Last updateMon, 08 Dec 2014 1pm

Cabañas Institute celebrates a most unconventional artist, lover of the outdoors

Works by one of Mexico’s most unorthodox personalities, artist Gerardo Murillo (“Dr. Atl”), are gracing several rooms of the stately Cabañas Cultural Institute and should be considered a “must” by anyone with more than just a passing interest in this nation’s art history.

Born in the San Juan de Dios barrio of Guadalajara in 1875, Murillo features high up on Mexico’s artistic hierarchy, partly because his talents were not solely restricted to art – he was also an accomplished author, poet, explorer, philosopher, historian, geologist and volcanologist.

His interests seemed never ending. His greatest, a love of nature and the outdoors, led him to spend hour after hour visiting and studying Mexico’s volcanos, which he painted with gleeful abandon. At least one-third of the works on view in the Cabañas exhibit are colorful representations of the glories of Mexico’s countryside. Easily the most dramatic series of paintings – his “epiphany,” one critic called them – show the eruption of the Paricutín volcano in Michoacan in 1943. It was during this event that he injured a leg that later had to be amputated.

The traditional image Mexicans have of Murillo comes from old black-and-white newsreels – some included in the exhibit – showing a craggy, one-legged, bearded man nestled in a rolling landscape, easel and brush in hand, earnestly dabbing paint onto a canvass. In several interviews for television conducted as his life approached its close, he comes across as world wise and world weary, but with that spark in the eye that few really creative people ever lack.

Murillo was anything but a sedate young man. A few years after moving to Mexico City to study art, he received a grant from President Porfirio Diaz to continue his apprenticeship in Europe. The exposure to the “old world” at the dawn of the 20th century transformed his life. He enrolled in the University of Rome to study philosophy and became involved with Italian socialists, once receiving a terrific beating at the hands of police during a political demonstration.

During this time he was baptized by Argentine poet Leopoldo Lugones (with champagne, no less) as “Dr. Atl” – the Náhuatl world for water and a reference, he later explained, to his experience crossing the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean. His art blossomed and in 1900 he won a silver medal for a self portrait (he produced many during his lifetime) at the Salon de Paris.

Murillo returned to Mexico after six years in Europe and started teaching at the Academia de San Carlos, where he had earlier been a student. His political activism intensified, and in 1906 he issued a manifesto calling for the development of a monumental public art movement in Mexico. This became a precursor to the mural movement of the 1920s, although Murillo showed scant interest himself in the muralist genre.

Murillo braved the ocean again in 1911 after the dictator Diaz was ousted and Mexico slipped into revolutionary turmoil. He remained in Paris until Victoriano Huerta’s coup d’état brought him scurrying home to join up with the Constitutionalists of Venustiano Carranza. In July 1914, under instructions from Carranza, Murillo met with the “Caudillo del Sur,” Emiliano Zapata, to ask him to unite with the Constitutionalist forces. After accepting the proposal, Zapata remarked that Murillo was the only person he had ever met allied to Carranza whom he trusted.

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