‘What had started out as a little decoration for a poem yielded one of Motherwell’s richest veins of imagery. He invented a specific kind of image, as a poet may be said to invent a particular poetic form … It provided him with a language that, like notes on the musical scale, was limited but which could produce enormously varied effects’
—J . FLAM
With its dense, black notation of bands and ovals, spread across the picture plane in haunting rhythmic succession, Spanish Elegy is a jewel-like work from Robert Motherwell’s most celebrated series of paintings. Executed with rich, gestural brushstrokes, contrasting dense monolithic slabs of pigment with gaping white pentimenti, the work quivers with raw painterly tension. Among the most iconic products of Abstract Expressionism, the Elegies represent a constant in Motherwell’s career, defined by the systematic monochrome repetition of linear and ovular motifs. Conceived as a set of memorials for those who died during the Spanish Civil War – the tragic conflict that famously inspired Pablo Picasso’s Guernica – the Elegies represent deeply poetic tributes to human suffering, symbolising the cycle of life and death through their dirge-like juxtaposition of black and white. Executed in 1959, the present work coincides with the publication of E. C. Goossen’s article ‘Robert Motherwell and the Seriousness of the Subject’ in Art International, which was the first piece of scholarship to make the Elegies a central issue in discussions of his oeuvre. For Motherwell – who maintained that his work was rooted in subjects rather than purely abstract impulses – these paintings resonate on multiple levels. With their flat, frontal orientation, the primordial ovoid shapes and vertical strips have been interpreted in both carnal and architectural terms, suggestive of male and female sexual organs as well as the structure of temple or mausoleum. Hovering before the viewer like an ancient inscription, Spanish Elegy is a powerful evocation of the human condition in its most raw state.
Motherwell’s Elegies initially evolved from an illustration that the artist made to accompany Harold Rosenberg’s poem A Bird for Every Bird, published in the second issue of the art journal possibilities in 1948. Created using automatic drawing techniques he had learned from Robert Matta, the illustration comprised three ovoid shapes crushed between three vertical shafts. Initiating the basic vocabulary that would go on to define the series, Motherwell retrospectively acknowledged the work as his first Elegy. Knowing that the journal would be printed in black and white, the artist deliberately limited himself to black ink, despite his credentials as a colourist. Though the publication never went ahead, Motherwell was so intrigued by his abstract pattern of monochrome bands and ellipses that, in 1949, he went on to create an enlarged version of the image, titled At Five in the Afternoon after a poem by the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca. Based on the death of the legendary bullfighter Mejías, the poem alternates lines of verse with the mournful refrain ‘at five in the afternoon’: an elegiac lament that reverberates across the stanzas like a tolling bell. Its structure correlates directly to that of the Elegies, whose repeated motifs resound slightly differently each time they appear, but always with the same note of tragedy. As Jack Flam explains, ‘What had started out as a little decoration for a poem yielded one of Motherwell’s richest veins of imagery. He invented a specific kind of image, as a poet may be said to invent a particular poetic form … It provided him with a language that, like notes on the musical scale, was limited but which could produce enormously varied effects’ ( J. Flam, ‘Paintings, 1948-1958: Elegies to the Spanish Republic’, in J. Flam et al (eds.), Robert Motherwell: A Catalogue Raisonné, 1941-1991, Vol. 1, Verona 2012, p. 75).