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Robert Motherwell, Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 57

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)