Driving in Mexico
My husband and I were traveling down the two-lane Pan American Highway in 1961, on our second trip driving through Mexico. This time we were heading for the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, a long way from Philadelphia. We were thrilled to arrive at a lookout point high in the mountains above Oaxaca. We'd driven through clouds, along a circuitous route comprised of all hairpin turns. I remember looking out the passenger window—down thousands of feet—but I don't remember seeing any guard rails. And there were always those stories of speeding Mexican buses to beware of on these serpentine roads.
¿Quién es eso artista?
This was the question I asked of the dignified man standing next to an elegant car at the place where we had just pulled off the road: "Who is that artist?" An old man was working on a magnificent, large landscape.
The man's answer, delivered in sonorous tones, was "Dr. Atl, el principal pintor de Méjico." (Dr. Atl, the foremost painter of Mexico.)
[Photograph by Margery Niblock (1961)]
Dr. Atl was a little way down the mountainside. He had only one leg, and his crutches were visible right next to him. I was able to walk down the mountain just far enough to get his picture, without disturbing him.
The gentleman who had answered my question looked like he was the painter's chauffeur. An air of great importance was imparted by this scene, literally in the middle of nowhere. There was nothing on this road. And there would be nothing until Oaxaca was reached.
Gerardo Murillo was born in Guadalajara 1875. Murillo took the name "Atl," which means water in the Náhuatl language used by the Aztecs. He chose the name after the ship he was on survived a violent storm while crossing the Atlantic. The Argentine poet Leopoldo Lugones added the appelation "Doctor," after Murillo received his doctorate of philosophy at the University of Rome, a name that Atl retained for the rest of his life.
This is a photo of Dr. Atl from Virginia Stewart's book 45 Contemporary Mexican Artists, taken by Edward Weston in 1926. It's interesting that the last three letters of Náhuatl are also his chosen name.
These three self-portraits depict the artist between the ages of twenty-four and eighty-three.
A Fascination with Volcanoes
In addition to being a fine painter, Atl also became a noted volcanologist. When in Europe, he climbed Mt. Etna, living on it for four months so he could study it. He climbed Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl, spending six months inside the crater of Popocatepetl. Atl did many paintings of the two volcanoes located in the spectacular Valley of Mexico, visible from Mexico City. Dr. Atl's mural of a view of the ancient Valley of Mexico and Tenochtitlán, painted in 1930, is in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.
Sadly, the visibility of these magnificent volcanoes has diminshed greatly because of smog and pollution. It's a rare occurrence now to see what used to be an everyday vista. CENAPRED, Centro Nacional de Prevención de Desastres (National Center for Prevention of Disasters) has a site monitoring the rumblings and exhalations of Popcatepetl, which has been active for many years now. There are stunning views from their Web camera.
Atl was as fiery as the volcanoes he loved, and was involved in politics and the Mexican Revolution along with a revolution in Mexican art. He ended up on the winning side. Porfirio Díaz was deposed, ending his dictatorship, and Venustiano Carranza took control.
Dr. Atl's paintings have tremendous power in them, as you can see from these two works. The epic landscapes of Atl also document the geology of Mexico.
La Nube (The Cloud)
Popocatépetl desde Tlamacas (Popocatepetl from Tlamacas)
[Photographs provided by James Kalso of Tierra Rica.]
An Incredible Glass Curtain
Atl was once again called upon to create a design depicting the Valley of Mexico and its two volcanoes; this time it was for the Palacio de Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts), which was started in the early 1900s, stopped during the revolution that began in 1910, and not completed until 1934. Dr. Atl's design was translated into a glass curtain done by the studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. The curtain contains approximately one million pieces of glass. Harry Stoner, of the Tiffany studio, worked on the design's translation into the mosaic glass. Twenty craftsmen were employed for more than fifteen months working on this immense project, a glass curtain that weighs 22 tons.
