Manrique – the Man

Next month, Arrecife’s carnival will honour the 100th anniversary of the birth of César Manrique. It will be just one of several events in memory of the tireless, passionate man who transformed his home island into an art gallery where nature and human creativity go hand-in-hand.

My greatest joy is the memory of happy childhood summers at Famara with fine sand overlooked by cliffs that are reflected in the sea like a mirror. This image is etched on my soul, a beauty that I could never erase in my lifetime.

César Manrique Cabrera came into the world on April 24th, 1919, in a house in Arrecife that is now the site of the Bar Ginory, a restaurant famed for its matrimonio (marriage) of fried squid and fish. César preceded his twin sister Amparo (who died last November aged 99) by just a few minutes. The son of a food supplier and grandson of one of the island’s notaries, Manrique enjoyed a comfortable middle-class upbringing, spending much of his time at the Charco de San Ginés just around the corner from his home or at the holiday home his father later built in Famara.

That peaceful existence was rudely interrupted in 1936, when General Franco seized the Canary islands in one of the first acts of the Spanish Civil War. Young men on the islands had two choices: they could fight for Franco or flee the islands to an uncertain future, leaving their families subject to reprisals. Of those who chose the latter, several never returned or were forced to spend decades in exile. Manrique joined Franco’s forces and served as an artilleryman in Ceuta before being posted to several fronts in the conflict.

On his return in 1939, it is said that he kissed his parents and family, went indoors, changed out of his military uniform and then took it out, trampled it into the dust and burnt it. He never spoke of his experiences in the war.

An art lover since childhood, he registered to study architecture in Tenerife, but after two years he dropped out and headed to Madrid, where he was accepted at Spain’s oldest and most prestigious art school, the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts. He graduated as an art teacher in 1945, three years after his first exhibition in his hometown of Arrecife.

In the 1950s, Manrique co-founded the Fernando Fe Gallery in Madrid, the first space dedicated to abstract art in Spain. He returned to Lanzarote frequently and in 1950 he painted the vivid, dynamic murals that can still be seen in the old Parador (state hotel) building in Arrecife. Around this time he met and married his wife Pepi Gómez, sharing a flat in Madrid with her and travelling widely.

It was during the 50s that Manrique’s style developed from heavily Picasso-influenced figurative works to a more abstract style. He worked tirelessly: a volcanic eruption of creativity.

In 1963, Pepi died of cancer and Manrique, devastated, accepted an invitation to live and work in New York – probably the most exciting artistic destination in the world. There he lived on the Lower East Side, exhibited in local galleries and slept with a man for the first time in his life. “I wanted to find out what this was, and I liked what it was,” he told a friend. Manrique’s sexuality was as natural and universal as his artistic vision.

However, Manrique missed his home. He wrote to his old friend Pepe Dámaso that “man in New York is like a rat. He wasn’t created for this artificiality. There’s an overriding need to return to the land, to feel it, to smell it. That’s what I feel.” His opportunity arrived shortly.

By 1968, the President of Lanzarote’s Cabildo, José “Pepín” Ramírez, had already begun to transform Lanzarote into a tourist destination. He had hired Jesús Soto to transform the Cueva de los Verdes into a tourist attraction; approved the desalination plant that provided the island with fresh water, and the island’s first large hotel, Fariones, had been opened.

Ramírez invited Manrique back to Lanzarote to work on several projects aimed at transforming the island into a tourist destination, and the artist gladly accepted the offer.

New York State of Mind
Manrique had been drawn to New York long before he left Spain. The millionaire Nelson Rockefeller had invited him to the city earlier, and his cousin Manuel, who worked as a psychiatrist in the city, advised him to come and stay in autumn 1964.

By the 1960s, New York had replaced Paris as the world’s art capital, and Manrique mingled with many of the bohemian residents of East Village. A guest of the Cuban painter Waldo Diáz -Balart, he met Andy Warhol and Bob Dylan and exhibited his work at the Catherine Viviano Gallery.

Manrique returned to Lanzarote with a new attitude, a new approach to art and “the best record collection on Lanzarote”, some of which can still be seen at his home in Haría.

The following years were Manrique’s heyday, the period when his vision was fully realised. The Taro de Tahiche, Jameos del Agua, the Mirador del Rio, Timanfaya’s restaurant, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Arrecife, the Monumento del Campesino and the Cactus were all created according to his guidelines. Alongside these works he also worked on the other Canary islands and still found time to paint, sculpt and create collages.

He would arise early, swim in his pool, paint in his studio, visit Arrecife, where he had opened the El Almacén art centre and host legendary parties at his space-age home in Tahiche. Despite his reputation as a party animal, Manrique led a frugal, almost puritanical existence – he didn’t drink, hated smoking and always rose early to work.

Later, Manrique moved north to Haría, where his final home and studio still stand. Always devoted to nature, he became an energetic environmental campaigner, the figurehead of passionate protests against new developments. “The Canaries must learn to stop growing, or it will die of its own success” he warned, and his vigorous opposition to the over-development of his islands won him much support – as well as enemies.

The increasing amount of cars was one of the things he hated most, so it is bitterly ironic that, on the 25th September 1992, Lanzarote’s most visionary artist died in a car crash at the crossroads near his home in Tahiche. That junction is now the site of one of his most impressive “wind toys”, and Lanzarote-loving film director Pedro Almodovar paid his own tribute to Manrique by staging the tragic death of Penelope Cruz’s character in the film Broken Embraces at the same location.

36 years after his death, however, Manrique remains a vivid, living presence on Lanzarote. A man whose legacy is visible everywhere, in the low-lying white and green painted houses, in the advertising-free roads and in the tireless work of the foundation that bears his name.