn’t know you were so important: your paintings cost me an hour of arguing with Laureano Gómez.”46 Suescun Pozas asserts that no evidence survives in the Colombian congressional archives to support that such a debate took place.47

Jorge Eliécer Gaitán and Arango’s First Political Images

The Colombian Congress played a crucial role in Gaitán’s early career. In 1929 he rose to national prominence through his scathing criticism of the Conservative government’s violent repression of striking banana workers the previous year. The government had sent troops to the banana zone in support of the US corporation United Fruit Company. On December 6, 1928, Colombian soldiers fired into a crowd of at least two thousand strikers at the railway station in Ciénaga.48 The government admitted to killing thirteen people, but the actual figure was higher.49 After traveling to the site to investigate, Gaitán attacked the government’s handling of the strike in a series of rousing speeches in the Chamber of Representatives. The massacre of the banana workers became one of the issues that led to the election of a Liberal president in 1930, ending forty-five years of continuous Conservative rule in Colombia.

Gaitán was a dark-skinned mestizo from a lower-middle-class economic background who had earned a law degree from the prestigious Universidad Nacional in Bogotá and completed advanced studies in criminology in Rome. He advocated social and economic mobility through hard work and individual merit. Acutely aware of social inequalities and racial prejudices, he worked to extend educational opportunities to the lower classes. His supporters came primarily from the petit bourgeois and working classes. He spoke about a dichotomy between the país político (political nation)—the members of society who dominated politics and abused power—and the país nacional (popular nation)—the majority of the people. He strongly criticized the political elite of both parties. According to him, both Liberal and Conservative oligarchs competed for the spoils of office, ignored the needs of the people, and were bound together in an unwritten alliance to block meaningful change.50 “The sight of Gaitán haranguing a multitude of wildly enthusiastic and equally swarthy followers was intimidating to the staid members of Colombia’s país político,” historian James D. Henderson observed.51

Gaitán was famous for his magnetic personality, oratorical skill, and ability to establish a strong personal connection with his followers. He spoke with a booming voice, punctuated his discourse with dramatic gestures, and frequently brandished a raised fist (fig. 4). In the 1940s he became a master of employing the public square for direct communication with the people. For him this space was a stage for confronting the oligarchy, challenging the political machine, educating people, and raising their awareness of their own power. Historian Gonzalo Sánchez asserts: “Never in Colombia had the public square demonstrated the power it had during the days of Gaitán, sometimes with demonstrations that had the mood of a folk festival, other times with the face of the tragedy that was coming.…It was the noise in the streets that foretold his irreversible ascent.”52

Figure 4.

Photograph of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán speaking. Photographer, date, and location unknown (plate 018672 from the Fondo Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala of the Archivo Central e Histórico at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia)

Figure 4.

Photograph of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán speaking. Photographer, date, and location unknown (plate 018672 from the Fondo Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala of the Archivo Central e Histórico at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia)

In an undated watercolor entitled Gaitán (1948 or earlier), Arango portrayed the charismatic leader speaking at a vast multinational demonstration (fig. 5). He is represented from behind with his right hand raised in an oratorical gesture and his body leaning eagerly toward the crowd. Arango focused attention on him via hierarchal scale, strong diagonals, and the contrast between his plain gray suit and the colorful, hectic scene around him. The dense crowd, bearing bright flags from most of the countries of the Western Hemisphere, swirls in a centripetal spiral motion toward Gaitán. The multinational flags attest that the image refers to the Novena Conferencia Panamericana (Ninth Pan-American Conference), which was scheduled to open in Bogotá on March 30, 1948.53

Figure 5.

Débora Arango, Gaitán, no date (by 1948), watercolor, 33⅞ x 21⅝ in. (86 x 55 cm). Collection of the Banco de la República, Bogotá (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by Cecilia Londoño de Estrada; photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

Figure 5.

Débora Arango, Gaitán, no date (by 1948), watercolor, 33⅞ x 21⅝ in. (86 x 55 cm). Collection of the Banco de la República, Bogotá (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by Cecilia Londoño de Estrada; photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

In addition to national flags from throughout the Americas, the watercolor includes two red flags with a hammer and sickle. The larger one appears prominently behind Gaitán’s back in a way that seems to label him a communist even though he was not one. As a law student, Gaitán wrote a thesis entitled “Las ideas socialistas” that proposed an ideal society based on a class of honest, hardworking small property owners protected by the state. He did not argue for the end of private property but rather sought to end ownership without labor. He wanted a society of small, urban, and rural property owners who were in charge of their own labor and reaped the rewards of their efforts. Braun has observed: “Gaitán’s ideal was a capitalism from below, a society of meritorious individuals, hard work, and small-scale property ownership, with the family as the cornerstone.”54

Arango began painting Gaitán while attending one of his rallies in a public square in Medellín. After being jostled by the crowd, which caused the watercolor to tumble to the ground, she finished it in her studio.55 It is the only political painting she created during Gaitán’s life. It is also her only painting about national (and in this case international) politics that does not radiate criticism of the subject.

On February 7, 1948, Gaitán held the Manifestación del Silencio (Silent Demonstration) in the central plaza of Bogotá to protest deadly partisan violence in the country (fig. 6). Gabriel García Márquez recalled, “more than sixty thousand women and men in strict mourning, carrying the red flags of the [Liberal] party and the black flags of Liberal grief. There was only one rallying cry: absolute silence. And it was maintained with inconceivable dramatic effect.”56 It was the first political ceremony that García Márquez, who was twenty years old, had attended:

I had come without political conviction, drawn by the curiosity of the silence, and the sudden knot of tears in my throat took me by surprise. Gaitán’s speech on the Plaza de Bolívar, from the balcony of the municipal comptroller’s office, was a funeral oration with an overwhelming emotional charge.…That was the ‘march of silence,’ the most moving of all the marches ever held in Colombia. The impression left after that historic afternoon, among his partisans and his enemies, was that Gaitán’s election was unstoppable.57

Figure 6.

Photograph of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán speaking during the Manifestación del Silencio (Silent Demonstration) on February 7, 1948, photographer unknown. Although lacking a paper trail identifying the photographer or other context, the image clearly records the demonstration (plate 018671 from the Fondo Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala of the Archivo Central e Histórico at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia)

Figure 6.

Photograph of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán speaking during the Manifestación del Silencio (Silent Demonstration) on February 7, 1948, photographer unknown. Although lacking a paper trail identifying the photographer or other context, the image clearly records the demonstration (plate 018671 from the Fondo Jorge Eliécer Gaitán Ayala of the Archivo Central e Histórico at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia)

Two months later, just after one o’clock in the afternoon on Friday, April 9, 1948, Gaitán was shot and fatally wounded as he left his office in Bogotá. He died at 1:55 p.m. in the nearby Clínica Central. Immediately after he was shot—before his death was officially announced—the words “¡Mataron a Gaitán! ¡Mataron a Gaitán!” (They killed Gaitán! They killed Gaitán!) were shouted as the news flashed through the city.58 The solitary assailant, Juan Roa Sierra, “a slightly unbalanced free-lance assassin,” was attacked by people on the street.59 In an expression of their belief in Conservative culpability, they grabbed Roa Sierra’s dead or dying body by the ankles, dragged it several blocks down Carrera Séptima (Seventh Avenue), and dumped his corpse on the doorsteps of the Palacio Presidencial.60

The disturbance metastasized when a protester at the Palacio Presidencial (now known as the Casa de Nariño) disarmed a guard and was shot from within the building. Two protesters went in search of weapons, obtained them by looting hardware stores, and returned with two hundred armed men. The Presidential Guard pushed the rioters back, but frightened, inexperienced soldiers opened fire on them when they began to resist near the Plaza de Bolívar. Meanwhile, angry people streamed into the center of the city, where they directed their rage at the hierarchical social order. “No longer guided by party lines, the crowd turned against the symbols of public power” and destroyed material manifestations of authority, exclusion, and inequality.61 Fueled by alcohol looted from liquor stores, the rioters overturned automobiles, burned trolleys, destroyed buildings, vandalized churches, and broke into jail cells to free prisoners (fig. 7).

Figure 7.

Manuel H. Rodríguez, photograph of a burning streetcar in front of the Gobernación de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, April 9, 1948 (© Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia – Fondo Manuel H.)

Figure 7.

Manuel H. Rodríguez, photograph of a burning streetcar in front of the Gobernación de Cundinamarca, Bogotá, April 9, 1948 (© Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia – Fondo Manuel H.)

