Robert Motherwell

Robert Motherwell, “Elergy to the Spanish Republic No. 110”, Acrylic with Pencil and Charcoal on Canvas, 1971, Guggenheim Museum

The atrocities of the Spanish Civil War which started when he was twenty-one made an indelible impression on Robert Motherwell. who later devoted a series of more than two hundred paintings to the theme. From Motherwell’s retrospective view, the war became a metaphor for all injustice. He conceived of his series  “Elegies to the Spanish Republic” as majestic commemorations of human suffering and as poetic, abstract symbols for the unceasing cycle of life and death.

Motherwell demonstrates his admiration for French Symbolism with this series of paintings, an appreciation he shared with his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters. Motherwell was particularly inspired by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s belief that a poem should not represent some specific entity, idea, or event, but rather the emotive effect that it produces. The abstract motif common to most of the Energy series, an alternating pattern of bulbous shapes compressed between columnar forms, may be read as an indirect reference to the experience of loss and the heroics of stoic resistance.

The contentious nature of life itself is expressed through the stark juxtaposition of black against white, which is emphasized by contrasting ovoid and rectilinear slab forms. Concerning the Elergy series, Motherwell said, “After a period of painting them, 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.”

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