The Painter Who Loved Volcanoes So Much He Ended Up Giving His Life To Them
June 12, 2018María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards
Dr. Atl fell in love with the vast landscapes of Mexico, mainly the different volcanoes of the territory, that he devoted all his life to its study.
Once upon a time, many centuries ago, lived a warrior who was considered to be the greatest in the Aztec Empire. One day, he was summoned by the Huey Tlatoani, the ruler of the Three Kingdoms to go to war in his name. When he arrived to the Palace, he fell instantly in love with the most beautiful woman there, the king's daughter. Both fell in love and after some time, the warrior finally decided to ask the king permission to marry the princess. The Huey Tlatoani, knowing the valor and honor of the warrior, agreed on one condition: to come back victorious.
The warrior set off on his quest and many months passed without news from the troops, until one day, the king received word that they had won the war but the warrior had perished in battle. Devastated with the news, the princess' health began to deteriorate until she too passed away. However, it turns out that the news the king had received were false and had been sent by one of the warrior's enemies. When the warrior finally arrived to the palace, exhausted but thrilled with the prospect of his future marriage, he was stopped at the gates and informed of the princess' passing. Heartbroken, he stormed the palace and took the body of his beloved and climbed one of the surroundings mountain where he laid her to rest in a bed of flowers. There he remained until he too passed away with sorrow.
The Gods, moved by this tragic story decided to transform their bodies into powerful volcanoes so that they could remain together in fiery passion. So, when you visit Mexico City on a clear day you will see two imposing volcanoes, one resembles a sleeping lady and the other a kneeling warrior, his head bent in sorrow. These are the Popocatépetl and the Iztaccíhuatl, the guardians of Mexico City, and it's said that the reason the former still spews smoke and ash is because he watches over his sleeping lady.
This tragic story is engraved in the hearts of the local people and these two imposing volcanoes are ingrained in the works of many talented artists who found inspiration in the tale. Dr. Atl, a man, who fell in love with the volcanoes devoted his life to their study and artistic representation.
But who was this man with the strange name, and why is it worth knowing his story? Born in 1875, Gerardo Murillo had nurtured from an early age a passion for art and he was tutored by a local painter while young. His talent was spotted and at 21 he was admitted to the prestigious art Academy of San Carlos in Mexico City.
There, he continued to improve his style and craft, and soon he stood out among his classmates to the point that even the country’s president, Porfirio Díaz, took notice. The president at the time had a huge interest in positioning Mexico as an artistic country in the world and for that reason he granted Murillo a pension so he could study abroad and improve his skills further.
During the long and difficult journey to the old continent, he experienced a truly terrifying storm at sea and this changed his life forever. In his autobiography, he explains that this event caused a huge impression on him that he wanted to change his name to water in some other language. Naturally, he wanted to honor his roots and decided to adopt the name Atl in Náhuatl. With a new name and a bright future ahead, he enrolled at the University of Rome where he didn’t only study art, but also philosophy and law.
In Rome, he became interested in politics and social matters and soon began to collaborate with the Italian Socialist Party through one of their magazines called Avanti. After receiving a PhD in philosophy, he was baptised by his friends as Dr. Atl and it wasn't long before he returned to Mexico where he quickly established himself as an influential figure in the artistic circles of the time.
In 1906, he wrote a manifesto in which he called for a massive artistic movement that aimed to place art at the very heart of the Mexican people and that these works should reflect the interests and roots of the nation. He was one of the main precursors of the Muralist movement that would emerge some years later with figures like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros.
He was then commissioned by the president to design a glass mural for the Palace of Fine Arts (still under construction at the time) in which he planned to portray the famous volcanic couple. He was also hired to make a painting mural at the building, however, with the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, these plans were shattered.
As the Revolution raged on, several political groups were formed and they fought each other to reach the top. Dr. Atl supported the Constitutionalist band, which wasn’t being successful at first and for this reason, he decided to go back to Europe and settle in Paris in 1911. There, he was still very active in Mexican politics and started a journal praising the Constitutionalist faction. The main reason he supported them was because he agreed with their interests of promoting the arts and science at all levels of the population.
When Venustiano Carranza (from the Constitutionalist faction) was elected president, Dr. Atl decided to go back home where he was named Director of the Academy of San Carlos. Throughout all his life he focused on portraying the colors, traditions, and landscapes of Mexico. At this time, the country, tired of Euro-centric movements, were hungry for art that portrayed the many faces of Mexico. What interested him the most and what he became known for was his passion for the deadly nature of volcanoes, he assiduously studied them for artistic, historical, and geological purposes.
It’s said that he would constantly visit both the Popocatépetl and the Iztaccíhuatl, trying to know as much as he could about these peaks. In 1943 the Paricutín volcano, which violently emerged out of the blue in Michoacan. In several writings and paintings, Dr. Atl shared his experience while witnessing the eruption. Both the beauty and the threat this volcano represented became his ultimate life project. He would go every day to study how it had emerged just like that one day, but more importantly how volcanoes are born and developed. His passion for the subject was such that he even had a leg amputated after an accident climbing it. He even wrote a book on the matter, which became an important geological reference on this phenomenon.
At the end of the day, Dr. Atl is considered such an important figure in Mexico because he was the ultimate Renaissance man, finding meaning through different disciplines. He was such a talented artist and a precursor of important artistic movements that he even invented new materials such as Atl colors. He was an eminence in philosophy and law, a quite clever political analyst, a great man of letters, and by the second half of his life, an expert volcanologist. He passed away in 1964 at the age of 88 from a cardiorespiratory arrest. Many believe that so many years inhaling the fumaroles of the Paricutín while studying it ended up affecting his lungs. However, his fiery passion for these volcanoes remain in the art he left behind for the world to admire.
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