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Robert Motherwell

American, 1915–1991

Art © Dedalus Foundation, Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Elegy to the Spanish Republic XXXIV, 1953–54

Oil on canvas
82 x 102 x 2 15/16 inches (208.3 x 259.1 x 7.5 cm)
Gift of Seymour H. Knox, Jr., 1957

Robert Motherwell painted more than one hundred works in the series "Elegy to the Spanish Republic." Each contains black, vertically oriented elements alternating with ovoid forms, and refers to the Spanish Civil War, which lasted from 1936 to 1939 and left fascist dictator Francisco Franco in power. Motherwell began the series in 1948, almost a decade after the war’s end, but recalled "I was twenty-one in 1936, and that was the most moving political event of the time."

The artists's studies in philosophy, psychoanalytic theory, and aesthetics are reflected in many aspects of the “Elegy” series. For example, the black-and-white contrasts that dominate the image could refer to opposites such as night and day, death and life, and oppression and freedom. This last interpretation is underscored by the colors in the background—those of the flag of the Spanish Republic—that are blotted out by the black forms in the foreground. Although Motherwell stated that the "Elegies" are not political, he did say they were his "private insistence that a terrible death happened should not be forgot."

There is a tinge of nostalgia in these images as well. An elegy is a song or poem that expresses sadness for something that is lost, and the rhythm of an elegy could be compared to the rhythm of the black forms moving slowly and solemnly across the canvas.

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