Repeated black ovoid and rectilinear forms reverberate across the surface of the composition, suspended in a volatile yet lyrical equilibrium. Painted in acrylic and accented with vertical black charcoal lines, the density of these weighty forms is juxtaposed by the painted white canvas. As the recurrent motif of Motherwell’s Elegies, the pictorial symbolism of these ovular architectonic slabs has been debated extensively. Despite their visual associations with bodies, fruit, phalluses, or even calligraphy, they ultimately evade any specific associations or signifiers in the natural world and instead embody and engender an emotional state, standing as pillars of loss and resilience. Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 is magnificently distinguished by the incorporation of rosy pinks hues. Seeping out from beneath the stoic black slabs and executed in quick, gestural strokes, these delicate blush tones conjure an image of faded blood, a dying life force, or alternatively breathe life into the otherwise monochromatic canvas. Illuminating the composition with an uplifting sense of vitality and corporeality, the fleshy hues exhibited in Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 further complicate the dichotomous nature of the composition and culminate in a profound meditation on life and death, desire and lamentation. The presence of color is characteristic of Motherwell’s later Elegies, the incorporation of which magnificently showcases the artist’s gestural strokes and highlights the active process of creation in his works, a feature often muted by the flatness in his solid blacks.
In 1937 at the age of 22, Motherwell attended a talk by French novelist and art theorist André Malraux in which Malraux gave a passionate defense of the Republican cause in Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Motherwell would later reflect that Malraux’s account of the Spanish Civil War was the most “moving political event” of his youth, and this powerful sentiment confirms the resonating impact that horrors of the war had on the young artist (Exh. Cat., New York, Dominique Lévy, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 2015, p. 6). Lasting from 1936 to 1939, the Spanish Civil War, was the first time in history air raids were committed against civilians which resulted in the loss of 700,000 lives in just three years. Motherwell created his first Elegy in 1948, nearly a decade after the conclusion of the Spanish Civil War, and the raw emotional power of the subject would make the Elegies a series Motherwell would continually revisit and develop until his death in 1991. As expressed by the artist himself: “I must emphasize that my Elegies to the Spanish Republic are just that, elegies, in the traditional sense…An elegy is a form of mourning, not a call to action, but symbolization of grief, lyrical in the sense on an outpouring, black in the sense of death, just as white, which contains all colors, represents life” (Robert Motherwell, A Personal Recollection, 1986). The unequivocal pinnacle of his work, Motherwell’s Elegies continued to grow in sophistication and cogent graphic sensibility over the course of his career, confirming modern art’s cathartic role in humanity’s confrontation with the harsh realities of the modern era. Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 169 revels in the infinite dichotomies of its structure, the stark opposition of black against white and the contrasting ovoid and rectilinear forms. These dualities are ultimately an expression of the dialectic nature of life itself, at once comprising the organic and geometric, vitality and bereavement, life and death.
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