See Hear: Steve Paul on Rambling Around the Arts | Eight Decades Later, the Haag Hall Frescoes Have Many Stories to Tell

Quintanilla sketched students and faculty members as models for the figures in the fanciful scenes. (image courtesy of lqart.org, a website devoted to Quintanilla’s work and operated by his son, Paul Quintanilla)

Luis Quintanilla was a Spanish artist in exile when he landed in Kansas City for the school year of 1940-41. After an exhibit and mural project in New York, an invitation from the president of the University of Kansas City lured him here to spend the year as artist in residence.

The result of Quintanilla’s labor was a suite of six large frescoes on the walls of a second-floor landing in Haag Hall, at 52nd Street and Rockhill Road on what is now the UMKC campus. The figurative art works told countless stories under Quintanilla’s theme of “Don Quixote in the Modern World.” In the eight decades since — they were dedicated in May 1941 — the frescoes have mostly been taken for granted, serving as comfortable and colorful wall coverings for generations of faculty and students just passing by.

Nevertheless, there they stand, a hidden gem on the local artscape, still seductive and still telling stories within the cozy stone fortress of Haag Hall.

Two years ago, in one of the last public events on my calendar before the pandemic shutdown began, I sat in a campus auditorium to watch two Spanish scholars present a report they’d prepared after studying the frescoes for several days. One was an art historian, the other a conservation specialist. They explained how Quintanilla conceived and created each panel — an elaborate process extending from sketches to painting in fresh plaster as it was applied in sequence around the walls. And they detailed numerous frailties and physical dings that would require attention if the university were ever interested in investing in the long-term preservation of the art.

Quintanilla sketched students and faculty members as models for the figures in the fanciful scenes.

It so happens I sat that day watching the slide show alongside Julián Zugazagoitia, the director/CEO of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. A few years earlier, in my last days before retiring from “The Kansas City Star,” I wrote about Zugazagoitia’s intimate and somewhat convoluted personal connection to Quintanilla’s project. His family story intertwines with Quintanilla’s via the Spanish Civil War and includes the assassination of Zugazagoitia’s grandfather, also named Julián, in 1940, at the very time the artist was making the Haag Hall frescoes. Quintanilla honored the grandfather by dedicating the frescoes in his name. Making the long story very short, today’s Julián Z knew nothing about the frescoes or their connection to his grandfather until sometime after he settled here to join the Nelson.

Quintanilla sketched students and faculty members as models for the figures in the fanciful scenes. One day, Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood came by for a visit — and a photo op — as Quintanilla worked. The panels speak of culture and agriculture, human creativity and appetites, with subtle (and not-so-subtle) humor and social comment. Fascism — in Spain, in Germany — was ascendant at the time. In the closing panel, he set Don Quixote in the present world, standing up to mounting horrors. As he once wrote of this panel, “The greedy maw of a monster (reminiscent of Herr Hitler) is about to swallow up the whole world, including the hero, the innocent little boy at play, the woman of peace with the lamb, and the graces Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.” One could easily find resonance in this panel today as Russia aims to swallow Ukraine.

I had occasion recently to show off the frescoes to an entourage of locals and out-of-town visitors, including the Cuban artist Michel Mirabal. Mirabal was well aware of the era of mural-making which centers largely on Mexican artists such as Diego Rivera and José Orozco, but he was unfamiliar with Quintanilla and welcomed the introduction. Another member of our group was Dálida T. Pupo Barrios, a Cuba native who now lives in Kansas City and operates Cubanisms, a cultural exchange and musical organization, with her husband, Michael McClintock. Pupo Barrios had also never seen the frescoes and was delighted to discover their inspiration in the Cervantes novel “Don Quixote,” which she had read in
her youth.

It only later occurred to me that a mural tour of Kansas City should also take in the war panels of Daniel MacMorris in Memory Hall at the Liberty Memorial, the Benton “Independence and the Opening of the West” at the Truman Library, and, for contemporary juice, the outpouring of colorful art-making that has erupted on every blank wall in the Crossroads Arts District in recent years.

It remains to be seen whether UMKC can find the desire and the money — perhaps a half-million dollars or more, according to figures mentioned two years ago — to fully repair and maintain the Quintanilla frescoes. But I like the thought that their presence in Haag Hall represents something like the ur-statement of Kansas City’s exciting and enriching mural movement of today.

Steve Paul

Steve Paul is the author of “Hemingway at Eighteen” and a biography of Evan S. Connell. He has been a writer and editor in Kansas City for more than 45 years.

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