The leadership, both Liberal and Conservative, proved scandalously ineffective. Approximately an hour after Gaitán’s death, a delegation of Liberal leaders, who erroneously believed that they had been summoned by their Conservative counterparts, walked from the clinic to the Palacio Presidencial. En route they realized that they could not negotiate with President Mariano Ospina Pérez and his Conservative coterie if they arrived surrounded by angry Gaitanistas from the streets, so they ducked into a theater entrance and disappeared for some two hours, possibly longer.62 Meanwhile, the Conservative president ordered the army to retake the Radio Nacional, where leftist students were broadcasting, and to protect the banks, convents, and Catholic schools for girls located downtown, but did little else to protect the city and its inhabitants. Believing that time was their ally, the Conservative leaders merely waited for the rioting to subside. Fire trucks were ordered back to the station for fear they would be destroyed. At nightfall the electricity was cut to stop radio broadcasts, even though hospitals, clinics, and other vital services needed electricity to function.63

When the rioting ended, the center of the city looked like a war zone (fig. 8). Estimates of the death toll from the rioting in Bogotá that were published at that time range from a low of 549 to a high of 2,585.64 Hundreds of buildings in the center of the city were severely damaged or demolished, including government offices, churches, universities, schools, and homes.

Figure 8.

Manuel H. Rodríguez, photograph of Carrera Séptima (Seventh Avenue) after the Bogotazo, April 1948 (© Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia – Fondo Manuel H.)

Figure 8.

Manuel H. Rodríguez, photograph of Carrera Séptima (Seventh Avenue) after the Bogotazo, April 1948 (© Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia – Fondo Manuel H.)

Débora Arango on April 9

From her home in the town of Envigado near Medellín, Arango listened to radio reports of Gaitán’s murder and the violence that ensued. While she listened, she sketched the events as they unfolded. Decades later, she recalled, “Look, when they killed Gaitán, there was no television, of course, so I listened to the radio for everything that happened in Bogotá: the way they assassinated Gaitán, what happened to his assassin, the women tolling the bells in the towers of the churches, the nuns pouring out of the convents.…Everything that they described, I painted.”65

In the watercolor Masacre del 9 de abril, Arango epitomized the horrors of the day as a mob swarming a baroque church, rendering the scene with distorted figures, expressionist angst, and tart colors (fig. 9). A body, barely alive—probably intended to signify Gaitán, though it is definitely not a portrait—is carried on a stretcher through the dense throng at the entrance of the church.66 Directly above the dying leader, a man raises a banner with the words “VIVA GAITAN.” In the foreground a soldier beats a rioter with a club. At the top of the tower a scantily clad woman, almost certainly a prostitute, rings the bells, while a frightened friar tries to hide under her skimpy skirt. On the right a Franciscan friar scrambles up a rickety ladder to the relative safety of the tower. To the left, on the roof of the church, a soldier stabs a civilian with a bayonet, while four cannons fire into a scarlet sky. In the lower left corner, two men drag Gaitán’s assassin by his feet, displaying his battered body in an upside-down, vertical position, his arms dangling limply below his head.

Figure 9.

Débora Arango, Masacre del 9 de abril (Massacre of April 9), no date (c. 1948), watercolor, 30 x 22½ in. (76 x 57 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

Figure 9.

Débora Arango, Masacre del 9 de abril (Massacre of April 9), no date (c. 1948), watercolor, 30 x 22½ in. (76 x 57 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

The scathing caricatures, distorted figures, and slightly dissonant colors that Arango employed in Masacre del 9 de abril mark an evolution in style as well as content. Her utilization of the grotesque in her condemnation of the Bogotazo contrasts dramatically with the bright, vertiginous, but cheerful visual language of Gaitán, which she may have painted only weeks or months earlier.

Arango communicates a sense of urgency and present time in Masacre del 9 de abril. The diagonals—the stretcher, the cannons on either side of the bell tower, the sloping roofline of the church, and the wide-leg stance of the woman ringing the bells—contribute to the sense of movement in the composition. The immediacy of Masacre del 9 de abril is one of its salient features, but Arango also represented many different scenes within the same work in a way that jumbles time in much the way that memory does. The painting is about both the present and the past. From its inception Masacre del 9 de abril was/is simultaneously breaking news and a history painting. But unlike most history paintings that glorify heroes and extol the deeds of the victor, Masacre del 9 de abril exposes the futility of violence. Many years later, Arango observed: “I was very much at ease working in watercolor and to go from that [medium] to mural painting is easy. You can express more in a mural than in an easel painting.…Without realizing it, I wound up making a sketch for a fresco, and I kept saying to myself, ‘Oh, if someday I could turn this into a mural! Through it many people would understand the significance of that absurd violence.’ I never achieved it.”67

Arango’s desire to paint murals was largely frustrated, in part because the chronic controversy surrounding her art made her a risky choice for a public commission, but she had already acquired the training necessary to complete a fresco.68 In 1946 she took a course in fresco painting with Federico Cantú at the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura (the art school popularly known as La Esmeralda) in Mexico City, where she saw in person the murals that José Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Siqueiros had painted in government buildings in the capital since the beginning of the muralist movement in 1922. Orozco was the artist Arango most admired, not just in Mexico but anywhere.69 Although there are significant differences in their oeuvres, they have stylistic and thematic affinities: both artists worked in an expressionistic style,70 confronted the horrors of war and violence (fig. 10), and pointed out human defects regardless of the class or political affiliation of their subjects. Orozco, for example, criticized the behavior of both the rich and the poor in Los ricos banquetean mientras los obreros luchan (The Rich Feast while the Workers Fight) in 1923 at the Colegio de San Ildefonso in Mexico City. In a similar vein, in Masacre del 9 de abril Arango represented soldiers and Gaitanistas as equally enraged participants in the deadly riot. Arango acknowledged Orozco’s influence on her work, but it should be noted that her expressionistic tendencies and biting social criticism were already well developed when she painted Justicia (Justice) and La lucha del destino (Destiny’s Struggle) around 1944.

Figure 10.

José Clemente Orozco, Criminales de guerra (War Criminals), c. 1944, oil on canvas, 23⅜ x 37⅜ inches (59.5 x 95 cm), SURA collection, Mexico (© 2020 Artists Rights Society, New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City; photograph by Francisco Kochen)

Figure 10.

José Clemente Orozco, Criminales de guerra (War Criminals), c. 1944, oil on canvas, 23⅜ x 37⅜ inches (59.5 x 95 cm), SURA collection, Mexico (© 2020 Artists Rights Society, New York/SOMAAP, Mexico City; photograph by Francisco Kochen)

April 9 in Antioquia

Gaitán’s assassination and the events of April 9 profoundly affected the entire nation, not just the capital. In the traditionally Conservative department of Antioquia, where Arango lived, one of the sites of greatest conflict was Puerto Berrío, a river port on the Río Magdalena, the country’s primary fluvial transportation network. The town, located 131 kilometers east of Medellín, was a Liberal stronghold that had heavily supported Gaitán.71

Arango had a personal connection with Puerto Berrío. In 1938 she had traveled there with her mother in the hope that the hot climate would improve her mother’s health. At the time Puerto Berrío was a thriving river port. During the trip she sketched and later produced a series of watercolors that deal with lust, religion, and labor. With the exception of El placer (The Pleasure), these watercolors are less known than her more frequently reproduced paintings, but they mark a decisive step toward the social criticism and themes that characterize her mature work.

Ten years after traveling to Puerto Berrío with her mother, Arango created three paintings that express outrage at government violence against Liberals in Puerto Berrío following Gaitán’s murder. For her most important pieces, Arango often created both a watercolor and an oil painting. In this case she painted two watercolors, El vagón (The Boxcar) (fig. 11) and El tren de la muerte (The Train of Death) (fig. 12), and one oil, Tren de la muerte (Train of Death) (fig. 13). Each represents a nocturnal scene of a boxcar traversing diagonally across the composition with the door of the car open to reveal people stacked inside; bloody handprints stain the exterior of the train. Entwined bodies, both male and female, spill out of the door of El vagón. The open doors in El tren de la muerte and Tren de la muerte show piles of human heads with tormented expressions and a few contorted hands thrusting from the heaps. The composition and content of the oil painting—which Arango probably painted last—are similar to the watercolor with a nearly identical title, but the oil has fewer curves and is more streamlined.

Figure 11.

Débora Arango, El vagón (The Boxcar), no date (c. 1948), watercolor, 18⅛ x 13 in. (46 x 33 cm). Private collection (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by Cecilia Londoño de Estrada; after Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Débora Arango, 1986)

Figure 11.

Débora Arango, El vagón (The Boxcar), no date (c. 1948), watercolor, 18⅛ x 13 in. (46 x 33 cm). Private collection (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by Cecilia Londoño de Estrada; after Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, Débora Arango, 1986)

Figure 12.

Débora Arango, El tren de la muerte (The Train of Death), no date (c. 1948), watercolor, 30⅜ x 22 in. (77 x 56 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, photograph by Carlos Tobón)

Figure 12.

