Robert MOTHERWELL | Elegy to the Spanish Republic

United States of America 1915 – 1991

Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958 synthetic polymer paint on canvas
signed and dated verso u.c., in black. "Robert Motherwell / 1958"", inscribed verso u.r. in black, "TOP/ [up arrow] / Note - Painted in Bocour / "Magna" Plastic Paint. / Do not clean with/ turpentine or gasoline or petrol."
175.3 (h) x 248.9 (w) cm
Frame 1788 (h) x 2525 (w) x 55 (d) cm Purchased with the assistance of American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia Inc., New York, NY, made possible with the generous support of The Dedalus Foundation and the Foundation of the National Gallery of Australia 1994 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 1994.1 © Robert Motherwell/VAGA. Licensed by Viscopy

  • estate of the artist;
  • by whom given to the Dedalus Foundation Inc., New York;
  • from whom acquired, part-gift, part-purchase, through the American Friends of the Australian National Gallery (AFANG) and the National Gallery Foundation, by the National Gallery of Australia, February 1994
  • Beyond Belief: Modern Art and the Religious Imagination
    • National Gallery of Victoria 23 Apr 1998 – 26 Jul 1998
  • The Big Americans
    • National Gallery of Australia 04 Oct 2002 – 27 Jan 2003
  • Robert Motherwell
    • SINGAPORE TYLER PRINT INSTITUTE 19 Aug 2005 – 16 Oct 2005
  • Abstract Expressionism: the National Gallery of Australia celebrates the centenaries of Jackson Pollock and Morris Louis
    • 14 Jul 2012 – 24 Feb 2013
  • Michael Desmond, ‘Rehanging the galleries: The return of modern art’, National Gallery News, March–April 1994, p. 7, illus. p. 8;
  • Rosemary Crumlin, Beyond belief: modern art and the religious imagination, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria 1998, pp. 110–11, illus.;
  • Jane Kinsman, The art of collaboration: The big Americans, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia 2002, p. 80, illus. col., no cat no.

Elegies to the Spanish Republic is the collective title used by Motherwell from the early 1950s to describe a body of work that occupied him for over 40 years. Numbering more than 170 works, of which the National Gallery of Australia’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958 is indicative, the Elegies mark one of Motherwell’s major contributions to twentieth-century art. As he later commented:

Making an Elegy is like building a temple, an altar, a ritual place … Unlike the rest of my work, the Elegies are, for the most part, public statements. The Elegies reflect the internationalist in me, interested in the historical forces of the twentieth century, with strong feelings about the conflicting forces in it …[1]

The recurring motif that defines the Elegies to the Spanish Republic first appeared in a 1948 black and white pen and ink drawing.[2] This, and the other works which followed, may be seen as Motherwell’s attempt to find a ‘visual equivalent’ to the poetry of Federico García Lorca with its universal themes of life and death.[3]

As Motherwell reworked the elegy motif, he expanded the boundaries of its meaning. It became, as Joan Banach explains, ‘a vehicle for representing various rituals of mourning, charged by the unbounded potential and power he recognized in García Lorca’s poetic conception of pena negra or literally, “black grief.”’[4] For Motherwell, black had an eloquent and talismanic power. In the National Gallery’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic, the black forms march across the canvas, traces of ochre underpainting evident around the central oval, the single, sky-blue horizon line, the only concessions to colour.

By the late 1950s Motherwell had completed more than 50 Elegies. In the spring of 1958 he married the painter Helen Frankenthaler and, during the summer, they vacationed in Spain and France, renting a villa in St Jean-de-Luz, France, near the Spanish border. It was the first time that Motherwell had visited Spain and, in the ensuing period of frenetic activity in Europe he painted his Iberia series. Elegy to the Spanish Republic, which is uncharacteristically unnumbered,was probably painted in the second half of that year, after the artist returned from Europe, perhaps with a renewed commitment to the series.

Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958 is particularly interesting because it is one of the first of the Elegies in which the artist used Magma.[5] This brand of acrylic paint was known for its high concentration of pigment, meaning it retained an intensity of colour even when thinned. A new formula of Magma, introduced in 1958, had a consistency closer to that of oil paint, which may have encouraged Motherwell to try the medium. The National Gallery’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic thus heralds a period of transition.[6] It marks the beginning of a new phase, in which the artist explores the subtleties of a new medium within the established imagery of the Elegies.[7]

Steven Tonkin

[1] Motherwell further commented: ‘The Elegies use a basic pictorial language, in which I seem to have hit on an “archetypal” image. Even people who are actively hostile to abstract art are, on occasion, moved by them, but do not know “why”. I think perhaps it is because the Elegies use an essential component of pictorial language …” quoted in Jack D. Flam, ‘With Robert Motherwell’, in Robert Motherwell, New York: Abbeville Press 1983, p. 22.

[2] The drawing in which the Elegies had their genesis was made to illustrate a poem by the writer and critic Harold Rosenberg in the second (unpublished) issue of the periodical Possibilities. Its monochrome quality was a natural consequence of its intended reproduction in black and white. H.H. Arnason, ‘Robert Motherwell: The years 1948 to 1965’, Art International vol. 10 no. 4, 20 April 1966, p. 25.

[3] As Arnason commented, Lorca’s poetry rekindled Motherwell’s youthful idealism and passion for the cause of the Spanish Republic whose demise had a significant impact on Motherwell’s generation; see Arnason, Robert Motherwell, New York: Harry N. Abrams 1982, 2nd and revised ed., p. 30. As Arnason observes: ‘Once the series had been named, the associations for the spectator, and undoubtedly for the artist himself, continued to grow: black as the symbol of death; white as the symbol of life; the monoliths as the architecture of a mausoleum, a chamber of death; the ovals as living forms, sometimes in process of being crushed by, sometimes liberating themselves from the enclosing rectangles.’ p. 30.

[4] See Joan Banach ‘Annotated catalogue’ in Motherwell, Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tàpies 1996, p. 94; this observation was made about Motherwell’s early Elegy series painting Catalonia 1951, held in The Saint Louis Art Museum, Missouri.

[5] Magma acrylic paint was invented by Leonard Bocour and was the brand with which a number of major American artists experimented in the late 1950s.

[6] During the early 1960s Motherwell shifted between using oil and acrylic paint but, by the time that he embarked on the Open series in 1968, worked almost exclusively in acrylic paint for the rest of his career.

[7] Motherwell kept Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958 in his studio until his death, along with its ‘companion’, an oil and charcoal on canvas of similar dimensions and likewise unnumbered, Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958–60 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, Pennsylvania). Both were very ‘personal’ paintings, neither of them having been exhibited or reproduced in photographs during the artist’s lifetime. Philadelphia’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958–60 summarised the series to date, while the National Gallery’s Elegy to the Spanish Republic marks the beginning of the next phase.

The National Gallery of Australia also holds Motherwell’s painting The sienna wall 1972–73, a large collection of print portfolios, etchings and lithographs, as well as the illustrated book El Negro 1983.