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campus art: Haag Hall murals tell of Spanish heritage

Many UMKC students pass the murals every day, while some have never seen them at all. They have been a part of the UMKC campus for 72 years. They are the Fresco murals in Haag Hall, painted by Luis Quintanilla, UMKC’s first “artist-in-residence,” and his story is anything but ordinary.

In October 1934, Quintanilla hosted the revolutionary committee of the October Revolution in Spain, and as a result began a prison term that lasted eight months, four days and three hours. Joined with other leaders, Ernest Hemingway facilitated Quintanilla’s release, distributing petitions and arranging protests that sparked a movement.

Quintanilla was appointed commander of the barracks when the Spanish Civil War started in 1936, and led the attack that saved Madrid. Juan Negrin, the Premier of the Spanish Republic, assigned him to draw a series of depictions of the war, but when the Spanish Republic fell in 1939, he was forced into exile for more than 37 years, only to return to Madrid during the last two years of his life.

The artistry that Quintanilla practiced in the United States functioned as a healing process for his painful experience in Spain. Many of the figures in the Haag Hall murals were based on real people Quintanilla met at UMKC. He used many students and faculty members as models.

According to UMKC Archives, Former UMKC President, Dr. Clarence Decker, recommended that Quintanilla use the theme, “Don Quixote in the Modern World.”

The Chief Engineer at UMKC, Carl Kurtz, made the wall preparations for Quintanilla to begin his masterpiece. Kurtz wound up serving as the model for Sancho Panza, and Head of the English Department Alexander Cappon was the model for Don Quixote.

“I arrived here sad and demoralized,” Quintanilla said in a letter to Hemingway of his arrival to America. “I didn’t know whether I should commit suicide or get married, which is to prolong life. I married. I didn’t know whether to take to alcohol or work, and I worked.”

“Little by little I took from my palette the bitter memories of Spain and, by dint of brush strokes, I came to find myself an individual again and to love colors as old friends who for a long time have been forgotten,” he wrote.

The murals are located on the second floor of Haag Hall, and consist of six panels that cover 375 square feet of wall space.

“I was on campus recently, turned the corner and saw them, and it was like I was 19 years old again, loitering in between classes and absolutely transfixed by the painting,” Jennifer Wilding, Graduate of 1982, told Perspectives, the UMKC Alumni Magazine,  last fall.

The murals are captivating, featuring deep, rich, smooth colors, expressive faces and bodies in motion. It is easy to become lost in them if you just stop to look.

Quintanilla’s son, Paul, has a website dedicated to his father at www.lqart.org.

According to the site, one of the murals depicts Don Quixote standing in the middle of the people “he most admires, abstracted and dreamily distant in his pose and appearance.”

“Poets, philosophers, statesmen, beautiful women, artists, happy children, ideal humanity surrounds him as he dreams oblivious to the whirling of society ‘in its own fantastic carnival dance,’ as my father explained it,” he wrote in the panel’s caption.

Paul Quintanilla is seen wearing a tiny hat in one of the paintings. He is held by his mother with a bird in her hair, who is next to his father, Luis Quintanilla, in a complete family self portrait within the mural.

jturner@unews.com

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