Débora Arango, El tren de la muerte (The Train of Death), no date (c. 1948), watercolor, 30⅜ x 22 in. (77 x 56 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, photograph by Carlos Tobón)

Figure 13.

Débora Arango, Tren de la muerte (Train of Death), no date (c. 1948), oil, 45¼ x 45¼ in. (115 x 115 cm). Private collection (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by Cecilia Londoño de Estrada, photograph courtesy of Galería El Museo, Bogotá)

Figure 13.

Débora Arango, Tren de la muerte (Train of Death), no date (c. 1948), oil, 45¼ x 45¼ in. (115 x 115 cm). Private collection (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by Cecilia Londoño de Estrada, photograph courtesy of Galería El Museo, Bogotá)

In Débora Arango: vida de pintora, Londoño explains that these paintings refer to the arrest of seven hundred Liberals in Puerto Berrío after the events of April 9, their forced transport by train to Medellín, and their confinement for three days without food or shelter in the bullring. Londoño claims that Arango made another trip to Puerto Berrío, where she saw the detainees lying on the ground while they waited their turn to board the train, and that this experience prompted her to create these images.72 Marta Elena Bravo, a humanities professor and friend of the artist, provides a similar account of the context of the conception of these paintings but with one crucial difference: while she places Arango in Puerto Berrío, she does not say when she was there. According to Bravo, one night in Puerto Berrío Arango saw detainees of a raid packed into a warehouse like animals. Early the next morning she heard a train whistle and saw “beings with terrified and anguished faces, and abused bodies, stacked up like livestock, departing, in what for the artist…was the Train of Death.”73

Newspaper reports of what happened in Puerto Berrío in the wake of Gaitán’s murder varied widely depending on the political affiliation of the publication. The Conservative Medellín-based El Colombiano announced on April 13 that the communist terrorists in Puerto Berrío had fallen and the town was under government control.74 El Diario, the mainstream Liberal evening paper of Medellín, referred to the rebels in Puerto Berrío as Liberals, not communists, and scoffed at the claim that there had been a communist coup d’état in Colombia.75 Nevertheless, on April 14 the United Press circulated an alarming cable: “Puerto Berrío destroyed and under Communist control.”76 The erroneous claim was based on unconfirmed reports supplied by the US consul in Medellín.

Gaitán’s assassination and the mass rioting took place while foreign dignitaries from throughout the Americas, including US Secretary of State George Marshall, were attending the long anticipated Novena Conferencia Panamericana in Bogotá. The timing of the tragedy was acutely embarrassing to the Colombian government. Official and semiofficial spokesmen tried to save face by blaming the trouble on outside communist agitators, and many Conservatives firmly believed that their country was threatened by an international leftist plot. On the other hand, the Gaitanistas initially assumed that the Conservative administration was responsible for their leader’s death. However, as historian David Bushnell observed: “If President Ospina or the Conservative Party’s high command had decided to murder the head of the Liberal Party, they would scarcely have chosen to do so in the midst of an international conference.”77

In the days following April 9, the Liberal El Diario was heavily censored by the government (fig. 14), but, nevertheless, documented what happened to the liberals who were arrested in Puerto Berrío once they arrived in Medellín. On the afternoon of Thursday, April 15, two trains carrying hundreds of political prisoners, one from Puerto Berrío and the other from Bolombolo (located 71 kilometers southwest of Medellín), arrived at the Cisneros Plaza station.78 The men who were considered the most dangerous were incarcerated in La Ladera prison; the remaining five hundred or six hundred men were confined in La Macarena bullring.79 The prisoners were accused of having participated in riots on April 9 and during the days that followed.80 Speaking on the radio, Governor Dionisio Arango Ferrer, a Conservative, conceded: “among the prisoners under suspicion there could be several innocent ones, perhaps many,” then assured his listeners that “there will be no injustice, but neither will there be impunity.”81

Figure 14.

Front page of the Medellin-based Liberal newspaper El Diario on Saturday, April 10, 1948. At the top of the page are the words “Título suprimido por la censura” (Headline Suppressed by the Censors). The word censurado (censored) appears in boldface six times on the same page, and two sections of the text have been redacted (image in the public domain, photograph by author)

Figure 14.

Front page of the Medellin-based Liberal newspaper El Diario on Saturday, April 10, 1948. At the top of the page are the words “Título suprimido por la censura” (Headline Suppressed by the Censors). The word censurado (censored) appears in boldface six times on the same page, and two sections of the text have been redacted (image in the public domain, photograph by author)

Medellín was unprepared for the sudden influx of hundreds of prisoners, and the government was incapable of taking care of their basic needs. Soon after their arrival, friends and family of the detainees gathered in the rain outside of La Ladera prison with food, clothing, bedding, and cigarettes for the inmates, but many (perhaps most) of the men who were incarcerated had no one locally to help.82 Although considered less dangerous, the men and adolescents confined to the bullring initially encountered what may have been a worse situation: they slept in a roofless structure for several days (it probably rained more than once) and did not receive food for seventy-two hours.83 Their first meal may have been on Sunday, April 19, when a brigade of twenty-six charitable women cooked sancocho (a hearty soup with meat, corn, potatoes, and yucca) for them.84

By Monday, April 19, some of the prisoners had been condemned to more than three years in jail, the minors moved to Fontidueño reformatory, and the majority of the detainees set free.85 Due to a lack of space in the reformatory, seventy-two adolescents were released. Within days twenty-two of them were rearrested for infractions against private property, presumably because they were not provided with food, shelter, or transportation home. A judge immediately set the twenty-two youths free again because there was nowhere to put them.86

Adult prisoners were required to pay one thousand pesos bail in order to obtain their freedom, a fee that would have been beyond the capacity of most Colombians.87 On April 22, two hundred men who had obtained unconditional release were transported by rail back to Puerto Berrío. The next day El Diario reported that the remaining detainees in La Macarena were being allowed to leave the bullring to eat with families in Medellín, at their own expense on the condition that they return by 5:00 p.m.88 According to Arturo Álape, the men who were still incarcerated and their allies waged a public opinion campaign protesting their situation until the last prisoners were finally released.89

* * *

Was Débora Arango really in Puerto Berrío shortly after Gaitán’s assassination to witness the loading of the accused rebels onto a train? To me it seems unlikely that she would have chosen to travel within days of Gaitán’s assassination, when political disturbances roiled most of the country, including Medellín. In order for Arango to have seen prisoners being loaded onto boxcars in the aftermath of Gaitán’s death, she probably would have had to have been there on April 14 or the morning of April 15. According to an article in El Diario on April 14, train service (the usual means of transportation between Medellín and Puerto Berrío during that era) had been halted and would not resume until the morning of April 15.90 It seems likely that Arango had witnessed something similar in Puerto Berrío a decade earlier and combined her memories with current events in Medellín.

In her analysis of Tren de la muerte, Sara Fernández suggests that Arango’s imagery may have been influenced by photographs of the Nazi Holocaust trains that circulated around the world during the Nuremberg Trials (1945–46).91 The photographs of trains transporting humans in cattle cars to concentration, labor, and extermination camps make visible the Nazi’s dehumanization of their victims (fig. 15). Given the date that Arango created the three paintings of prisoners being forcibly transported by train, it seems virtually certain that the photographs of Holocaust trains were consciously or unconsciously her model. Arango represented both male and female bodies in El vagón, even though only men and boys were brought in trains to Medellín; this detail, along with the titles of the other paintings—El tren de la muerte and Tren de la muerte—corroborates the connection to photographs of Nazi death trains.

Figure 15.

Philip Drell, photograph of bodies on the Dachau death train, April 29, 1945 (Photograph provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lilian Rosenthal)

Figure 15.

Philip Drell, photograph of bodies on the Dachau death train, April 29, 1945 (Photograph provided by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Lilian Rosenthal)

Is it significant that Arango painted Gaitán, Masacre del 9 de abril, El vagón, and El tren de la muerte in watercolor, a medium that can be effectively employed to record transient events at specific locations? In a continuum of documentary credibility for different media, photography is presumed to be the most truthful (despite our knowledge that it can be manipulated), followed by sketches. At the other end of the spectrum are carefully composed academic paintings. Peter Burke has observed that sketches “drawn directly from life, and freed from the constraints of the ‘grand style,’ are more trustworthy as testimonies than are paintings worked up later in the artist’s studio.”92 Watercolor shares the temporal and spatial connotations of the sketch. Until the 1920s, respected painters in Colombia did not use watercolor for finished paintings: the medium was relegated to sketches and mapmaking. Writing about the use of watercolor by a mid-nineteenth-century scientific expedition, when photography was a nascent technology that required bulky equipment, Carlos Arturo Fernández observes that because watercolor was a rapid process that required little equipment it was a good choice for the field. “It did not, of course, have an artistic purpose, only a documentary one, but this is precisely where its great value resides for later art.”93 Eladio Vélez and Pedro Nel Gómez, Arango's two former teachers, introduced watercolor as an autonomous media to Colombia in a two-man show in Bogotá in 1924. Arango, who frequently worked in watercolor, may have chosen the medium precisely because of its documentary associations and distance from the academic traditions of her country.

