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Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 57

Video transcript

we're at SFMOMA and we're looking at our large Robert Motherwell elegy to the Spanish Republic number 57 and it was made in 1957 finished in 1960 and there are a whole lot of Motherwell's that look a lot like this and that are about the same subject and it's a series that he did that occupied most of his life that's right he made over 140 canvases the very first one is very small it was done on an eight and a half by eleven sheet of paper in ink it was meant to illustrate a poem written by his friend and colleague Harold Rosenberg the art critic Rosenberg and mother well this is a decade earlier now in 1948 were Co editing an artist magazine called possibilities there was only one issue however and this never made it into that ill-fated second issue so these forms these hanging suspended oval forms the horizontal rectangular shapes that don't ever quite touch the bottom of the painterly quality around the edges of the forms it being hard to tell whether the white pages in front of the black paint or vice-versa these are things that we see in this entire series so there's something about these shapes and the way that they were painted in the black and white that suggested for Motherwell something about fascism and the Spanish Republic and Franco all issues relating to the Spanish Civil War and the loss of democracy this opening gambit of what would become the violence of the second world war mother while seeking an abstract language that could embody his humanist feelings and his deep sense of loss and morning and elegy for the tragedies that had taken place in Europe and many artists were involved in the Spanish Civil War right that's alright a lot of Americans and other Europeans were deeply sympathetic to the democratic ideals of the Republic and so it's hard to know what these forms meant to him precisely but it's not hard to feel a brooding sense of entrapment when standing in front of canvas that paint can also be emotionally dry is absolutely appropriate for Motherwell's ideas at this time mother will was a painter but he was also a critic and he stood in philosophy and literature and he's actually referencing not only that original poem that this motif was intended really to illustrate but then he quotes the great Spanish poet Lorca in the first in this series which is at 5:00 in the afternoon that early poem by Rosenberg that this motif originally Illustrated had a feeling of sadism and suffering suffering and so that becomes transferred to this idea of looking at the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War it's hard to look at this canvas for me at least to not feel the profound loss and violence and Motherwell's need to find an idiom a visual language that can convey it that is solemn enough perhaps the figurative tradition feels inadequate and let's not forget at this moment in history franco is still ruling spain fascism is still very much alive when this is being painted Guernica by Picasso which other one was thinking about that painting that is blacks and whites and grays and that expresses the horrors of a specific moment than the Spanish Civil Wars right remember it was at MoMA because picasso wouldn't let it go back to spain so long as franco was in power so these were still real issues so speaking to that violence that had been so prevalent for so long in europe and trying to find a new kind of pictorial language this is an artist that we associate with this great american school of painting Abstract Expressionism but mother will reminds us that Abstract Expressionism is tied to Europe and that its concerns are not purely American you