Motherwell's Elegies to the Spanish Republic is a collective title that describes a body of work that occupied the artist for over forty years from the late 1940s to his death in 1991. Numbering just over one hundred and seventy 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.
The recurring motif that defines the Elegies to the Spanish Republic first appeared in 1948 in a pen and ink drawing by Motherwell which was intended to illustrate a poem by writer and critic Harold Rosenberg in the second (unpublished) issue of the periodical Possibilities. Motherwell returned to the motif a year later in a small painting, At five in the afternoon 1949, the title indebted to a poem by the Spanish playright and poet Federico García Lorca (1898-1936). Lorca's poem, Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías [Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías] 1935, was dedicated to the legendary Spanish matador who suffered a mortal wound from a black bull named Granandino, 'at five in the afternoon'.
Lorca was killed a year later, in 1936, by the Fascists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. At five in the afternoon and the later Elegies can be seen as Motherwell's attempt to find a 'visual equivalent' to Lorca's poetry. As H.H. Arnason commented, Lorca's poetry, with its universal themes of life and death, rekindled Motherwell's youthful idealism and passion for the cause of the Spanish Republic whose demise had a significant impact on Motherwell's generation.1
It was in the early 1950s that Motherwell began to use the generic title Elegy to the Spanish Republic to mark this significant body of his work. As the artist later explained:
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 … 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…2
As Arnason observed:
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.3
The illustration in which the Elegies had their genesis was black and white, a natural consequence of the fact that Possibilities was printed in black and white.4 Yet as Motherwell reworked the image and expanded the boundaries of its meaning, as Joan Banach has commented, the elegy motif became 'a vehicle for representing various rituals of mourning, charged by the unbounded potential and power he recognized in Federico García Lorca's poetic conception of pena negra or literally, "black grief" ',5 a colour that possessed an eloquent and talismanic power for Motherwell. In the National Gallery of Australia's Elegy to the Spanish Republic, the black forms march across the canvas, the traces of ochre underpainting evident around the central oval and single sky-blue horizon line, the only concessions to colour.
By the late 1950s Motherwell had completed over fifty Elegies. In the spring of 1958 he married the painter Helen Frankenthaler and during the summer vacationed in Spain and France, renting a villa in St Jean-de-Luz, France, near the Spanish border. It was the first time Motherwell had visited Spain, and was a period of frenetic activity during which he painted his Iberia series. Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958, which is uncharacteristically unnumbered, was probably painted in the second half of that year after the artist returned from Europe, perhaps with renewed commitment to the series.
Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958 is particularly interesting because it is the earliest of the Elegies in which the artist has used the acrylic paint, Magma, a brand invented by Leonard Bocour, which a number of major American artists experimented with in the late 1950s. Magma was known for its high concentration of pigment that meant it retained the intensity of colour even when thinned. In 1958 a new formula of Magma was introduced which brought the acrylic closer in consistency to that of oil paint, which may have encouraged Motherwell to try the medium. The National Gallery of Australia's Elegy to the Spanish Republic thus heralds a period of transition. During the early 1960s Motherwell shifted between oil and acrylic paint, however, and by the time he embarked on the Open series in 1968, he worked almost exclusively in acrylic paint for the rest of his career.
Motherwell kept Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958 in his studio until his death, along with a 'companion' painting Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958-60,6 in oil and charcoal on canvas, of similar dimensions to the National Gallery of Australia's work and likewise unnumbered. Both were very 'personal' paintings that were not exhibited or reproduced in photographs during the artist's lifetime. They indicate an important point in the artist's career. Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958-60 appears a summation of the series so far, whereas the National Gallery of Australia's Elegy to the Spanish Republic 1958, marks the beginning of a new phase, exploring the subtleties of a new medium within the established imagery of the Elegies.
Though abstract in appearance there is an essential message in each Elegy and in the series as a whole. As Motherwell's statement in the catalogue to the exhibition The New American Painting 1958-59 testifies:
I believe that painters' judgements of painting are first ethical, then aesthetic, the aesthetic judgements flowing from an ethical context …
Without ethical consciousness, a painter is only a decorator.
Without ethical consciousness, the audience is only sensual, one of aesthetes.7