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Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 57

Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 57, 1957-60, oil on canvas, 84 x 109-1/8 inches (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • male robot hal style avatar for user markomalley
    Seriously, isn't there more creativity shown by by the critics here, in an attempt to wring some meaning out of this, than was ever input by the artist?
    (11 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Valentina Ramirez
    Is it just me or is the negative space of the forms much more interesting than the actual forms? They look like the letter C forward and backward, but in a clawlike form. Just me?...
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user Daryl Fell
      Thanks for pointing this out Valentina. I think in light of the comments by the art historians your perception adds greater menace to the brooding heaviness. The "c's" are like claws. More than the despair, I think there is a certain violence in this work. The heaviness of the black and oppression as previously stated.
      (3 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user DRB
    What is the "language" being used here? Language, according to Merriam Webster, as I believe it is meant here, is "a systematic means of communicating ideas or feelings by the use of conventionalized signs, sounds, gestures, or marks having understood meanings." I would like to know how this these forms constitute a language.

    It is suggested at that there is something about these shapes that suggested fascism or the Spanish Civil War. What was it, and how is it being communicated to his viewers other than the title? How can we judge whether he was successful? How are they any different from any other black shapes?

    When I read this painting, I see arrogance and carelessness. I see a realization that Motherwell held such a privileged place in the art world from the connections that he was able to make at Stanford and Harvard that the need to communicate anything was put aside by his ability to push his own interpretation of his work.

    I know several generally unsuccessful painters. If they were to paint some random shapes enclosed in black on a canvas, naming it Elegy to the Constitutional Republic of Iraq, what would be the grounds for keeping it out of MOMA? In essence, rather than saying what this painting is, how can we define what this painting is not?
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    about 3/4 of the way through the video (the time thing wasn't registering), Dr. Zucker states that Motherwell was thinking of Picasso's Guernica when he painted the Elegy to the
    Spanish Republic. How is that known? Did Motherwell write it, or say as much in an interview?
    (3 votes)
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Video transcript

(lively music playing) Voiceover: We're at SFMOMA, and we're looking at a large Robert Motherwell, "Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 57," and it was made in 1957, finished in 1960. Voiceover: And there are a whole lot of Motherwells 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. Voiceover: That's right. He made over 140 canvases. The very first one is very small. It was done on an 8-1/2×11 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 Motherwell, 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. Voiceover: So these forms, these hanging suspended oval forms, the horizontal rectangular shapes that don't ever quite touch the bottom, the painterly quality around the edges of the forms, it being hard to tell whether the white paint is in front of the black paint or vice versa, these are things that we see in this entire series. There is something about these shapes and the way that they were painted and the black and white that suggested for Motherwell something about fascism and the Spanish Republic and Franco. Voiceover: 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. Motherwell was seeking an abstract language that could embody his humanist feelings and his deep sense of loss and mourning and elegy for the tragedies that had taken place in Europe. Voiceover: And many artists were involved in the Spanish Civil War, and writers. That's right. A lot of Americans and other Europeans were deeply sympathetic to the democratic ideals of the Republic. Voiceover: 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 the canvas. Voiceover: That paint can also be emotionally direct is absolutely appropriate for Motherwell's ideas at this time. Motherwell was a painter, but he was also a critic and interested in philosophy and literature. He is actually referencing not only that original poem that this motif was intended originally to illustrate, but then he quotes the great Spanish poet Lorca in the first in this series, which is, "At Five in the Afternoon." Voiceover: That poem by Rosenberg that this motif originally illustrated had a feeling of sadism. Voiceover: And suffering. Voiceover: And suffering. And so that becomes transferred to this idea of looking at the Spanish Republic and the Spanish Civil War. Voiceover: It's hard to look at this canvas, for me at least, and 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. Voiceover: And let's not forget, at this moment in history, Franco is still ruling Spain. Fascism is still very much alive. Voiceover: When this is being painted, "Guernica" by Picasso, which Motherwell was thinking about, that painting that is blacks and whites and grays. Voiceover: And that expresses the horrors of a specific moment in the Spanish Civil War. Voiceover: That's 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. Voiceover: 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. Voiceover: This is an artist that we associate with this great American school of painting, Abstract Expressionism. But Motherwell reminds us that abstract expressionism is tied to Europe and that its concerns are not purely American. (lively piano music)