Following in the footsteps of César Manrique through Arrecife
César was born on the shores of the Charco de San Ginés in 1919 and spent part of his childhood living by Arrecife’s bay. Today we are checking out the legacy he left in Lanzarote’s capital, one of the places with the largest number of Manrique’s works.
We start with a quick sandwich of battered sea bass in the same house where we are told that César Manrique first saw the light of day. It was also here, in Arrecife’s port where, 73 years later, his body lay in repose so that the island could say goodbye to its most universal artist.
The alleys of the center and its coastal architecture.
We walk along the shore of the Charco, the lagoon where César spent half of his childhood. He used to dip his imagination into these calm waters when he was not at the Caleta de Famara. We cross the Callejón de Luis Hernández Fuentes, El Aguaresío, a street providing a living example of coastal architecture, exquisite and sustainable, to arrive at the Plaza de Las Palmas, the scene of Manrique’s first intervention in the island’s public space. He designed a beautification plan for this small square with benches, flowerbeds and a garden of pines, palms, Indian laurels and a large casuarina tree, which today provides essential shade. César also designed the large white balls in the square, built by a key member of his team: Luis Morales.
We walk through the narrow streets of the historic centre until we reach the Casa de Cultura Agustín de la Hoz, where he painted his first mural in 1947, while he was still a student at the San Fernando Royal Academy of Fine Arts, during one of his frequent holidays on the island. It seems to us that his representation of the architectural and natural heritage of the island is full of modernism.
A walk along the seafront of Arrecife.
We cross the road to walk through Arrecife’s first park, built in 1959, on land reclaimed from the sea and named after a former president of the Cabildo, a childhood friend and one of César’s key collaborators: José Ramírez Cerdá. Here César designed a refreshing children’s playground with a fountain, flowerbeds lined with callaos (pebbles) and paving designed with slabs of volcanic rock and strips of grass. He also designed a craft shop, now a small bar, and a conical monolith of volcanic slag.
Today a remote-controlled regatta is taking place in the marina. The models of the sailing boats, controlled from land, sail the waves and paint a beautiful image, providing the backdrop to our arrival at the headquarters of the National University of Distance Education, formerly the Parador de Turismo. In 1950 César received his first major commission: the ornamentation of the first tourist building in Lanzarote, in the neo-Canarian style. He painted the colourful Alegoría de la Isla (Allegory of the Island) in the cafeteria of that charming Parador (now a university library). The Francoist authorities considered his beautiful female nudes to be lewd and ordered them to be covered with painted canvas. In the restaurant (now the Aula Magna) he painted three scenes, El Viento, La Pesca y La Vendimia (The Wind, Fishing and The Grape Harvest), in tribute to the titanic work of the local farmers, whose survival depended (and still depends) on working in harmony with the natural environment.
We come back out into the daylight, cross the Muelle de la Pescadería and arrive at the Real Club Náutico de Arrecife, with which César had a connection from childhood, as a member of the swimming team. In 1962, for the club’s cafeteria he designed Anatomía para un Barco (Anatomy for a Boat), a wooden and iron relief that he assembled with elements scrapped from old boats. We are told that five years ago it was restored to repair the deterioration caused by decades of grease and smoke. We become engrossed in contemplating it and our heads fill with thoughts: the art of reuse, the health of the oceans, art as a driving force for change…
But it’s time to move on, because the avenue is full of Manriquean works. From the Casino itself (and from any point in Arrecife’s marina) you can see a flat islet of volcanic rock and white cubes. This is the Islote de Fermina, an original project by César Manrique, modified in later years but which still preserves some of the artist’s fundamental touches: the lighthouse, the swimming pools, the zocos, the bar… It brings to mind Tenerife’s Lago Martiánez.
A few metres further on, on the roundabout in front of the Reducto beach, stands a sculpture in homage to the birth of the wind. It’s called Barlovento, but the locals call it Homenaje al Marino (Homage to the Seafarer) or Chatarra (Scrap Metal), because in this 1970 work César once again used jallos (flotsam left by the action of the tide on the beaches), water tanks, glass bottles, volcanic stones and naval equipment. Looking at it is a reminder that Arrecife was a port long before it was a city.
From a “cultural laboratory” to an ambitious center of contemporary art.
We rent a bike to complete our tour and cycle to El Almacén, the island’s cultural centre established in a 19th century mansion refurbished by César and his team, and opened as a self-managed cultural laboratory in 1974. It was pure avant-garde. Brian Eno, Pedro Almodóvar and Rafael Albertí passed through here, among a long list of others. Performances were given, flan made from sweet potatoes from the village of Soo was served and art books were sold. In 1990 it was acquired by the Cabildo of Lanzarote, which has preserved the original structure of the building, its art gallery, El Aljibe, and the Buñuel cinema.
The breeze whets our appetite as we cycle towards the Insular Hospital. If Lanzarote today has a top quality public health system, it is partly thanks to Dr Molina Orosa, who ensured that medicine and surgery were a basic right for the entire population. That revolutionary doctor died in 1966 and two years later César designed a basalt and iron sculpture in his honour, located in the gardens of the island’s first hospital.
We cross Puerto Naos, leaving behind the Fishing School, the bars that line the harbour and the old saltworks and, after a steep climb, arrive at the Castillo de San José, an 18th century fortress, designed to defend Arrecife from pirates, which César converted into one of the first and most ambitious centres of contemporary art in Spain. Descending the spiral staircase inside, built by Manrique, is like entering the womb of an organism that’s new to science. Special mention should be made of the bottle lamps that adorn the restaurant and the panoramic window in front of which we took our seats for lunch.
This Manriquean route through Arrecife confirms our suspicions: César’s vision was telescopic. He was an expert at looking beyond, a person with one foot in the world of dreams and the other in the vanguard.
Let‘s raise a glass in his honour so that his spirit may continue to inspire us! 😊🍷