Although Robert Motherwell is slotted as a New York School painter, he grew up on the West Coast, and it was in San Francisco that the seed of the Elegies was planted. In 1937 the recent Stanford graduate attended a mass rally in a Van Ness Avenue lecture hall where the French writer André Malraux, fresh from aerial bombing runs against the fascists in Spain, was drumming up support for the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. With his disheveled suit, his Gauloise bobbing from his lips, and his heart-stabbing language, Malraux seemed the epitome of the engaged European intellectual. Motherwell was stunned by the human tragedy the writer described. That same romantic heroism and moral urgency would inform Motherwell’s art, especially the Elegies. A lament for Spain, where the Loyalists went down to defeat in 1939, they are also a meditation on the eternal and the ephemeral, on violence, joy, agony, death and hot blinding light.
Along with gallows, megaliths, and testicles (traditionally the bull’s testicles are displayed in the bullring after the corrida), the painting evokes the drumbeat of a funeral procession. So too does Federico García Lorca’s 1935 poem Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías, a dirge for a fatally gored bullfighter. Months after Motherwell did the ink sketch from which the Elegies evolved, he realized the connection between it and the refrain in García Lorca’s poem: “at five in the afternoon.” The artist took the poet’s words for the title of his first Elegy painting, a version of which is in this show. Thus he packed more allusions into the motif: the visual echo of García Lorca’s lament, the Elegies also serve as monuments to the poet himself, who was executed by the fascists at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.