Robert Motherwell American,
Elegy to the Spanish Republic #34, 1953-54
Oil on canvas, 80 x 100"
Gift of Seymour H. Knox, 1957
Inc./Lincensed by VAGA, New York, NY
was associated with a group of artists in the late 1940s and 1950s
in New York who are now referred to as Abstract Expressionists. The
term, although they did not like it, aptly describes their painting:
abstract (usually to the point of being completely nonobjective),
and an attempt to express feelings and moods through these abstract
forms. Influenced both by current trends in modern European art (especially
Surrealism, which focused on dreams and the unconscious), and the
devastation of World War II, the Abstract Expressionists developed
the first artistic movement that was completely American in origin.
With Abstract Expressionism, the center of the art world shifted from
Paris to New York.
Representational art was no longer believed to be an adequate expression
of the mood of the times. The Abstract Expressionists chose instead
to use color, line, and texture for purely expressive purposes. Because
of the extremely personal nature of the style, each artist’s
work is distinct, based in part on their individual goals. Motherwell
wanted to combine the conscious world (the world in which we live)
with the unconscious; he thus linked many of his abstract forms to
the conscious world through his titles.
Motherwell painted more than one hundred works in the series "Elegy
to the Spanish Republic." Each image in the series contains black,
vertically oriented elements alternating with ovoid forms, and refers
to the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939, leaving
fascist dictator Francisco Franco in power. Motherwell began the series
in 1948, almost a decade after the war’s end, but recalled "I
was twenty-one in 1936, and that was the most moving political event
of the time."
Motherwell’s studies in philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, and
aesthetics (Stanford, 1932-36; Harvard, 1937-38; Columbia, 1940) are
reflected in many aspects of the "Elegy" series. For example,
the black-and-white contrasts that dominate the image could refer
to night and day, death and life, and oppression and freedom. This
last interpretation is underscored by the colors in the background,
those of the flag of the Spanish Republic, which are being blotted
out by the black forms in the foreground. Although Motherwell stated
that the "Elegies" are not political, he did say that they
were his "private insistence that a terrible death happened that
should not be forgot."
There is a tinge of nostalgia for a lost cause in these images, and
the use of the term elegy emphasizes this sense of loss and death.
An elegy is a short funeral song or lament—slow, meditative,
and mournful. The rhythm of an elegy could be compared to the type
of rhythm seen in the black forms moving slowly and solemnly across
the canvas, marking the death of freedom for the Spanish people.
— Mariann Smith