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César Manrique
The man who shaped Lanzarote
by Erica Woodman

Any visitor to Lanzarote who looks beyond the glorious beaches is going to come across the works of César Manrique. Several central roundabouts feature his sculptures. It is thanks to his activism that no advertising billboards disfigure the island, and that there is no high-rise building anywhere. Building regulations follow the customs of the vernacular architecture, and as a result domestic housing is low-rise, whitewashed with green doors and windowframes. Most houses have the traditional onion-shaped chimneypots, and many have an outdoor oven. Often, the charming effect is completed by rampaging bougainvillea. Palm trees and cacti seem to be the only other vegetation that flourishes on this volcanic island. Unlike some of the other Canary Islands, Lanzarote has not "sold out" to tourism, and seems to have dealt with it in a dignified and thoughtful way.

César Manrique was perhaps the most famous Lanzarote–o, and he was much more than a conservationist. He was a painter, sculptor and architect. He was born in Arrecife, the capital of Lanzarote, in 1919. He fought in the Spanish Civil War on the wrong (Franco's) side - an experience that was so traumatic that on his return to Arrecife in 1939 he burnt his army uniform, and refused to talk about it ever after. He studied technical architecture for two years, before going to Madrid in 1945 to attend the Academia des Bellas Artes de San Fernando. In the 1950s, he briefly lived in Paris, where he was exposed to the influence of Picasso and Matisse. He exhibited his first abstract work in 1954, and took part in the Venice Bienniales of 1955 and 1960. In 1964 he went to New York, where he came into contact with Abstract Impressionism and Pop Art. His pictures abandoned any possible allusion to reality, and with abstraction as a guiding principle, he investigated the qualities of material to the point of making it the essential protagonist in his compositions. He remained true to this plastic language to the end of his career, though in the 70s he re-introduced figurative elements in his paintings and sculptures.

In 1966, Manrique returned to Lanzarote for good. The island was then just beginning to develop its tourist industry, and Manrique was instrumental in preventing indiscriminate development and urban sprawl. In 1993, Lanzarote was declared a Biosphere Reserve by Unesco - a fact Manrique, sadly, did not live to witness. Manrique designed seven major tourist attractions throughout the island, as well as his own house, which is now the headquarters of the Fundac’on César Manrique. This is off the beaten tourist track, used for exhibitions and seminars, and visited by many students and admirers. It is very much worth a visit.

In the design of his own house and the national landmarks, Manrique formulated a new aesthetic concept that he called ART-NATURE/NATURE-ART. Taking this definition as a point of departure, he worked on the principle of TOTAL ART: paintings, sculpture, murals and architecture are integrated in and adapted to the personality of se|ected natural spaces, via the artist's intervention. His first project was his own house, built on a lava flow near the town of Tahiche. The most remarkable part of the house consists of five subterranean rooms. These were originally formed by enormous air bubbles in the lava. Manrique linked them by boring passages, and turned them into living spaces. The concrete floors are white, and the rough lava walls are whitewashed to about waist height. Each room has its own colour scheme, and contains simple and modern seating and lighting, and site-specific sculptures. There are trees planted in the centres of these rooms; their foliage bursts through openings in the ceilings (it hardly ever rains in Lanzarote) and their trunks and branches are hung with gourds, baskets and bird shapes of woven cane. The atmosphere is serene, but not at all solemn.

One lava bubble that is completely open to the sky contains a turquoise pool with a fountain. On ground level, what were originally living quarters have been turned into gallery spaces for modern and contemporary art. The rooms are light and cool with white walls and white marble floor, and are dotted with large, architectural foliage plants. One room has a large picture window that looks out onto the lava flow, creating a continuity between interior and exterior. Melodious electronic music completes the ambience. Some of the art on display is pretty good, too!

The garden is planted with indigenous flora, mostly cactus. In the courtyard there is a pool surrounded by a large colourful mural. There is a striking array of bleached skulls on one wall, and a witty face created from a panel of knotty wood, silky and silvered with age.

Skulls, weathered wood and stone turn out to be a motif in the buildings Manrique designed. The restaurants/shops in Mirador del Rio, Jameos del Agua and Timanfaya National Park, all have niches with such arrangements, some with water-filled stone vessels and ferns as well, all subtly illuminated. They are simple yet elemental, and reminiscent both of Derek Jarman's Dungeness garden and Japanese Shinto shrines. All these buildings complement the sites in which they are set; in fact they look as if they've grown there. Their interiors are softly, sensuously curved, and enhanced by sculptures and large plants. Each building has its own, specially composed, new-agey music. Even the doorhandles in the toilets mirror the theme of each building! These "spatial interventions" succeed in creating a synthesis of nature and art. They are enveloping without being overwhelmimg: total art, indeed.

The last project Manrique undertook before his death in a car crash in 1992 was the Jardin de Cactus. This is situated in an area where cacti were cultivated for cochineal beetles to graze on - the beetles provide a red pigment that was used in food and cosmetics. The garden is signposted by an 8 metre tall, bright green cactus sculpture. The garden is built in a "rofero", a hollow that results from farmers digging to extract and carry the volcanic soil to their fields, where it helps capture the dew. The walls of this amphitheatre are terraced with handcarved volcanic stone. In the centre of the garden is an artificial lake, dotted with monoliths of volcanic stone - natural sculptures up to three metres tall. The cacti are spectacular: collected from all over the world, there are 1,420 species. They are planted in the black soil in species groups in a way that is somehow highly amusing. The dome-shaped building that houses the bar and restaurant, complete with mural, has a spiral staircase that leads to a traditional windmill and a fantastic view. In the stairwell hangs a long, narrow "cactus" sculpture made of marine floats and steel rods. The toilets are designated by life-size female and male figures on the walls. You would never guess from these, and other, exuberant figures that Manrique was rather a puritan, who neither smoked nor drank and always went to bed early!

Most people go to Lanzarote for sun, sea, sand other things starting with s. If you want a little more from a holiday, and like exploring, you will be pleasantly surprised, and perhaps (like me) entranced by the works of César Manrique, the artist Lanzarote–os are justly proud of.

--Erica Woodman

At the March meeting, Freelance member Erica Woodman told us about her trip in January 2001 to Lanzarote, and her discovery of César Manrique and the architecture of the island.

Erica Woodman

Examples of artworks and architecture by César Manrique can be found at: www.cesarmanrique.com