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 seminal paintings, Elegies to the Spanish Republic, are considered foremost to be icons of Abstract Expressionism. Like de Kooning's images of women or Newman's "zips", Motherwell's Elegies assert themselves powerfully and represents the pinnacle of the development of Motherwell's formal innovation as well as the expression of great emotion. The motif, consisting of a haunting repetition of black vertical bars and ovoid shapes, strike hard against the starkness of the surrounding white. Based on Motherwell's evocation of the Spanish Civil War, which occurred a decade earlier to his first Elegy in 1949, he has said that the Elegies were visual equivalents of the poetic lament for the dead. The somber look and tone of the paintings universalize the war's massacres and injustices enacted by man, all the while avoiding the proselytizing tone of political painting. Since the 1950s, Motherwell had produced fresh variations of the Elegies, all the while, remaining faithful to its primary structure. Elegy to the Spanish Republic, No. 122, exemplifies the later Elegies, which are characterized by a dazzling combination of austerity and elegance, and most notably, the inclusion of other colors such the ochre.
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 1949. Motherwell, who originally trained as a theoretician and philosophy scholar, grasped very early on the crucial importance that in order to contribute meaningfully to the canon of modern art, one must create a principle of aesthetics. Through the surrealist concept of automatism, the artist finally found the creative principle that eventually governed his extraordinary artistic output and produced the Elegies, one of the most salient, immediate painterly images of 20th century abstract painting. In fact, he has alluded to the fact that each one of his Elegies begins as an automatic drawing, and certain shapes are then blocked to create the signature armature of the vertical bars and ovals. The Elegies seem to possess the power of an archetypal image, an image the mind already grasps on a subconscious level. It suggests ancient cultures and architectures, especially archaic Greek temples, organic vegetation (in some Elegies the ovals appear as fruit on the vine), and the male sexual organ.
When one compares the Elegies paintings such as No. 122 to the Open series, another grouping of works Motherwell was producing around the same time, there are clear distinctions to be made regarding the inherent structures between the two modes of approach and execution. An Open painting has a wall-like surface with saturated and undifferentiated monochromatic color with thin black lines indicating an opening that resembles a window or door. He clearly references the painting as architecture, whereas in the Elegies, there is an overt architectonic allusion, which is all the more visible in the later Elegies like No. 122. This painting displays an aggressively frontal orientation with opaque black vertical bars that end in a blunted, rounded shape interspersed with black ovals wedged in mid-section between. What contributes to the sense of compression are the vertical bars on the sides of the painting, which act as a framing device as well as to inwardly compress the central elements. There is severe cropping and enlarging of the shapes as they fill up the canvas entirely. There is a slight sense of depth as the dense, velvety black shapes loom up close, while the white and ochre seem to recede slightly into the background. By carefully calibrating the proportion and density of the black shapes, Motherwell reversed the properties of the color of black being a cool, receding color and vice versa.
Motherwell had long read and admired French Symbolist poetry. In his work, he sought visual analogies of their highly evocative verse. As part of his working method, the artist chose certain colors or shapes that carried a highly complex network of associations, originating from personal experiences and memories, and ultimately transformed them into a universal language. The essential symbolic meaning of the color black signifying death and white symbolizing life takes on a brutal, urgent meaning in the Elegy. The lament for the dead is not a whimper of a sound, but a pounding, rhythmic roar from the unconsoled. Motherwell recalled being deeply affected by the poem, At Five in the Afternoon, by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca about the death of the celebrated bullfighter Mejias. The main body of the stanzas consist of alternating lines of verse with the repeated line of "At five in the afternoon;" it is a ringing dirge that correlates to the structure of the Elegy, where alternating shapes reverberate always somewhat differently, but the tragic tone remains constant.
As an artist who was very much aware of the modernist tradition and of art history, Motherwell's Elegies reference the black paintings by artists such as Goya, Manet and Matisse. The black represented death and suffering, as well as tragedy of the human condition. The white acted as its counterbalance and signified life, or in Motherwell's case, the purity of the Symbolist white as the unknown. This contrast is further elaborated in the Elegies where the black represents the concrete, an event of death; in contrast the white represents infinity. In No. 122, there is an additional color of ochre. This specific color holds a multitude of personal meanings for Motherwell. When he traveled to Mexico in the 1940s with Matta, he was struck by the local architecture and the earthy color of the buildings. The ochre also references his visit to the Altamira caves in Lascaux, France where he viewed the prehistoric paintings on the cave walls. He evokes primordial and ancient sources in the Elegies, which was a hallmark of nascent Abstract Expressionist painting in its desire to "excavate" essential imagery of mankind.
Motherwell's play of dualities of black and white as well as other dichotomies--the geometric vs. the organic, chaos vs. order, death vs. life--was a condition of living through a tumultuous period in American history. During an interview, he vividly recalled the 1940s as the time when society was ordered by a set of contradictions, where the popular music was Cole Porter and yet people worried about the threat of Stalinism, when wartime exiles and imigris rubbed elbows with the more provincial natives, and the uneasy co-existence of American regionalism with the young, struggling movement of the New York School.
In Motherwell's Elegies, he not only discovered an incredibly elastic pictorial language that would communicate on multiple levels but also acknowledged these contradictions in a manner that eluded easy resolution and offered little judgment.