This work will be included in the forthcoming Catalogue Raisonné of Paintings and Collages by Robert Motherwell being prepared by the Dedalus Foundation.
Robert Motherwell's Elegy to the Spanish Republic (Basque Elegy) of 1967 is a magisterial example from his most extensive and widely celebrated series of paintings. Like de Kooning's abstract images of women or Newman's "zips," Motherwell's Elegies are amongst the most recognizable paintings to emerge from Abstract Expressionism. Thier central motif, hauntingly repeated black vertical bars and ovoid shapes, assert themselves powerfully and find Motherwell at an artistic zenith, formally innovating and expressing great emotion. Within this restrictive iconography enough variation occurs to make each painting unique -- from loose and flamboyant to architectonic and severe. Elegy to the Spanish Republic (Basque Elegy) exemplifies the later Elegies, which dazzlingly combine austerity and elegance, and most notably add color to its dominating contrast of black and white tones.
It has been well documented that the source of the Elegies was an illustration Motherwell made to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg, A Bird for Every Bird, for the second issue of the art journal possibilities in 1948. Motherwell illuminated the poem with a simple Elegy (which he named well after he painted it), consisting of three staunch vertical shafts, separated by three elliptical forms that he produced using the technique of automatic drawing introduced to him by the Surrealist painter, Roberto Matta. Given that the publication would be printed in black and white, Motherwell limited himself to black ink, despite being a brilliant colorist. The poem was never published, but the abstract pattern that emerged in Motherwell's translation of it intrigued him so much that, in 1949, he made an enlarged version, which he titled At Five in the Afternoon after a poem by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca about the death of the legendary bullfighter Mejías. The poem consists of lines of verse alternating with the repeated line "At five in the afternoon;" it is a ringing dirge that correlates to the structure of the Elegy, where alternating shapes resound always somewhat differently, but the tragic tone remains constant.
Shortly afterwards, Motherwell extended this poetic lament for the dead to memorialize those people who fell fighting for the cause of the Spanish Republic during their Civil War. This tragic conflict, which ravaged Spain and brought the Fascist Franco to power, inspired a generation of artists to action, and famously underpinned Picasso's epic Guernica. Produced long after the war was over, Elegy to the Spanish Republic (Basque Elegy) both specifically relates to that conflict and generally meditates on tragedy. Motherwell conceived of his Elegies as majestically commemorating human suffering and abstractly, poetically symbolizing the inexorable cycle of life and death. Motherwell expresses the dialectical nature of life itself by starkly juxtaposing black, representing death and suffering, with white, signifying life, purity and the unknown. The white reverberates between the contrasting ovoid and monolithic slab forms. The paintings' somber look and tone universalize the war's massacres and injustices, all the while avoiding the proselytizing tone of political painting. This apparently retrospective view of the tragedy was enduringly relevant, and possessed a particular poignancy during the 1960s when Motherwell was actively protesting America's escalating involvement in the Vietnam War.
Motherwell asserted that his work is an art of subjects, his paintings come out of life and feed back into it; in no sense are they pure abstractions that merely decorate. In terms of subject matter, the Elegies have often been seen in terms of power -- political, visual and sexual. Their recurring motif has been alternatively interpreted as a primordial male/female duality with the phallic verticals playing off the female vulval shapes, as well as a metaphor a bull's sexual organs. Assertively frontal and flat, the ovoids are held up (or crushed) by the verticals in an abstract rhythm of loose geometry that also suggests a mausoleum or temple. Indeed, the Elegies resistance to any single interpretation is part of their strength.
Motherwell never repeated himself, despite working within this limited format for over thirty years, and each Elegy has a decidedly different mood. Elegy to the Spanish Republic (Basque Elegy) is powerfully architectonic, with the broad black stripes forming unyielding columns against the organic oval forms. Motherwell eschewed the facile impact of wildly expressive brushstrokes in this work in favor of a bold, and sophisticated hard-edged composition that moves towards the classical. Each element is carefully weighted and balanced against one another--just so much black to balance the field of white, a straight line to offset too many curves, a blank to neutralize a busy area. This particularly elegant and concise Elegy indicates the influence of Matisse, one of Motherwell's gods, from whom he extracted the ability to liberate color from its description of nature, arriving at independent "analogous structures." Indeed, the addition of blue and green soften the otherwise harsh palette of black and white, whilst also elementally evoking sky, water and verdant landscapes. These color relationships and the composition's rigid vertical progression echo Matisse's Bathers by a River of 1916 (Art Institute of Chicago) and his French Window at Collioure of 1914, which Motherwell encountered at the apartment of Matisse's son Pierre around 1960 (now housed at the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou).
The overall order and clearly defined rectilinear shapes in Elegy to the Spanish Republic (Basque Elegy) find Motherwell's transiting into the Open Series that he would begin the same year. The Open paintings consist of broad color fields, whose only additional feature is an incomplete rectangle or trapezoid that resembles a window or door. These works clearly reference architecture, yet the Elegies are more ambiguous, their barbaric forms presenting an incredibly elastic pictorial language that communicates on multiple levels and eludes easy resolution. The archetypal shapes of this series are rich in associations, exemplifying Motherwell's belief in the efficacy of simple configurations and truly felt gestures to carry and release his most profound emotions.