Motherwell was a young student of twenty-one when the horrors of the Spanish Civil War commenced in 1936, and he would later reflect that it was the most “moving political event” of his youth. (Exh. Cat., New York, Dominique Lévy, Robert Motherwell: Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 2015, p. 6) In 1939, the Spanish Civil War concluded with the fall of Spain’s democratically elected socialist government, which was deposed by a fascist coalition led by dictator Francisco Franco, whose dictatorship would persist until 1975. A three-year struggle of tragic proportions, the Spanish Civil War took the lives of over 700,000 people and witnessed history’s first air-raid bombings of civilians. This callous disregard for civilian life, and the innumerable needless deaths that resulted, inspired Pablo Picasso’s haunting and shattering epic Guernica of 1937. Similarly rendered on a massive scale and in a reduced monochrome palette, the similarities between Picasso’s Guernica and Motherwell’s monumental Elegies, such as the present work, are striking. Nearly a decade following the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1948, Motherwell created his first Elegy with a small drawing to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg titled Elegy to the Spanish Republic published in the avant-garde periodical Possibilities. Over the next four decades, Motherwell would pursue this same structural and thematic motif relentlessly; taken as a whole, the Elegies confirm the resounding impact that this war had on the young artist, and indeed stand as a powerful monument to the overwhelming loss during and in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Motherwell stated: “I meant the word 'elegy' in the title. I was twenty-one in 1936, when the Spanish Civil War began…The Spanish Civil War was even more to my generation than Vietnam was to be thirty years later to its generation, and should not be forgotten, even though la guerre est finie.” (David Craven in Joan M. Marter, Abstract Expressionism: The International Context, New Brunswick, 2007 p. 76)
Addressing the viewer with monumental frontality, the alternating black ovoid and rectilinear shapes of Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 reverberate across the surface, the ovals compressed and distorted by imposing rectangular slabs. Rendered in the renounced monochrome palette characteristic of the Elegies, the present work achieves a volatile yet lyrical equilibrium, the heavy blackness of death finding resolution with the airy whiteness of life, and together both culminating in a deeply somber and emotive composition that finds universal resonance far beyond the reaches of the canvas. Diffusing the overwhelming, architectonic weight of these black forms, the gestural brushwork, roughly painted edges, and paint splatters imbue the weighty composition with a sense of movement and expressionistic energy. Form and color conspire together to convey a tension between order and chaos that is a veritable touchstone for abstract art of the period, and places Motherwell in the company of the philosophers, poets, painters and social critics who were his friends and compatriots in activating abstract art and poetic symbolism as expressions of the inexorable cycle of life and death. Speaking to the resounding import of black and white in his Elegy paintings, Motherwell said: “After a period of painting [the Elegies], I discovered Black as one of my subjects—and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death which to me is quite Spanish. They are essentially the Spanish black of death contrasted with the dazzle of a Matisse-like sunlight.” (William S. Lieberman, Exh. Cat., New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, An American Choice: the Muriel Kallis Steinberg Newman Collection, 1981, p. 82) As the recurrent motif of Motherwell’s Elegies, the pictorial symbolism of these ovular 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. In fact, the visual structure of Motherwell’s Elegies speaks more to the influence of Surrealist automatism – especially the work of the Spanish painter Roberto Matta, a close friend of Motherwell’s – and evoke the same potent immediacy, materializing as forms and images the mind already knows on a subconscious level. A masterful articulation of Motherwell’s inimitable artistic philosophy, Motherwell’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 stands as a profoundly illuminating meditation on life and death, desire and lamentation.
Motherwell’s allusions to human mortality and soulful elevation – indeed the very dialectic of life’s vicissitudes – are most strongly imparted to the viewer through the warm encompassing blacks and bright whites of the Spanish Elegies, particularly the mature works of the 1970s such as Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134. The unequivocal pinnacle of Motherwell’s canonical oeuvre, the sophisticated and cogent graphic sensibility of his Elegies confirms art’s cathartic role in humanity’s confrontation with the harsh realities of the modern era, specifically the unimaginable injustices caused by war and its aftermath. As elegiacally 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) Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 134 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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