Robert Motherwell was only 21 years old when the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, but its atrocities made an indelible impression on him, and he later devoted a series of more than 200 paintings to the theme. The tragic proportions of the three-year battle—more than 700,000 people were killed in combat and it occasioned the first air-raid bombings of civilians in history—roused many artists to respond. Most famously, Pablo Picasso created his monumental 1937 painting Guernica as an expression of outrage over the events. From Motherwell’s retrospective view, the war became a metaphor for all injustice. He conceived of his Elegies to the Spanish Republic as majestic commemorations of human suffering and as abstract, poetic symbols for the inexorable cycle of life and death.
Motherwell’s allusion to human mortality through a nonreferential visual language demonstrates his admiration for French Symbolism, an appreciation he shared with his fellow Abstract Expressionist painters. Motherwell was particularly inspired by the Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s belief that a poem should not represent some specific entity, idea, or event, but rather the emotive effect that it produces. The abstract motif common to most of the Elegies—an alternating pattern of bulbous shapes compressed between columnar forms—may be read as an indirect, open-ended reference to the experience of loss and the heroics of stoic resistance. The dialectical nature of life itself is expressed through the stark juxtaposition of black against white, which reverberates in the contrasting ovoid and rectilinear slab forms. About the Elegies, Motherwell said, “After a period of painting them, I discovered Black as one of my subjects—and with black, the contrasting white, a sense of life and death which to me is quite Spanish. They are essentially the Spanish black of death contrasted with the dazzle of a Matisse-like sunlight.” This and other remarks Motherwell made regarding the evolution of the Elegies indicate that form preceded iconography. Given that the Elegies date from an ink sketch made in 1948 to accompany a poem by Harold Rosenberg that was unrelated to the Spanish Civil War, and that their compositional syntax became increasingly intense, it seems all the more apparent that the “meaning” of each work in the series is subjective and evolves over time.