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.”
Elegy to the Spanish
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, MoMA Highlights New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 244.