Manolo Vazquez

Fearless matador with grace and gravity
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Ernest Hemingway returned to Spain as a visitor in the 1950s, he complained that the art and craft of bullfighting had been made impure by the growing use of tricks to enhance artificially the performance of matadors. Style, he meant, was fast succeeding substance when man met bull on the field of battle.

This, coming from the author of Death in the Afternoon (1932), one of the first major treatises in English on bullfighting, prompted anger in the Spanish, who did not like the reputations of their best and brightest sullied. But the claim also carried weight. However, there were plenty of matadors entering the profession who, if it could be avoided, would have nothing to do with bulls whose horns had been shaved (thus shortening their natural "reach") nor with showing off a bagful of bogus techniques in the bullring to please the crowd while humiliating the bull. One of these matadors was Manolo Vázquez.

While he was not perhaps of the consistently high quality of Antonio Ordóñez, a master of what had become known as "deep toreo", Vázquez nevertheless began an impressive initial season in 1952 when he fought 38 performances. The bullfight historian Walter Johnston noted that Vázquez took up muleta and sword over an "astonishing" 32 seasons until his retirement in 1983.

It is usually the mark of a great matador that he finds himself completing shorter seasons than his counterparts because of the time lost recuperating from gorings, and in this regard Vázquez suffered plenty, thus having to scale back his appearances on average to 20 to 30 bullfight events per year. Nevertheless, when he was fit and able, Vázquez could put on memorable performances in the "de frente" style, that is, head on to the bull and fearless.

In the mid-1950s, Kenneth Tynan, taking time out from theatre criticism, related in his book Bull Fever (1955) an electrifying performance by Vázquez in which the matador had done all that was possible with the bull, only to be wrong-footed and find himself dashed to the earth, Vázquez then recovering and setting himself up for the moment of truth. "Vázquez and his bull had grown together in dignity as the fight progressed and he killed at their joint peak, quite perfectly," Tynan wrote. If a matador performs particularly well, the president of the fight can order that one or both of the dead bull's ears be given to him, and on this occasion, Tynan reported,

The award of both ears was automatic. . . . As Vázquez stood with hand upraised over what he had killed, he might have been a symbol of the majesty of unequal combat, where the end is fixed and only the path to it is unknown, and where, in consequence, art is within the frontiers of possibility.

Vázquez came from a bullfighting family. His elder brother was Pepe Luis Vázquez, Spain's leading matador during the early to mid-1940s. Pepe Luis yielded his supremacy to the legendary Manolete, who was to die in the bullring at Linares in 1947. Two younger brothers, Rafael and Juan, took up the profession, but did not advance beyond the level of novilleros.

Manolo Vázquez made his first appearance as the bullring in 1945, aged 16, in the plaza de Carmona in Seville. His big leap forward was in 1951 when his brother Pepe Luis gave him his "alternativa" - a symbolic process akin to a bar mitzvah in which a young matador is propelled into professional adulthood and, thus, is allowed to fight big bulls for the first time, with picadors (mounted horsemen bearing javelin-like shafts used to weaken the bull).

In 1953, Vázquez tried his luck in the bullrings of Mexico, probably the most popular venue outside Spain. The critics liked what they saw and praised both his grace and gravity.

His peers were to be some of the greats of the era, among them Luis Miguel Dominguín, Miguel Báez ("El Litri"), Antonio Bienvenida and Antonio Chenel, also known as Antoñete, a purist like Vázquez. The two men met in competitive combat in La Maestranza, the Seville bullring and one of the shrines of bullfighting in all Spain.

Vázquez most admired Marcial Lalanda, as "my one and only manager". Lalanda was a survivor of the 1920s, one of the so-called golden ages of bullfighting, made famous by Juan Belmonte, José el Gallo and Niño de la Palma, the character on which the bullfighter-protagonist in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises was based and who was the father of Antonio Ordóñez.

According to Antonio Lorca, a leading bullfight commentator, Vázquez will be remembered for his artistic bullfights in the second half of the 20th century. In retirement, he went on to serve as president of the Andalucia Foundation of Tauromaquia and in 1997 was awarded the Gold Medal for Fine Arts. Lorca underlined the point saying that his death "marks the passing of an artist who, in full maturity, could show that the highest art is possible in the fiesta of the bulls."

Frank Gray