Steve Paul

Steve Paul: A family’s global story of war and art takes a surprising turn in Kansas City

Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

On a trip a year ago to the Prado, Spain’s great art museum in Madrid, Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, was taken aback when he learned that the institution’s leader wanted a few words.

Zugazagoitia was just visiting, along with a Nelson trustee, and wasn’t expecting any high-level meetings.

But in a few minutes, the Prado’s board president showed up, pulled his Kansas City visitor aside and apologized to the trustee that they were now going to be speaking in Spanish. It was the only way to say what he wanted to say, to speak from the heart, he said. His message to Zugazagoitia was this: “How all of Spain was indebted to your grandfather.”

What a moment, Zugazagoitia recalled over lunch the other day: “It was just beautiful for me because it happened in a cherished space, an art museum.”

And what a story Zugazagoitia has to tell.

It’s a family story with details he has only recently begun to compile. And it’s a global story — about war, fascism, immigration, art and much more — that, astoundingly, comes together and gains meaning only because of one serendipitous thing. Of all the places in all the world that Zugazagoitia’s career might have taken him when he left New York five years ago, he landed in Kansas City.

A few months after that visit to the Prado in 2015, and nearly five years after arriving here to become the Nelson’s new leader, Zugazagoitia one day realized he had an hour to spare. He finally dropped into a place he’d been thinking of for some time. He made his way to the second floor of UMKC’s Haag Hall, a venerable limestone building at 52nd Street and Rockhill Road. He’d heard about some frescoes that wrap a large stairway landing and he wanted to take a close look.

The frescoes were painted in 1940-41 by an artist in exile from war-torn Spain, and completed 75 years ago this month. The artist’s name was Luis Quintanilla. He’d spent that academic year in residence at what was then the University of Kansas City. Zugazagoitia knew that Quintanilla had been friends with his namesake grandfather, who was a writer and a government official for Republican Spain during the years of upheaval that erupted into the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39.

He expected that he’d find an image of his grandfather somewhere in the mural, which is filled with colorful, often humorous figures and collectively titled the “Don Quixote Frescoes.” He did not. But what he didn’t expect was that after poring over nearly every inch of the paintings he would find that Quintanilla had in fact remembered his great friend. There, in one small corner, was his grandfather’s name, his own name, spelled out in paint and dated 3-26-1941: “A la memoria de Julian Zugazagoitia.”

“It’s a sign of destiny,” Zugazagoitia told me recently. “What are the odds of coming to work in a city and all of a sudden your name’s on the wall.”

Quintanilla was working on the mural here in the fall of 1940 when disturbing news arrived. His friend had fled Spain after his side lost the war and taken his family to Paris. But that year, the German military, who had aided General Francisco Franco’s rise to power in Spain, occupied much of France. The Gestapo arrested Zugazagoitia and shipped him back to Spain, where he was summarily executed.

I first spoke with today’s Julián Zugazagoitia about his grandfather two years ago after coming across his name in a book I reviewed for The Star about the Spanish Civil War. Zugazagoitia got in touch and we talked about Quintanilla and the Haag Hall mural. I’d mentioned Quintanilla’s friendship with Ernest Hemingway, which began in Spain in the 1930s, continued in correspondence and was briefly renewed in person on a lively night in Kansas City that very year, in November 1940.

A few months ago, I ran into Zugazagoitia at an event and I remember how excited he was to tell me about finally seeing the Quintanilla fresco and his grandfather’s name on the wall. And we promised to get together and talk more about what he was learning and how it might intersect with my own interest in Hemingway and his world.

Zugazagoitia has been in touch with Quintanilla’s son, who once wrote an essay about his father and the UMKC murals and includes them at a website ( I shared with Zugazagoitia my own essay, as yet unpublished, about that boisterous Kansas City night when the Hemingways and the Quintanillas got together for dinner.

