This painting by the American artist Robert Motherwell exemplifies the stylistic characteristics of the emergent Abstract Expressionist movement of the late 1940s and early 1950s. It is an imposing, large canvas which consists of solid areas of black, white and ochre, evoking a shallow pictorial field. The pared-down shapes and unmodulated hues attest to Motherwell’s desire to evoke ‘essential’ or ‘timeless’ pictorial forms. Instead of depicting subject matter overtly, Motherwell has attempted to find a pictorial language for feelings and sensations (Ashton and Flam, pp.22–3).
Produced in Motherwell’s studio in Greenwich, Connecticut, the work is painted in acrylic, a medium favoured by the artist for its quick-drying properties. It is signed on the reverse of the canvas, denoting the alterations which Motherwell made after the work was exhibited at his Guggenheim retrospective in 1982. In 1985, Motherwell covered over what was previously a pink area of canvas with ochre, although pink is still visible as underpainting. This prolonged process demonstrates that despite the work’s appearance, Motherwell’s approach is not necessarily spontaneous or immediate.
The work forms part of a series of paintings produced throughout the artist’s career. All share a common compositional structure of abutting ovals and thrusting, elongated forms. The series epitomises a major strand in Motherwell’s mature work, alongside his sustained explorations in collage. The roughly-delineated forms of the Spanish Elegies evoke the torn edges created by the technique of collage. Given their large scale, Motherwell has described the Elegies as ‘public’ statements, in contrast to his ‘private’ collages (Ashton and Flam, pp.22–3), although the distinction in this instance is not so clear-cut.
The original motif accompanied a 1948 poem by Harold Rosenberg, and was intended to appear in the second issue of the short-lived journal Possibilities in 1949. Intrigued by the forms, Motherwell scaled up the motif into a casein painting entitled At Five in the Afternoon 1949 (Collection Helen Frankenthaler), after Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem mourning the death of a bull-fighter. The same year, Motherwell produced Granada 1949 (Collection Nelson A. Rockefeller, New York), his first major instance of what would later become the series of Elegies. Motherwell defined the series in 1951 as ‘an attempt to compose a subjective image of modern Spain. They are all in black and white: celebrations of death, songs of mourning, elegies – barbaric and severe.’ (Quoted in Quast, p.325.) Death is a predominant theme in these works, and in this late instance one finds an additionally personal resonance. Motherwell has recounted that in 1974 he ‘died’ on the operating table during a series of surgical procedures, adding, ‘Death has been a continual living presence to me, so to speak’ (quoted in Polcari, p.318).
Despite the heavily loaded personal, political and historical references evoked by the title, Elegy to the Spanish Republic #132 elicits no stable meaning. The artist has claimed that the question, ‘what does this painting mean?’ is essentially unanswerable. Deeply influenced by Symbolist poetry, he evokes the statement by the poet Stephan Mallarmé (1842–98), ‘Peindre non la chose, mais l’effet qu’elle produit’, meaning, ‘paint not the thing, but the effect it produces’ (quoted in Quast, p.314).
Dore Ashton, Jack Flam and Robert T. Buck, Robert Motherwell, New York 1983, pp.22–5, reproduced p.24 in intermediate state (1982).
Stephen Polcari, Abstract Expressionism and the Modern Experience, Cambridge 1991, pp.313–20.
Antje Quast, ‘Mallarmé Topoi in the Work of Robert Motherwell,’ Word and Image, vol.19 no.4, October–December 2003, pp.325–6.