Visualizing Abuse of Power

In Cien años de solidad (One Hundred Years of Solitude) of 1967, Gabriel García Márquez portrayed the abuse of power by the Colombian government against striking laborers in favor of a foreign company.94 This part of his story is based on the massacre of striking banana workers in Ciénaga on December 6, 1928. In the novel, José Arcadio Segundo, who was wounded while peacefully participating in a strike, regains consciousness in a dark train car filled with the corpses of fellow strikers; the car is traveling by night without lights en route to the sea, where the bodies will be dumped to eliminate evidence of the massacre.

Many years later García Márquez wrote about the tie between family memories and what he wrote in his most famous novel:

I knew the event as if I had lived it, having heard it recounted and repeated a thousand times by my grandfather from the time I had a memory: the soldiers reading the decree by which the striking laborers were declared a gang of lawbreakers; the three thousand men, women, and children motionless under the savage sun after the officer gave them five minutes to evacuate the square; the order to fire, the clattering machine guns spitting in white-hot bursts, the crowd trapped by panic as it was cut down, little by little, by the methodical, insatiable scissors of the shrapnel.95

While conducting research for Cien años de solidad, García Márquez discovered that the number of strikers killed at Ciénaga was radically lower than in his grandfather’s account. Nevertheless, he chose to keep the elevated number of dead “in order to preserve the epic proportions of the drama.”96 He first disclosed the discrepancy in an interview on British television in 1990: “In a book where things are magnified, like One Hundred Years of Solitude…I needed to fill a whole railway with corpses. I couldn’t stick to historical reality. I couldn’t say there were three, or seven, or 17 deaths. They couldn’t even fill a tiny wagon. So I decided on 3,000 dead because that filled the dimension of the book I was writing.”97

Despite the fictionalization, for many people the story of the striking banana workers in Cien años de solidad is the authoritative historical account. At the end of his life García Márquez observed that on a recent anniversary of the tragedy a speaker in the Colombian Senate asked for a moment of silence “in memory of the three thousand anonymous martyrs sacrificed by the forces of law and order.”98

Like García Márquez’s tale of José Arcadio Segundo waking up on top of a heap of corpses in a moving train car, Arango’s depictions of wounded and dead bodies in boxcars are dramatizations. Part of the potency of the painter’s and the writer’s imagery comes from widespread familiarity with the photographs of Nazi death trains and the historical horrors they document and evoke.

García Márquez had almost certainly not seen El vagón, El tren de la muerte, or Tren de la muerte when he wrote Cien años de solidad. Arango exhibited one of these paintings (probably El vagón) in her solo exhibition in Madrid in 1955.99 The morning after the opening, the show was closed by Franco’s government. To my knowledge she did not exhibit any of the paintings depicting political prisoners in boxcars again until at least 1975.

El tren de la muerte is one of thirty paintings featured in Débora en plural, published in 2008 by the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, which owns 246 works by her.100 Although the museum commissioned new essays for the book, it paired El tren de la muerte with García Márquez’s passage about José Arcadio Segundo regaining consciousness in a dark boxcar filled with corpses. The conflation of the two incidents, separated by twenty years, links Arango to the more famous Nobel Prize–winning novelist.

Subjectivity and the Struggle against Political Amnesia

Sara Fernández asserts that Arango’s political paintings, “charged with a high degree of subjectivity, become carriers of a memory, of an individual or perhaps collective vision of national history in the period of la Violencia.”101 They “generate a type of visual fiction that does not oppose historical reality, but rather reinterprets, resignifies, and represents it.”102 Fernández’s observations are about Arango’s political paintings in general, not specifically about her depictions of political prisoners in trains, but her perceptions illuminate both the affective power of these works and the gap between what Arango depicted and what was recorded in 1948 about the events that prompted the images. Fernández defends the merits of pictures as historic documents, while warning that like all documents they need to be interrogated and should not be considered simple representations of objective knowledge. She acknowledges that art can be utilized as propaganda but emphasizes that some visual artists create images that impede collective amnesia.103

Using art as propaganda and making images that impede collective amnesia would normally be opposing endeavors, but Arango’s depictions of human bodies in boxcars are both. The three paintings that address this subject exaggerate the mistreatment of the rebels from Puerto Berrío and imply more horrific consequences than those recorded in the contemporary Liberal press. Yet the struggle against amnesia is highly pertinent to the discussion of these three artworks. While the Colombian government’s abuse of striking banana workers at Ciénaga in 1928 has been thoroughly documented in books about Colombian history in Spanish and other languages, published both in and outside of Colombia, what happened to the men and boys who were taken prisoner in Puerto Berrío and forcibly transported to Medellín on April 15, 1948, has only been documented in a limited way and is virtually unknown outside of the country.104 Arango’s three paintings are not a unique record of this event, but they provide the most powerful and best-known testimony about it. Through their visceral imagery they insist that the inhumane treatment of prisoners from Puerto Berrío deserves a larger place in history and memory.

In the decades immediately following the assassination of Gaitán, blame for the riots fell on the Gaitanistas as well as on communist instigators. The country’s politicians, who formed a brief ill-fated coalition government in which Ospina Pérez remained in power, did not criticize their own inept leadership or examine how the long-established systemic exclusion of the majority of Colombians from a more meaningful role in government provoked massive anger when the leader who embodied their hope for change was murdered.105 Liberals began to be villainized as potential anarchists who endangered the stability of the nation.106 The demonization of Gaitán’s followers, and by extension all Liberals, became part of the official explanation of the events of April 9. Arango’s paintings about the forced transport of political prisoners from Puerto Berrío to Medellín demand the acknowledgement of Conservative abuses of power after nueve de abril and, thus, are part of the dismantling of the oversimplification of the tragic events of 1948 and a protest against the marginalization of Liberals.

Other Images from 1948

Arango was one of a number of visual artists to respond to Gaitán’s death and what followed. Colombian newspapers published riveting black-and-white photographs of the Bogotazo and its aftermath: Gaitán unconscious at the clinic, mobs in the street, drunk men wielding machetes, soldiers firing rifles, overturned vehicles, flaming streetcars, burning buildings, looters carrying booty, bodies lying in the street, rows of corpses in the cemetery, and entire city blocks reduced to rubble. These photographs are frequently reproduced and have become an inseparable part of the national and international memory of the tragedy. The photographers—whose work was usually published without credit in the 1940s—include Sady González, Tito Julio Celis, Luis Alberto Gaitán (Lunga), and Manuel H. Rodríguez.107

Before 1948 references to political and social violence in Colombian art were almost nonexistent, but in addition to Arango at least three other Colombian painters recorded the rioting and its consequences soon after it occurred: Alejandro Obregón with Masacre del 10 de abril (Massacre of April 10), Alipio Jaramillo with 9 de abril (April 9), and Enrique Grau with El tranvía incendiado (The Streetcar in Flames), all from 1948.

Within a few years Alejandro Obregón and Fernando Botero would become the leading painters in Colombia, but in early April 1948 Obregón was a young artist preparing a solo exhibition in central Bogotá.108 At the moment that Roa Sierra fired the shots that killed Gaitán, Obregón was stepping off a trolley at the corner of Jiménez Avenue and Carrera Séptima, within hearing distance of the gunshots, and saw the violent reaction to the Liberal leader’s death. The painting that Obregón created about the experience, however, does not represent what happened on April 9, but what he witnessed the following day at the Cementerio Central, where soldiers and volunteers were burying hundreds of bodies of the victims of the riots in common graves. Years later he recalled: “I went to the cemetery and started to draw cadavers. I remember a beautiful face of a woman with her brains blown out, her mouth half open with a big gold tooth in the middle of her mouth, her face intact and the top of her skull blown away!…I was very close, drawing her, detail by detail, and suddenly a hand touched me and a voice said: ‘You are desecrating my daughter,’ it was her mother…I left.”109 From his sketches he developed Masacre del 10 de abril, a large semi-abstract oil painting representing cadavers, disembodied heads and legs, and clenched fists (fig. 16). At the front center of the canvas, the mutilated body of a dark-skinned baby lies atop a white shroud covering his mother, a pool of blood surrounding her head like a crimson halo. The image bears the obvious thematic and stylistic influence of Picasso’s Guernica (1936), the universal model for how to combine political protest and avant-garde style. Obregón exhibited Masacre del 10 de abril before it was finished, along with some of the preparatory sketches and other paintings in his solo show at the Sociedad Colombiana de Arquitectos, which opened in late April, approximately two weeks later than originally planned. In a review published in the prestigious Revista de las Indias, the Austrian-born critic Walter Engel wrote that Masacre del 10 de abril “throbs with the fright, the shock, the terror of the events that the artist saw as an eyewitness.”110

Figure 16.

