Robert Motherwell

Iberia No. II


Not on display
Robert Motherwell 1915–1991
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1203 x 2042 mm
frame: 1240 x 2073 x 63 mm
Acquired by purchase and gift from the Dedalus Foundation 1996


Iberia No. 2 is a large, predominantly black and ochre canvas with three distinct layers of paint. The first is a thin layer of yellow ochre followed by a thin and then a thicker layer of black. It is one of a series of works of the same title which Motherwell made during the summer of 1958, when he and his third wife, the artist Helen Frankenthaler, were on honeymoon in St. Jean de Luz, a small fishing town on the French coast near the border with the Basque country. The two artists spent several months that summer working in France and Spain and it was a particularly productive time for Motherwell.

Of Iberia No. 2, Motherwell said: 'I almost never start with an image. I start with a painting idea, an impulse, usually derived from my own world. Though sometimes images may emerge from some chord in my unconscious, the way a dream might. Even in those paintings where an image unconsciously develops, a certain kind of experience is usually necessary in order to perceive it. In Iberia or Spanish Painting, for example, you would have to know that a Spanish bull ring is made of sand of an ochre color, and that Spanish bulls are very small, quick, and coal black. Both of those coal black, ochre pictures have a bull in them, but you cannot really see the bull. They are an equivalence of the ferocity of the whole encounter' (Marcelin Pleynet, Robert Motherwell, Paris 1989, p.91).

At the time that Motherwell painted Iberia No.2, General Franco's government was in power in Spain. Motherwell, who was a left-wing sympathiser, had become increasingly engaged with the movement against Franco and many of his paintings from the late 1940s onwards had strong political overtones. His use of black in works such as Iberia No.2 became particularly symbolically charged. 'Black is death, anxiety', he commented in 1963 (quoted in Motherwell, p.137). In his extensive series of Elegies to the Spanish Republic (see Tate L01884), begun in 1948, Motherwell used black to signify both the waste and the despair of the Spanish Civil War and its aftermath. Although derived from a specific political situation, these paintings were concerned with the notion of tragedy at a universal level, and reflected Motherwell's belief in abstraction as a way of drawing out the essence of life rather than fleeing it. 'One might truthfully say that abstract art is stripped bare of other things in order to intensify it, its rhythms, spatial intervals, and colour structure,' he wrote in 1951. 'Abstraction is a process of emphasis, and emphasis vivifies life' (quoted in The Collected Writings of Robert Motherwell, edited by Stephanie Terenzio, New York 1992, p.86).

Further Reading:
H. H. Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York 1977, revised edition 1982, reproduced in colour p.47 and front cover
Mary Ann Caws, Robert Motherwell: What Art Holds, New York 1996
Stephanie Terenzio, Robert Motherwell & Black, exhibition catalogue, William Benton Museum of Art, University of Connecticut, Storrs, Connecticut 1980

Amy Dempsey
March 2000
Revised by Sophie Howarth July 2000

Display caption

Motherwell wrote of this painting 'I almost never start with an image. I start with a painting idea, an impulse, usually derived from my own world. Though images may sometimes emerge from some chord in my unconscious, the way a dream might. In 'Iberia', for example, you would have to know that a Spanish bull ring is made of sand of an ocher colour, and that Spanish bulls are very small, quick and coal black'. This picture is 'an equivalence of the ferocity of the whole encounter'. Motherwell painted a series of elegies for the Spanish Republic, which was defeated in the Spanish Civil War. In these paintings, as in 'Iberia No. 2', black symbolised death and anxiety. Here it threatens to engulf the land.

Gallery label, September 2004

Technique and condition

The painting was executed on a single piece of medium weight linen canvas. The original stretcher was replaced just prior to its acquisition with a stronger expandable stretcher, and the edges of the canvas were strengthened with the attachment of strips of muslin fabric and a synthetic adhesive. The painting has been restretched around the new stretcher and attached with wire staples at the back. The canvas was first primed with a very thin layer of white ground, which is barely perceptible through the paint layers above and would have hardly affected the texture of the canvas weave. It is not apparent whether an unpigmented glue size was applied prior to this or not.

The oil paint was applied by brush, in three distinct applications. First a yellow ochre paint, which was thinned considerably, probably with turpentine, and has consequently stained many areas on the back of the canvas. Then an equally thin black paint, and finally with the much thicker and medium-rich black paint which is now visible over much of the surface. There are a number of splashes and drips of this black paint over the ochre, indicative of Motherwell's rather energetic application technique. In areas where the black paint was applied thickly, fairly severe drying cracks have developed but these were covered over with a thinner black paint by the artist which has partly penetrated through the cracks down to the canvas (many of these crack patterns are actually visible on the back of the canvas). In the top left corner a thickly applied area has wrinkled dramatically due to the formation of a skin on its surface before the whole layer had dried. The surface of the black paint is generally matt, but there is appreciable variation in the gloss and texture, and brushmarks are clearly visible in it. On the back of the canvas are isolated areas of a lean off-white paint, but this does not appear to bear any relationship to the painting itself and its source is not known. Also seen on the back of the canvas is the artist's signature, painted in a dilute brown paint, which reads: Robert Motherwell, 1958, St Jean de Luz, France. In fact the artist was on his honeymoon in St. Jean de Luz when he painted this piece. To the right of the signature are two further underlines in the same brown paint, but the actual inscription has been covered with thicker black paint.

The painting is now in a stable condition. The frame is a recent replacement of the original, which was lacking in rigidity and had developed a number of splits along its length. The current frame is of similar appearance to the original, but is far stronger, is able to accommodate a backing board and subsequently provides a significantly higher level of protection to the painting. The original stretcher and frame are both currently located in the Tate Gallery Archive.

Tom Learner
November 1997

You might like