It was 1956 and the times were tough in Bogotá. For nearly ten grueling years, Colombia had suffered through a dark time in its history that came to be known as the Violence. The conflict was triggered by an intense clash between the country’s Liberal and Conservative political factions. Thousands of Colombians were killed during this period between 1948 and about 1960. Some estimate that as many as 250,000 lives were lost. The Violence served as a point of departure for Alejandro Obregón’s painting, The Dead Student – sometimes called The Vigil – from 1956. The son of a Colombian diplomat, Obregón was lucky to weather much of the Violence abroad, living in France from 1949 until 1954. But he was hardly unaffected by the turmoil.
The Dead Student is an arresting image executed in angry reds, velvety gray-tones, brilliant blues, and surprising flashes of white and lavender. In person, this large canvas—measuring 55 by 69 inches—demands the viewer’s attention. The composition is dominated by the figure of the dead student, laid out on a table top as though at a wake. Obregón suggestively animates the dead body through a series of spatial distortions. The table-top is portrayed at a sharp angle, almost from above, and the student’s legs fold and splay to the side. Yet his head and torso remain completely in profile. Indeed, the body’s movement or stillness is left visually uncertain, seemingly suspended between life and death. Is the far leg lolling off the table, or is it kicking upwards in a final spasm? Obregón leaves this determination to the viewer.
Obregón painted the student’s flesh in translucent crimson and orange pigments, revealing shadowed gray bones underneath, reminiscent of X-ray images. The arm and rib bones are exposed and the right leg is gruesomely broken. The rough brushwork across the body is suggestive of tightly-wrought muscle fibers and ligaments. Emblems of death and identity accompany the student’s body. Beside him are funeral flowers and a chalice that suggests Christian communion—wine as the blood of Christ, given in the ultimate sacrifice. This is a fitting reference to Colombia’s largely Catholic population. The rooster standing at the student’s side can be seen as a symbol of national pride or of sacrifice.
Like much of Obregón’s oeuvre, The Dead Student is deeply rooted in his identity as a modern Colombian artist working as part of an international avant-garde. Here, he does not shy away from the dark realities of his time, but rather honors the memory of this dead student – and countless others – through the visual drama of color and form.
By Lindsay DuPertuis.