Beauty in Medellín evolves around skin and texture. From the giant billboards with scantily clad models as one swerves the curves from the airport, to the shiny bronze torsos of Fernando Botero’s sculptures, the capital of Antioquia takes body culture to new heights. Head out to one of the city’s many gyms and you can appreciate beauty-conscious paisas walking treadmills, many of whom are enhanced – from buttock to bust – by a plastic surgeon’s knife. So, its never been coincidence that when we look at Medellín’s beauty aesthetic, we see a very contemporary take on modernism which began in this city back in the 1950s.

Medellín has been ripe material for the modernist ‘shock of the new’ and so it was, in this industrial valley, that talent such as Debora Arango (1907- 2005) Pedro Nel Gómez (1899-1984) and Fernando Botero (b.1932) transformed the city into the center of the country’s modern art movement.

Medellín’s modernists were drawn to the social double standard of their times. Brothels and bars operated next to cathedrals and convents. A staunchly-Catholic landowning elite seemed permissive of their ‘madames’ while intolerant of those who threatened  control over their feudal land.

A painting by Debora Arango – Los que Entran y Los que Salen (Those that enter and those that exit) – painted in strong sickly colors with large brush strokes-  adds a sinister edge of Medellin’s sexually-charged reality; and suggestive of an inherent condition of violence.

Arango’s paintings are strong, exuberant and painful in their representation of marginalized people caught in vulnerable moments. Throwing down her habit and rosary, the novice in La Huida del Convento (Flight from the convent) caresses her hair, naked, for the first time discovering her voluptuous figure as her former sisters shrink into the distance. “Debora’s view of the human drama was so direct, so intense and immediate that the culture of her own time could not understand,” says Carlos Arturo Fernando, professor of the Faculty of Art at the University of Antioquia. “She (Arango) dared to paint all that was happening in an age when this was ignored. She felt an artist had an obligation to tell the world the truth,” claims art curator Julietta Restrepo.

Arango’s work earned her censure from Medellín society and a church which considered her nudes immoral. Debora – a devote Catholic – disappeared from view for thirty years until ‘rediscovered’ this century thanks to an exhibition at Medellín’s Modern Art Museum. “It is impossible not to see her relevance today as her themes are still current: The situation of women is the same as there is a lot of prostitution in this city and advertisements featuring the female body to sell products; the problems with religion and politics are the same, as is the poor treatment of workers,” believes Restrepo.

Modernism flourished in Medellín after Pedro Nel Gómez, who focused on man and his conflicts – particularly in gold mining – and Ignacio Gómez Jaramillo – who introduced cubist elements to Colombian art circles – challenged academic and traditionalist art in the 1930s. “It is easier for second cities to move away from traditional formats that rigidly govern output in capital cities: Artists can be more daring and protest more easily,” says Restrepo. With no art tradition to be corrupted in Medellín, painters such as Botero and Arango who studied abroad returned with their vanguard ideas to the city. It was something their peers in Bogotá could not embrace.

Modern art found a niche in Medellín because within the context of public disorder: “It obliges us to be conscious of what happens in reality,” states Ferdinand. “The city has such a curious history with violence, even though we are in an apparently peaceful time. The inheritance of drug culture is reflected in the work and the ‘narco’ theme is very alive as an aesthetic women should follow – to show their luxury and wealth.”

The iconic rotund figures of Colombia’s most famous artist, Ferdinand Botero are loaded with subtle-pointed references. “Botero is ironic and sarcastic, and his paintings are elaborate, conceptualized and very intellectual. Most people think Botero is decorative but there is a deeper analysis of society at play that culturally, for us, is very profound,” states Ferdinand.

Social conscience runs strong in contemporary Medellín-based artists such as Carlos Uribe, photographer Jesus Abad Colorado and multi-media artist Libia Posada’s bruised faces of battered women. Concerned about their city, from its grounded beauty to its seedy underside – Medellin’s living ‘modernists’ understand that beauty is as much about skin as it is about emotions.