He had started piecing together his family story before he left New York for Kansas City in 2010. He saw an exhibit of Quintanilla’s sketches, and there learned that his grandfather and Quintanilla had been imprisoned together in Spain in 1934. Quintanilla had sketched a portrait of Zugazagoitia slumped in a chair, holding a book, wearing a beret and rounded spectacles.

It was during that period when Hemingway came to Quintanilla’s aid. Someone in Spain had cabled Hemingway in Key West, Fla., a two-word message, intended to get past the Spanish censors: “Luis HOOSEGOWED.” Hemingway helped arrange an exhibit of Quintanilla’s work in a New York art gallery, which caught the attention of Time magazine. And Hemingway was among a coterie of writers and other prominent people who wrote to Spanish authorities demanding they release Quintanilla, Zugazagoitia and the rest.

The whole experience planted a seed for Hemingway. Once he finished the book he was writing at the time (“To Have and Have Not”), he’d go to Spain to cover the violent conflict between the forces of left and right. With all its geopolitical complications, the Spanish Civil War became a prelude to World War II. And it, of course, became the subject of one of Hemingway’s greatest novels, “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which was published just weeks before his Kansas City reunion with Quintanilla in 1940.

To hear some accounts, Quintanilla spent much of his prison time sketching the people around him, including his jailers and the prison warden. Whether Hemingway’s letter-writing campaign had any influence remains unclear, but ultimately Zugazagoitia and Quintanilla were released in June 1935. Zugazagoitia, a socialist, went on to become Spain’s minister of the interior and eventually he published a history of the war.

After Zugazagoitia’s arrest in Paris in 1940, a sister, his wife and their five children decided it was time to leave Paris. They left France via the port at Marseilles, traveled through Casablanca — this was the period depicted in the great Humphrey Bogart-Ingrid Bergman movie of that name — and made their last stop Mexico City.

His youngest son, also named Julian, was about 11 at the time and later would talk about the difficult passage and the lack of food on the migrants’ boats. He remembered having nothing more than a banana a day and held up that experience as a moment and a food item to be cherished.

Today, Zugazagoitia regrets that that boy, who grew up to become his father, did not live long enough to learn of his own discovery on the Haag Hall wall. His father died about 12 years ago.

Nor was his father around to appreciate what Zugazagoitia learned last year when José Pedro Pérez-Llorca, the Prado’s board president, paid his emotional tribute to the elder Julian Zugazagoitia. Pérez-Llorca, who was born in that fateful year of 1940, became a lawyer and during Spain’s transition from Franco’s decades-long dictatorship to a democratic government in the 1970s, he was one of the seven people who wrote the country’s constitution in 1978. With the martyred Julian Zugazagoitia in mind.

“It was clearly an emotional time,” said Paul DeBruce, the Nelson trustee who stood by as Zugazagoitia and Pérez-Lorca spoke for about 10 minutes. “You could feel the passion in the board president’s voice and demeanor.”

DeBruce went along one day recently when Zugazagoitia wanted to show him the Quintanilla murals.

“He did a wonderful job of starting at the far left of the mural, and talking about what the artist was depicting,” DeBruce said on Monday. “Then he allowed me to discover the bottom right corner on my own. And having been at the Prado to experience that — you can’t make this kind of stuff up.”

Today, as a self-confessed apolitical person, whose life has unfolded in at least five countries — his mother was of German heritage —Zugazagoitia is beginning to frame his family’s experience in the very contemporary narrative of immigration.

“I am an immigrant,” he says.

He can identify with the migration of Middle Eastern refugees that is embroiling most of Europe today and is attuned to the great debate that has shaped American politics of late.

He is proud of what immigrants, like his family, helped bring to Mexico so many years ago, and of the cultural migration that brought creative artists from Europe to the United States during the 1930s and that shaped his own journey to Kansas City.

And because of that, he can revel in “the magic of being reunited with a mural that pays homage to my grandfather in this city.”