Alejandro Obregón, Masacre del 10 de abril (Massacre of April 10), no date (1948), oil on canvas, 40½ x 57⅛ in. (103 x 145 cm). Collection of the Museo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá (photograph provided by the Museo Nacional de Colombia)

Figure 16.

Alejandro Obregón, Masacre del 10 de abril (Massacre of April 10), no date (1948), oil on canvas, 40½ x 57⅛ in. (103 x 145 cm). Collection of the Museo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá (photograph provided by the Museo Nacional de Colombia)

Less known than Arango’s and Obregón’s paintings, Alipio Jaramillo’s 9 de abril portrays a densely packed mob in a style indebted to Mexican muralism. On the right of the canvas, a man carrying a rifle strides forcefully toward the viewer; a long line of men wielding a variety of weapons follows him. A dead or dying naked woman in an advanced state of pregnancy dominates the left foreground. In the years that followed, a murdered pregnant woman became one of the recurring symbols of la Violencia in art.111 When Jaramillo exhibited 9 de abril in the fall of 1948, Engel harshly reviewed it.112

Obregón’s and Jaramillo’s images of the Bogotazo and its consequences represent women exclusively as victims, while Arango’s Masacre del 9 de abril portrays women as active participants: rioters as well as victims.113 Her Masacre del 9 de abril also differs from their work in the prominent place she gave to the church, friars, and nuns. Arango’s El vagón, El tren de la muerte, and Tren de la muerte are the only paintings from 1948 that address what happened outside of Bogotá in the aftermath of Gaitán’s assassination.

Just as Arango wanted to use Masacre del 9 de abril as the design for a fresco, Obregón wanted to transform Masacre del 10 de abril into a mural. Neither was able to do so. In the decades immediately following Gaitán’s death, Colombia was not yet ready to accept this as a suitable subject for public art. This is no longer entirely true. In a 2014 essay, Schuster noted that some displays in Colombian museums that deal with this period direct the viewers’ attention narrowly to one day in the capital, while underplaying the violence that took place throughout the nation—especially in rural areas—during the next fifteen years.114

While Obregón’s Masacre del 10 de abril and Jaramillo’s 9 de abril attracted attention in 1948, Arango’s political work did not. Santiago Londoño correctly points out that Arango’s political paintings “remained practically unknown to the public for close to twenty years.”115 There is a high probability that Gaitán, Masacre del 9 de abril, El tren de la muerte, and Tren de la muerte were not publically exhibited for decades, and that El vagón was only on display for a few hours in Madrid in 1955. The Arte y Política exhibition at the Museo de Arte de Bogotá in 1974 included one watercolor by Arango, which represented a working-class woman kissing the ring of a bishop during a religious procession.116 Arango’s first exhibition of overtly political paintings in Colombia was probably her retrospective at the Biblioteca Pública Piloto in Medellín in 1975 (fig. 17).117

Figure 17.

Installation view of Débora Arango’s retrospective at the Biblioteca Pública Piloto in Medellín in 1975. The photograph documents what may be the first exhibition in Colombia of her political paintings. Visible from left to right are the oil paintings Melgar, Rojas Pinilla, and Junta militar (Military Junta), (photograph provided by the Archivo Fotográfico of the Biblioteca Pública Piloto, Medellín)

Figure 17.

Installation view of Débora Arango’s retrospective at the Biblioteca Pública Piloto in Medellín in 1975. The photograph documents what may be the first exhibition in Colombia of her political paintings. Visible from left to right are the oil paintings Melgar, Rojas Pinilla, and Junta militar (Military Junta), (photograph provided by the Archivo Fotográfico of the Biblioteca Pública Piloto, Medellín)

Arango’s reputation as an artist has undergone dramatic changes over time. After a reasonably successful albeit highly controversial early career, she virtually disappeared from public notice from the late 1950s until the early 1980s (with the exception of her brief show at the Biblioteca Pública Piloto), even though she continued to make art. She withdrew from the art world in response to continued controversy surrounding her work and threats of excommunication, then was further marginalized by major shifts in the art world of Colombia. By the mid-1950s, the critic Marta Traba was vigorously promoting a younger generation of artists, especially Obregón and Botero, who were creating abstract art and new forms of figuration. By the late 1960s, Arango was a largely forgotten artist, so much so that she was omitted from the lengthy second edition of Diccionario de artistas en Colombia of 1979.118

Since Arango’s 1984 retrospective at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, which traveled to Bogotá and several other cities in Colombia, her paintings have been steadily exhibited in Colombia in numerous exhibitions, including the influential Arte y Violencia en Colombia desde 1948 at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá in 1999. In the twenty-first century, her paintings have been exhibited in a few important solo and group shows in Europe, Mexico, and the United States. During the last two decades of her life she received many prestigious national and regional awards and was twice awarded the Cruz de Boyacá, the highest peacetime honor the Colombian government can bestow. Since 2016 she has appeared on the two thousand peso bill, and her home in Envigado is being converted to a museum.119 The timing of the beginning of the new valorization of Arango’s art in the mid-1980s corresponds to the emergence of the New History of Colombia that employs a more critical examination of la Violencia.120 The simultaneous occurrence of these events is not coincidental.

Arango’s New Direction after 1948

Arango’s first five political paintings are the pivot on which her work changed direction. In these paintings she testified to events that she participated in (a Gaitán rally in Medellín), heard on the radio (the broadcasts of April 9), and saw or claimed to have seen (the transport of political prisoners in boxcars). Her subsequent political imagery is in some ways quite different: in the 1950s she assumed the role of commentator and critic, rather than witness. She employed satire, black humor, and animal imagery to condemn the political figures she considered most pernicious. For example, she depicted Laureano Gómez as an exhausted toad being carried away on a stretcher in 13 de junio, whose title memorializes the date of the coup d’état that ended his presidency in 1953 (fig. 18). A few years later she created Plebiscito (fig. 19), which evinces her negative opinion of the December 1, 1957 referendum on bipartisan government. Her skepticism was prompted, at least in part, by Laureano Gómez’s participation in the proposal. In Plebiscito he appears as an animal (a pig or fox?) being carried back to the public life of Colombia by cabezudo (big-headed) caricatures of the Liberal politician Alberto Lleras Camargo and the Conservative politician Guillermo León Valencia.121 Her even-handed ridicule of Lleras Camargo and Valencia suggests criticism of the political system in general, in a way that approaches Gaitán’s condemnation of the political elites of both parties.

Figure 18.

Débora Arango, 13 de junio (June 13), no date (c. 1953), watercolor, 14⅝ x 22 in. (37 x 56 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

Figure 18.

Débora Arango, 13 de junio (June 13), no date (c. 1953), watercolor, 14⅝ x 22 in. (37 x 56 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (photograph courtesy of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín)

Figure 19.

Débora Arango, Plebiscito (Plebiscite), no date (c. 1957), oil on canvas, 47⅝ x 60¼ in. (121 x 153 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, photograph by Carlos Tobón)

Figure 19.

Débora Arango, Plebiscito (Plebiscite), no date (c. 1957), oil on canvas, 47⅝ x 60¼ in. (121 x 153 cm). Collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín (permission to reproduce Arango’s painting granted by the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, photograph by Carlos Tobón)

Arango’s political paintings, which she began producing in 1948, became her most powerful imagery of the next decade.122 Together, the early and later political works recount the trajectory of Colombian history as a lived experience during the worst years of la Violencia, when approximately two hundred thousand Colombians lost their lives. Her visual chronicles convey immediate reactions that are simultaneously visceral and analytical. Arango’s first five political paintings, which are related to Gaitán or events that took place in the aftermath of his assassination, are the matrix of this remarkable political commentary and testimony to the power of the artist as witness.


I conducted research for this article in Colombia, where I received generous help from many people. I heartily thank the curators Emiliano Valdés and Dora Escobar for permission to reproduce paintings by Arango in the collection of the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín and for helping me with my research in a variety of ways. I am deeply grateful to Cecilia Londoño de Estrada for interviews, conversations, and permission to reproduce the works by Arango that belong to collections other than the Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín. The Biblioteca Luis Echavarría Villegas at the Universidad EAFIT in Medellín owns the extensive Débora Arango archives; for their knowledge, help, and friendship I thank María Isabel Duarte Gandica, Juan Carmona, Ruth Moncada, and Rigoberto Guzmán Osorio. Many other people in Colombia gave me interviews, information, photographs, and other forms of assistance. I especially wish to acknowledge Juan Manuel Cuartas Restrepo, Mariluz Donado Montoya, Gabriel Escalante Guzmán, Marta Fajardo de Rueda, Carlos Arturo Fernández Uribe, Sara Fernández Gómez, Jackeline García Chaverra, Efrén Giraldo, Beatriz González, Juan Manuel Gualteros Sánchez, Paola Londoño, Paola Andrea López González, Susana Mejía Restrepo, Nadia Moreno Moya, Jaime Pulido, Lina Ramírez, José Santiago Rendón Vera, Elizabeth Rivera, Mauricio Rodríguez, Oscar Roldán-Alzate, Santiago Rueda, Vedher Sánchez Bustamante, Alberto Sierra, María Yohem Taborda, Camila Uraneta Pignalosa, and Gustavo Vives.

