“One of mankind’s greatest flaws is not being clearly aware of what life means. It is such a brief and flimsy thing.”
(CÉSAR MANRIQUE 1978)
In many ways, Lanzarote’s most famous artist was ahead of his time. His awareness of the fragility of his environment, the respect that he held for nature and his affinity with his home are all qualities that we need more than ever in 2020.
A land of volcanoes
Every one of Spain’s Canary Islands has a unique topography and climate. Despite the fact that 15 million years ago they all rose from the floor of the Atlantic Ocean as part of one giant underwater volcano.
From the instant I arrived on Lanzarote, I understood why César was so inspired by his semi-arid desert home. The ochres and rich reds of its volcanic slopes provide a perfect complementary palette for the aquamarine hues of the sea and sky around them. A huge lava flow covers swathes of the south and the eruptions that caused it in the 1730s were large enough to permanently alter the island’s landscape. Black putty weaves and contorts around whitewashed villages that have become synonymous with Lanzarote’s identity.
From left: The heady heights of Timanfaya National Park; The rugged south coast of the island; A view from the island’s highest point towards its norther valleys and Haria.
In the north of the island, steeper hills are dotted with palms. The land is greener as it generally receives more annual rainfall but there’s no escaping the quintessential white villages that feature on postcards in every beachfront shop. Low-rise, white boxes in tightly knit villages and towns that invite the eye to explore more.
From even a short drive around Lanzarote, it’s easy to understand why César, returning to his home a as a fully fledged artist, felt the force of nature in everything he created.
A young artist at home
During my visit to the César Manrique Foundation Museum (which also used to be the artist’s home) I learnt that he was born in Arrecife in 1919. From a young age he loved exploring the natural elements of his home, often walking to its beaches and peaks with friends and photographing the rocks, sands and people that were native to the island.
I lost myself in the myriad photos in the museum’s main exhibition room. Drawn into his days on the ‘playas’ that I recognised from my stay and captivated by the connection he seemed to have with every single piece of rock, every grain of sand. It was clear that even as a young man, he already had an awareness of our impact on the earth, that I imagine was quite rare for the time.
From left: The swimming pool area of Manrique’s former home; A photo of the artist in the foundation’s museum; A corridor of his home, leading to an exhibition celebrating 100 years since his birth in 2019.
He left for the Spanish mainland to fight in the Spanish Civil War during the late 1930s and later moved to Madrid, where his love and dedication to art grew. He went to art school and after almost a decade in Spain’s capital moved to New York. Although ties with his island home throughout this time remained strong. The geology that had surrounded him growing up became a well known reference in his works.
“All of my painting is vulcanology and geology in its basic foundation”César Manrique 1987
By the mid-sixties, he was back in Lanzarote with a respected reputation as an artist and sculptor. From that moment on, he devoted his life to creating unique works throughout the island. And his artistry hasn’t only provided a visual aesthetic for visitors, it has left a lasting legacy in how the island has been developed ever since.
Works within the natural world
Each and every work of César’s that I saw during my time on Lanzarote wasn’t just woven into the island’s nature, it was born from it. The best way to neatly summarise this ethos for someone new to his works, is simply to state that he even made his own home within an underground lava tube. And this in fact, forms the literal foundation of his Foundation.
“Nature has given us the splendour of life, and as a splendid mother we have a duty to protect her from all danger, as it is on her we depend”César Manrique 1992.
However, don’t be mistaken in thinking that his creations are art, simply for art’s sake. To a certain extent, it struck me that he was also a very functional architect for the betterment of his island home. The Campesino for example, another building carved and moulded from ancient lava, is today still used as a wedding and conference venue. Its volcanic corridors lead you to a huge underground dining hall, complete with a stage.
At Jameos Del Agua, tourists are drawn through a colossal lava tube that features a restaurant at either end and hosts live classical concerts regularly. The still waters that create otherworldly reflections to the awe of visitors here, are also a home to one of the world’s rarest cave creatures – the blind albino crab. Nature and for want of a better word, economy, are all whirled into one. That’s Manrique for you.
Clockwise from the top: A staircase at Jameos Del Agua; The cliff walkway at Mirador del Rio; The cafe inside the cliff at Mirador del Rio; Visitors look at the albino crabs of Jameos Del Agua.
In my humble opinion, one of the artist’s most impressive feats was the creation an elegant cafe and lookout at the island’s highest point, Mirador del Rio. Miraculously, it’s completely invisible from neighbouring La Graciosa island. Not wanting to damage the natural view back to Lanzarote, Manrique carved this visitor centre out of the cliff face itself. Save for a terrifying sheer walkway on the other side of the café’s glass windows, you wouldn’t know it was there.
Leaving A legacy
“Art is an anthropological matter; and in Lanzarote we have worked giving our absolute all, in close contact with the island’s geology, understanding how it weaves together”César Manrique 1985
César was killed in a car crash, on a roundabout just outside his volcanic home in September of 1992 at only 72. If he had lived longer, I imagine he would have continued to shape and carve his legacy into the his beloved island. Although since his death, the work that his Foundation has continued, driven by his passion for Lanzarote’s environment, is crucial to how the island has developed.
Tourism had already started to arrive in the Canaries when Manrique returned to Lanzarote in the sixties. And with tourism, comes construction. However unlike neighbouring Tenerife and Gran Canaria, this artist’s home has managed to remain true to its low-rise, white-washed roots. For many years, planning laws (supported and to some extent, enforced by the Manrique Foundation) restricted high-rise developments and protected the islands unique habitats from over-building.
However the battle continues. Local government corruption of the early 2000’s saw several high-rise hotels constructed, more than ten of which continue to operate illegally. The Foundation and environmentalists continue to fight to preserve the balance that César Manrique acknowledged so early on in his life: That of attracting visitors to experience Lanzarote’s unique landscapes while conserving its natural beauty.
Almost thirty years after César Manrique’s death, I felt his presence in the low-slung holiday homes surrounding Playa de Las Cucharas on the final day of my holiday: A series of white minimalist structures nestled into their volcanic home like a convivial outpost on Mars. Over my shoulder, the crashing Atlantic waves were a strong reminder of those forces of nature that will always be emblematic of Manrique’s work.
From left: Playa de Las Cucharas, Costa Teguise; A church built alongside lava flow on the edge of the volcanic national park; The Atlantic crashing ashore on the Costa Teguise.