Fiery Love Affair
The romance between Atl and Carmen Mondragón was a tempestuous and scandalous relationship that began in 1921 and lasted less than two years. She was a painter who also wrote poetry, and was considered one of the most beautiful women in Mexico. Her paintings were in the naïf (naive) style. This photograph of Nahui Olin by Edward Weston, taken in 1924, attests to her beauty. Atl was the one who dubbed her with the Aztec name Nahui Olin, which she became known by. The name means earthquake sun in Aztec cosmology.
Birth of Paricutín—A New Volcano Erupts in Mexico
On February 20, 1943, a frightened farmer was confronted by a strange occurrence in his cornfield. Dionisio Pulido saw the earth swell and crack, with a large smoke-emitting fissure appearing right in front of him. There had been a lot of seismic activity in the area the previous two weeks, and now something spectacular was happening. It was the birth of a volcano, the newest in the Americas.
One of the first to arrive on the scene of the eruption was Dr. Atl, who purchased the land from Pulido for seventy-eight dollars. Atl spent the first year of the volcano's life intensely watching, studying, and pictorially recording the growth of Paricutín, which kept on developing until 1952. That first year the cone grew to a height of 1,100 feet.
The 1943 eruption was a major event for geologists and volcanologists, who came from all parts of the world to study Paricutín in its infancy. Atl created numerous drawings and paintings of the baby volcano. This fiery painting of Paricutín erupting is one of my favorites. The painting was used on an eighty-cent Mexican airmail stamp issued in 1971, with Dr. Atl's name prominently going up the stamp's side.
Erupción del Paricutín [University of Guadalajara]
The amputation of one of Dr. Atl's legs in 1949, due to poor circulation, was thought to be caused by his extensive close contact over the years with poisonous fumes emanating from the various volcanoes he was so attracted to.
In 1950 Dr. Atl had a major show of his work and issued his monograph Como nace y crece un volcán, el Paricutín (How a Volcano Is Born and Grows, Paricutín). Eleven paintings and one hundred thirty drawings were donated to the National Museum of Plastic Arts.
Paricutín still warrants scientific study. In 1993 the Smithsonian Institution published Paricutín: The Volcano Born in a Mexican Cornfield, edited by James F. Luhr and Tom Simkin. And in 2003 the Annual Meeting Field Trip of the Geothermal Resources Council gathered at the site to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the volcano's birth.
The Fire Goes Out
On October 9, 1956, Dr. Atl was given the highest award bestowed by the Mexican government—the Belisario Domínguez Medal of Honor—at a special commemorative session of Mexico's Senate.
In October of 1959, President Dwight D. Eisenhower accepted a gift for the American people from President Adolfo López Mateos of Mexico. Dr. Atl's painting entitled Volcanoes and Clouds was presented to the Smithsonian Institution's National Collection of Fine Arts. Eisenhower quipped that although Atl was eighty-four and only had one leg, he still enjoyed going to nightclubs.
Gerardo Murillo died in Mexico City on August 15, 1964, at the age of eighty-nine. His contributions to science and Mexican art were extraordinary. His paintings, many of which were landscapes, done in Atlcolors—a special crayon he created—depicted Mexico's powerful terrain. His use of curvilinear perspective, with five vanishing points, gave a different look to many of his works, as did his aeropaisajes, landscapes seen from the air.
A Time magazine obituary from 1964 gives a brief but wonderful portrait of the artist who was so important to his country. Less than five years after giving the United States a gift of one of Dr. Atl's paintings, López Mateos ordered his burial at La Rotonda de los Hombres Ilustres (The Rotunda of Famous Men). In Guadalajara, Atl's home state, Park Mirador Atl is named for him. It is an area where Atl had enjoyed and painted the scenic vistas.
Little did I realize on that lovely summer day when I took Dr. Atl's photograph, that I had come upon one of the most fascinating men in Mexican history. In that chance encounter on a deserted mountainside in Oaxaca I'd seen someone who had a major influence on the formation of twentieth-century Mexico. Gerardo Murillo—Dr. Atl—a great painter and a great man.
[Photograph by Gabriel Tobon]