I am deeply indebted to Herbert Braun, Kim Grant, and Daniel E. Nelson for reading and making astute suggestions on versions of this article, as well as to two anonymous readers for their constructive criticism. I thank editors Charlene Villaseñor Black and Emily A. Engel at Latin American and Latinx Visual Culture for their enthusiasm, guidance, and skill. Freelancer Beth Chapple contributed precise and graceful copy editing. Rosamaría Graziani provided extensive help with correspondence in Spanish. Outside Colombia I also wish to thank Florencia Bazzano, Francine Birbragher, Karen Cordero, Marguerite Feitlowitz, Dario Gamboni, Ana Garduño, Fred Hindler, Francisco Kochen, Tulio Rabinovich, Judy Rohr, and Susan Webster. I presented a paper about Arango’s first political paintings at the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Los Angeles in 2018. I made my first trip to Colombia during a sabbatical semester from San Diego State University with generous funding from the University Grants Program.



Alberto Sierra, interview with the author, April 8, 2016, Medellín; Vedher Sánchez Bustamante, interview with the author, November 25, 2019, Envigado, Colombia.


Yo fui pintando lo que fui viendo: relato de un país por Débora Arango, exh. cat. (Medellín: Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 2010).


Without citing a source for his information, Ángel Galeano H. claims that Arango’s friends and colleagues Carlos Correa and Rafael Sáenz accompanied her on sketching expeditions to the streets and bars of the marginal sectors of Medellín, places she could not visit by herself. Ángel Galeano H., Débora Arango: el arte, venganza sublime (Bogotá: Panamericano, 2010), 51–52.

Arango told a different story: “I never went to bars or walked through rough neighborhoods. When I went to collect the rent from my tenants or visit my dead [relatives] in the cemetery, I inevitably had to pass through the neighborhood of Guayaquil. There I saw the prostitutes in the street, with their long flowing hair, standing in the thresholds of bars. The drunks were also there, singing, yelling, or fighting. I saw them and, right away, I saw the painting. I composed [it] in my head and in the little notebook where I made sketches and when I arrived home I shut myself [in my studio] to paint. The Débora Arango who wandered through the slums and cantinas never existed. It was only a myth.” (“Nunca me metí a las cantinas ni fui a los barrios escabrosos. Cuando iba a cobrar los arriendos de mis locales o a visitar a mis muertos al cementerio tenía, inevitablemente, que pasar por el barrio Guayaquil. Allí veía a las prostitutas en la calle, con sus largas melenas, paradas en las puertas de las cantinas. También estaban los borrachos, cantando, gritando o peleando. Yo los veía y, enseguida, veía también el cuadro. Componía en mi cabeza y en la libreta donde hacía los bocetos y cuando llegaba a casa me encerraba pintar. La Débora Arango que deambuló por barrios bajos y cantinas nunca existió. Sólo fue un mito.” ) Arango cited by Marta Beltrán, “Los desvelados,” Gaceta, September / December, 1997), Except where otherwise noted, all translations from Spanish are mine but reviewed and revised by Rosamaría Graziani or Daniel E. Nelson.


The Liberals lost the presidential election in 1946 because their vote was split between Gaitán and Gabriel Turbay. After the Conservative victory, Turbay renounced politics and moved to France, leaving Gaitán in control of the Liberal party.


Herbert Braun, The Assassination of Gaitán: Public Life and Urban Violence in Colombia (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985), 3.


In addition to the publications I cite here, two exhibitions contributed greatly to my interest in Arango’s art. I first encountered her paintings in Inverted Utopias at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston in 2004. My first opportunity to view a substantial body of her work was Sociales: Débora Arango llega hoy at the Museum of Latin America Art in Long Beach in 2012.


Débora Arango, exposición retrospectiva, 1937–1984, exh. cat. (Medellín: Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 1984).


María Cristina Laverde Toscano, “Una pintora proscrita,” in Así hablan los artistas, ed. María Cristina Laverde Toscano and Álvaro Rojas de la Espriella (Bogotá: Fundación Universidad Central, 1986).


Santiago Londoño Vélez, Débora Arango: Vida de pintora (Bogotá: Ministerio de Cultura, República de Colombia), 1997.


Marta Elena Bravo de Hermelin, “Débora Arango: patrimonio vivo, patrimonio artístico,” in Débora Arango: Patrimonio vivo, patrimonio artístico, exh. cat. (Medellín: Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 2001), 4.


María del Carmen Suescun Pozas, “Modern Femininity, Shattered Masculinity. The Scandal of the Female Nude during Political Crisis in Colombia, 1930–1948” (PhD diss., McGill University, Montreal, 2005).


Sven Schuster, “La obra de Débora Arango sobre la Violencia: Un antídoto contra el olvido”/“Débora Arango’s Work on ‘The Violence’: An Antidote against Oblivion,” in Yo fui pintando, 24–44.


Sara Fernández Gómez, Historia y arte: una propuesta desarrollada en Débora Arango y sus obras sobre el período de la Violencia (Medellín: Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, 2016).


Christian Padilla, “El Bogotazo y los artistas colombianos,” April 10, 2013,; Sven Schuster, “El nueve de abril en la memoria visual de Colombia: del Bogotazo al Día Nacional de la Memoria y de la Solidaridad con las Víctimas,” in La nación expuesta: cultura visual y formación de la nación en América Latina, ed. Sven Schuster (Bogotá: Universidad del Rosario, 2014), 43–67.


Arturo Álape, “El 9 de abril en provincia,” in Historia política, 1946–1986, vol. 2 of Nueva historia de Colombia, ed. Álvaro Tirado Mejía (Bogotá: Editorial Planeta, 1989), 75–76.


Peter Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence, 2nd ed. (London: Reaktion Books, 2019).


Luisa Espino, “Beatriz González: ‘El arte dice cosas que la historia no puede contar,’” El Cultural, March 16, 2018; Marguerite Feitlowitz, “Interview with Doris Salcedo,”


“De política nada. Nunca hablamos de eso en casa.” Débora Arango and Santiago Londoño Vélez, Débora Arango: cuaderno de notas (Medellín: Tragaluz Editores, 2010), 20.


Arango and Londoño, Débora Arango, 20.


Quoted in Laverde, “Una pintora proscrita,” 46. The English translation is from Schuster, “Débora Arango’s Work,” 37.


“Nunca he vivido entre la política, ni me he interesado por ella. Es más, me considero apolítica. Para mí lo mismo es un godo que un liberal. Sin embargo, como vivimos en un medio en el que siempre suceden muchas cosas que de una u otra manera nos afectan, esos sucesos necesariamente se hacen presentes en la obra de un artista que piense y sienta como yo. Por esto sobre el período de la violencia, sobre la dictadura de Rojas, sobre personajes como Gaitán, Laureano Gómez, Bertha de Ospina…¿En razón de que?: sencillamente de que un artista, repito, no puede vivir alejado del mundo. Por el contrario, ese mundo, esa realidad que lo rodea se meten en su obra. A través de ella denunciamos y mostramos lo que sucede. Es nuestra manera de comprometernos con la sociedad. Consciente o inconscientemente lo hacemos.” Quoted in Laverde, “Una pintora proscrita,” 50.


Londoño, Débora Arango, 209.


“Yo con este modo de ser tan liberal .…[voté por Betancur] porque él es un humanista, a este país le hacen falta presidentes humanistas.” Quoted in Vedher Sánchez Bustamante, “La Débora nuestra de cada día,” El Colombiano, December 30, 1996.


Alberto Sierra described Arango as “bipartidista completamente” (completely bipartisan) and “liberal radical” (radical Liberal). Sierra, interview with the author, April 8, 2016.


Alberto Sierra M. and María del Rosario Escobar P., “Débora Arango: lo público y lo privado,” in Alberto Sierra Maya, Débora Arango (Bogotá: Ediciones, 2011), 27.


“Cuando el maestro Pedro Nel Gómez realizó los frescos del Palacio Municipal de Medellín, comprendí que esa era mi escuela y que ese era mi maestro.“ Arango, quoted in Pick [pseud.], ”Débora Arango, pintora realista que obtuvo el primer premio en la exposición de Medellín,” La Razón (October 10, 1940), reproduced in Débora Arango, exposición retrospectiva, 30–31.


