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Robert Motherwell. Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108. 1965-67

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Robert Motherwell (American, 1915–1991)

Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108

Oil on canvas
6' 10" x 11' 6 1/4" (208.2 x 351.1 cm)
Credit Line:
Charles Mergentime Fund
MoMA Number:

The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, MoMA Highlights New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 244

Elegy to the Spanish Republic, 108 describes a stately passage of the organic and the geometric, the accidental and the deliberate. Like other Abstract Expressionists, Motherwell was attracted to the Surrealist principle of automatism—of methods that escaped the artist's conscious intention—and his brushwork has an emotional charge, but within an overall structure of a certain severity. In fact Motherwell saw careful arrangements of color and form as the heart of abstract art, which, he said, "is stripped bare of other things in order to intensify it, its rhythms, spatial intervals, and color structure."

Motherwell intended his Elegies to the Spanish Republic (over 100 paintings, completed between 1948 and 1967) as a "lamentation or funeral song" after the Spanish Civil War. His recurring motif here is a rough black oval, repeated in varying sizes and degrees of compression and distortion. Instead of appearing as holes leading into a deeper space, these light-absorbent blots stand out against a ground of relatively even, predominantly white upright rectangles. They have various associations, but Motherwell himself related them to the display of the dead bull's testicles in the Spanish bullfighting ring.

Motherwell described the Elegies as his "private insistence that a terrible death happened that should not be forgot. But," he added, "the pictures are also general metaphors of the contrast between life and death, and their interrelation."

Audio Program excerpt

Abstract Expressionist New York: The Big Picture

, October 3, 2010–April 25, 2011

Art critic and historian, Dore Ashton: Motherwell was a true blue American. His father was a banker, which always embarrassed him. Unlike the others, he had gone to university. At times, they made fun of him because he was a rich boy from the West Coast.

All of the painters of the mid-to-late 1930s were very much interested in the Spanish Civil War, and they rightly intuited that it was the beginning of a second World War. And, Motherwell was one of the people that responded very deeply to the news of the Spanish Civil War, and therefore started this series, which brought him sometimes very severe criticism, that he only was repeating this thing.

Director, Glenn Lowry: This painting is one in a series of over one hundred Elegies to the Spanish Republic.

Dore Ashton: They were exclamations of a very serious intent. Motherwell was, I think, aware that we Americans had no history to speak of, as major figures in painting. He also thought there was something, which is called modern art. And he'd struggle to define it for himself.

Director, Glenn Lowry: Robert Motherwell, speaking in 1968.

Artist, Robert Motherwell: I suppose most of us felt that our passionate allegiance was not to American art, but that there was such a thing as modern art; that it was essentially international in character; that it was the greatest painting adventure of our time; that we wished to participate in it; that we wished to plant it here; that it would blossom in its own way here, as it had elsewhere.

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