“Si hubiera seguido pintando con Pedro Nel, hoy sería una imitadora, pero mi estilo, mi color, mi temática son diferentes.” Arango, quoted in Londoño, Débora Arango, 60.


Londoño, 78.


“obra impúdica que firma una dama y que ni siquiera un hombre debería exhibir.” L. de P., “Una exposición de cuadros,” La Defensa (Medellín), November 27, 1939, reprinted in Débora Arango, exposición retrospectiva, 7.


Christian Padilla, “Jorge Eliécer Gaitán: dinamita y mecha en el arte colombiano,”


“Bogotá juzgará a Débora Arango,” Antioquia Nueva (Medellín), October 12, 1940, Débora Arango Pérez (DAP) archives at the Biblioteca Luis Echavarría Villegas at the Universidad EAFIT (hereafter cited by call number, in this case DAP 64, folio 1).


“Me recibió muy bien, me organizó la exposición en el Colón de la mejor forma, me decía ‘Adelante Débora que Ud. va a llegar muy lejos.’ Fue como una pequeña luz en mi vida.” Quoted in C. Peláez González, “Débora. ‘No me perdonaron nunca,’” Señorial (June 1985), 9 (DAP 62, f. 12).


The cover of the catalog states that Arango is exhibiting thirteen watercolors, but the interior lists fifteen paintings. Débora Arango Pérez expone 13 acuarelas en el Teatro Colón (Bogotá: Ministerio de Educación Nacional, Dirección de Extensión Cultural y Bellas Artes, 1940).


For a thorough discussion of the reception of Arango’s art in Bogotá in 1940, see Londoño, Débora Arango, 93–124.


Álvaro Medina has unequivocally stated that Gómez wrote the editorials in El Siglo, without the qualifying “usually.” Álvaro Medina, El arte colombiano de los años veinte y treinta (Bogotá: Colcultura, 1995), 289.


“Desafío al buen gusto,” El Siglo (Bogotá), October 10, 1940, reprinted in Débora Arango, exposición retrospectiva, 34.


“La culpa de esa degeneración artística no puede recaer sobre la señorita Arango…Ella es tan sólo víctima de las influencias perniciosas y antiestéticas que viene ejerciendo el ministerio de Educación.” “Desafío al buen gusto,” 34.


Suescun Pozas, “Modern Femininity, Shattered Masculinity,” 204.


Suescun Pozas, 139.


Suescun Pozas, 140–43.


Suescun Pozas, 191–92.


“Innoble contubernio,” El Siglo (Bogotá), October 20, 1940, 4.


“Desgraciadamente [los cuadros] estaban firmados por nombre de mujer. Se reunía allí dos cosas que debían ser respetables y que no podían ser mezcladas en una exposición deshonesta: la feminidad y la autoridad. Ese contubernio innoble muestra el abismo hacia donde el país está siendo empujado.”


Laureano Gómez, “El expresionismo como síntoma de pereza e inhabilidad en el arte,” Revista Colombiana (Bogotá) 8, no. 85 (January 1, 1937): 385–92.


“No, del Colón no, ¡ehhh! ¡¡¿Con Gaitán?!! Eso fue en otra sala.” Quoted in Peláez, “Débora,” 9.


“Yo no sabía que usted fuera tan importante, sus pinturas me costaron una hora de discusión con Laureano Gómez.” Quoted in Londoño, Débora Arango, 112.


Suescun Pozas, “Modern Femininity, Shattered Masculinity,” 85.


Frank Safford and Marco Palacios, Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 281.


David Bushnell estimates that sixty to seventy-five people died at Ciénaga that day. David Bushnell, The Making of Modern Colombia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 180.


Bushnell, Making of Modern Colombia, 198.


James D. Henderson, Modernization in Colombia: The Laureano Gómez Years, 1889–1965 (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2001), 293.


“Nunca en Colombia la plaza pública había tenido un poder tal como el que tuvo en los días de Gaitán, a veces con movilizaciones que tenían el aire de fiesta popular, otras el rostro de la tragedia que avecinaba […] Fue el ruido de las calles el que hizo presentir su ascenso irreversible.” Gonzalo Sánchez G., Los días de la revolución: gaitanismo y 9 de abril en provincia (Bogotá: Centro Cultural Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, 1983), 14.


The undated watercolor entitled Gaitán clearly refers to the Pan-American conference, but Gaitán was prevented from participating in it. The Conservative president Mariano Ospina Pérez invited both Conservative and Liberal delegates, but pointedly excluded Gaitán. The painting has often been dated 1948, presumably because this is when the conference took place, but the preparations for this international gathering began years in advance, and Arango could have painted Gaitán before 1948. Nadia Moreno Moya, conversation with author, March 30, 2016, Bogotá; Henderson, Modernization in Colombia, 308.


Braun, Assassination of Gaitán, 36–37.


Cecilia Londoño de Estrada, interview with the author, August 24, 2017, Envigado, Colombia.


Gabriel García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale, trans. Edith Grossman (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 278.


García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale, 278–79.


Braun, Assassination of Gaitán, 134–35.


Bushnell, Making of Modern Colombia, 204.


Henderson, Modernization in Colombia, 310; García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale, 281.


Braun, Assassination of Gaitán, 158.


Braun, 145, 157, 201.


Braun, 150–52.


Braun, 171.


“Mira, cuando mataron a Gaitán, no había televisión, por supuesto, y me puse a escuchar por radio todo lo que sucedía en Bogotá: la forma como asesinaron a Gaitán, lo ocurrido con su asesino, las mujeres en las torres de las iglesias echando a volar las campanas, las monjas saliéndose de los conventos […] Todo lo que describían lo iba pintando.” The ellipsis is in the original. Quoted in Laverde, “Una pintora proscrita,” 49.


Schuster identifies the man on the stretcher as Gaitán. Schuster, “La obra de Débora Arango,” 34.


“Yo tenía mucha facilidad para pintar en acuarela y llegar de ésta al mural es muy fácil. En un mural se puede expresar más que en un cuadro. […] Sin darme cuenta terminé haciendo un boceto para ‘fresco’ y me repetía ‘¡Ay, que algún día yo pueda convertir esto en un mural! Mucha gente entendería, a través de él, el significado de esta absurda violencia.’ Jamás lo logré.” Quoted in Laverde, “Una pintora proscrita,” 49.


After Arango returned from her trip to Mexico, she painted two studies for murals in the garage of her home in Envigado and a mural titled Recolectores de fique (Sisal pickers) in the office of Compañía Nacional de Empaques de Medellín, a business owned by relatives, in Envigado. The building with Recolectores de fique is now an office of the Éxito supermarket chain.


“Para Débora Arango, Orozco es superior a Rivera,” Raza (Medellín), December 1946, reproduced in Débora Arango, exposición retrospectiva, 66–67.


In 1940 Arango said that her work belonged to the Expressionist school of art. Many years later, after her work had become more expressionistic than it was in 1940, she opined: “Some say that for many reasons my latest painting can be classified as expressionism, but actually, when I commit myself to painting, I don’t try to follow any particular visual school but the stories that I myself conceive, and my ideas in relation to life.” (“Algunas dicen que mi última pintura puede clasificarse por muchas razones dentro del expresionismo pero en realidad cuando me dedico a la pintura no trato de seguir ninguna escuela pictórica determinada sino la trama de mi propia concepción, de mis ideas con relación a la vida.”) Rodrigo Sangiral, “Débora Arango,” El colombiano literario, undated clipping [written after she returned from Spain in 1955], DAP 61, f. 31; “Débora Arango, una discípula del expresionismo,” El Espectador, October 3, 1940, reprinted in Débora Arango, exposición retrospectiva, 26–27.


Although Antioquia was a traditionally Conservative department, in the presidential election of 1946 Gaitán won the electoral support of workers in Puerto Berrío and several other peripheral towns in the department. Mary Roldán, Blood and Fire: La Violencia in Antioquia, Colombia, 1946–1953 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002), 53.


Londoño, Débora Arango, 167.


“seres con sus rostros de espanto y angustia, con sus cuerpos, ultrajados y amontonados como bestias, partían, en lo que para el artista […] fue el Tren de la Muerte.” Bravo, “Débora Arango,” 4.


“Cae el primer grupo de terroristas comunistas,” El Colombiano (Medellín), April 13, 1948, 1; “Cayeron Puerto Berrío y Bolombolo en poder de las fuerzas del gobierno,” El Colombiano, April 13, 1948, 1, 2.


“Título suprimido por la censura: Alfonso López se ríe del ‘golpe comunista,’” El Diario (Medellín), April 10, 1948, 1.


Álape, “El 9 de abril,” 76.


Bushnell, Making of Modern Colombia, 203–4.


“2 trenes cargados de detenidos arribaron esta tarde a Medellín,” El Diario, April 15, 1948, 1.


Alberto Yepes, “Cómo viven hacinados en la cárcel los detenidos a raíz de la asonada,” El Diario, April 17, 1948, 1.


A train conductor from Puerto Berrío gave an eyewitness account to a reporter from El Diario about what happened in the river port on April 9 and the following days, a narrative that confirmed some and contradicted other sources. According to the conductor, at 7:00 p.m. on April 9 the town was in the control of the rebels. Fires damaged two stores, and local businesses were looted. The Conservative mayor, Luis Cárcamo Jaramillo, of the Liberal town was taken prisoner but not assassinated, as erroneously reported by the Conservative press. (Another article in El Diario stated that the mayor was not in Puerto Berrío on April 9; when he returned the following day, he was taken to Santander for his safety.) The rioters took over the Hotel Magdalena and prepared themselves a rich banquet with fine alcohol. Machinery at the railroad station was damaged, but the warehouses were not; boats and stockpiles of coffee were unharmed. On April 11 two airplanes with white flags dropped messages telling the townspeople to surrender. The following night, the army attacked the town from the north, south, and west. Despite intense gunfire, the rebels resisted until midday on April 13, when the army occupied the town. At least seven people died and many were wounded. “Algunos muertos en la ocupación de Berrío,” El Diario, April 14, 1948, 1; “El 9 de abril no había autoridades en la población de Puerto Berrío,” El Diario, April 23, 1948, 7.


“que entre los presos por sospecha puede haber varios inocentes, quizá muchos. […] No habrá injusticias, pero tampoco habrá impunidad.” “Antioquia. Prisión sin rejas,” Semana (Bogotá), April 24, 1948, 27.


Yepes, “Cómo viven hacinados.”


Álape, “El 9 de abril,” 75. In Colombia there is a relationship between altitude and temperature. The prisoners, who were transported from the hot climate of Puerto Berrío (at only 324 feet above sea level) and incarcerated in the open-air bullring in Medellín (at 4,900 feet) during one of the city’s two rainy seasons, suffered from the lower temperatures.


“Suculento sancocho y serenata ofreció el pueblo a los presos,” El Diario, April 19, 1948, 3.


“Trasladados hoy a la Casa de Menores los detenidos del circo,” El Diario, April 10, 1948, 1.


“‘Chinches’ liberados provisionalmente han vuelto a las andadas,” El Diario, April 22, 1948, 7.


Carolina Rúa C., “Llamamiento a la caridad en favor de los detenidos,” El Diario, April 20, 1948, 8. To put the cost of one thousand pesos bail in perspective, the first national minimum wage was set at two pesos a day in 1949. “Salarios minimos en América Latina,” Investigación económica 14, no. 4 (1954):625.


“El 9 de abril no había autoridades,” 1.


Álape, “El 9 de abril,” 76.


“Algunos muertos,” 1.


Fernández, Historia y arte, 133.


Burke, Eyewitnessing, 19–20.


“No se trataba, por supuesto, de obras que tuvieran una pretensión artística sino documental, pero en ello radica precisamente, su mayor valor para el arte posterior.” Carlos Arturo Fernández Uribe, “La acuarela y el fresco en la formación de Débora Arango,” in Débora Arango, una revolución inédita del arte colombiano (Bogotá: Instituto Cultural Cabañas, 2007).


Gabriel García Márquez, Cien años de solidad (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1967).


García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale, 14–15.


García Márquez, 62–63.


Gabriel García Márquez, interviewed by Julio Roca on British television in 1990, quoted by Eduardo Posada-Carbó, “Fiction as History: The bananeras and Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Journal of Latin American Studies 30, no.2 (May 1998), 396.


García Márquez, Living to Tell the Tale, 63.


Vagón de la muerte was one of twenty-eight watercolors in the show. The title is similar to but not an exact match to El vagón. The two titles probably refer to the same work, but the absence of photographs in the catalog makes it impossible to know this with certainty. Exposición de acuarelas: Débora Arango, exh. cat. (Madrid: Instituto de Cultura Hispánica, 1955).


Débora en plural (Medellín: Museo de Arte Moderno de Medellín, 2008), 58–61.


“cargadas de un alto grado de subjetividad, se convierten en portadoras de una memoria, de una visión propia o quizá colectiva de la historia nacional en el período de la Violencia.” Fernández, Historia y arte, 108.


“generan una especie de ficción visual que no se opone a la realidad histórica, sino que por el contrario la reinterpreta, resignifica y representa.”


Fernández, Historia y arte, 37.


Álape includes three paragraphs about the political prisoners from Puerto Berrío in “El 9 de abril en provincia,” 75–76. I assume that other publications in Colombia have discussed this event, but I have yet to encounter them.


Throughout the early and mid twentieth century, Colombia had an unusual form of democracy. A revised constitution in 1936 granted suffrage to all males, but their vote, as before 1936, was still limited to choosing the president of the country. Other political positions—including the Senate, the Chamber of Representatives, and departmental assemblies—were determined by lists created by party bosses. A politician’s chance of obtaining a position depended on his place on the list and the percentage of votes that his party won. Governors, mayors, and judges were appointed. Political candidates were not required to have any tie to the part of the country they represented. This system, as Braun observes, provided a way for politicians to insulate “themselves from the voting power of their followers; they did not feel accountable to the people.” Braun, Assassination of Gaitán, 24.


Fernández, Historia y arte, 129.


Personal correspondence with Herbert Braun, May 31, 2018; Mario Jursich Durán, ed., Archivo Gaitán: Luis Alberto Gaitán “Lunga” (Bogotá: FCE, 2018), 12.


Nineteen forty-eight was also a pivotal year for Alejandro Obregón. In addition to his solo show, he was unexpectedly appointed director of the Escuela de Bellas Artes de Bogotá and curated an exhibition of contemporary art for the Museo Nacional de Colombia. Referring to shifts in Bogotá’s art world, Walter Engle called 1948 “a peak year under the sign of Alejandro Obregón” (“un año cumbre bajo el signo de Alejandro Obregón”). Juan Gustavo Cobo Borda, “Alejandro Obregón,” Poliantea 9, no. 16 (2013), 265.


“Fui al cementerio y me puse a dibujar cadáveres. Recuerdo un hermoso rostro de mujer con los sesos volados, la boca entreabierta un gran diente de oro en la mitad de la boca, intacto el rostro y ¡la tapa del cráneo en el carajo! […] yo estaba muy cerca, dibujándola, detalle por detalle, y de pronto una mano que me toca y me dice: ‘Ud. está profanando a mi hija’, era la madre […] yo me fui.” The ellipses are in the original. Alejandro Obregón, cited in Padilla, “El Bogotazo.” The original source of this remarkable account is Fausto Panesso, Los intocables: Botero, Grau, Negrete, Obregón, Ramírez V. (Bogotá: Ediciones Alcaraván, 1975), 85.


“palpitan el espanto, la conmoción, el terror de los sucesos que el artista presenció como testigo ocular.” Walter Engel, cited in Padilla, “El Bogotazo,” 4.


Halim Badawi, “Masacre del 9 de abril, Débora Arango,” Arcadia 100, January 23, 2014,


Padilla, “El Bogotazo.”


Badawi, “Masacre del 9 de abril.”


Schuster, “El nueve de abril,” 43–67.


“prácticamente permanecieron desconocidas para el público durante cerca de veinte años.” Londoño, Débora Arango, 206.


The exhibition catalog identifies the painting as Caridad (Charity), but the painting is better known by other titles: La procesión (Procession), El Obispo (The Bishop), and La indulgencia (The Indulgence). Arte y política, exh. cat. (Bogotá: Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá, 1974), 7, 12.


The catalog to the retrospective does not provide a list of works, but two photographs of the installation confirm that political paintings were included. While Arango’s first five political paintings do not appear in either photograph, it is likely that some or all of them were among the approximately one hundred works shown.


Beatriz González, “La historia entre líneas,” in Débora Arango, exposición retrospectiva, 91–92.


Nancy Deffebach, “The Art of Débora Arango: From Censorship to Canonization in Colombia,” in Proceedings of the 34th World Congress of Art History, ed. Shao Dazhen, Fan Di’an, and LaoZhu (Beijing: Commercial Press, 2019).


Fernández, Historia y arte, 92, 101.


The identities of many of the animals in Arango’s political paintings are ambiguous. For example, Santiago Londoño observes that the five beasts in Junta militar “look like wolves or apes with hungry eyes.” Vedher Sánchez calls the same figures chimpanzees, and I see them as Tasmanian devils. “Por momentos parecen lobos o simios de ojos ávidos,” Londoño, Débora Arango, 201; Sánchez, “La Débora nuestra de cada día.”


Arango also painted a few political paintings after la Violencia, including, but not limited to, Doña Bertha and the unfinished Doña Bertha y Belisario.