“Without ethical consciousness the audience is only sensual, one of aesthetes… without ethical consciousness, the painter is only a decorator,” declared Robert Motherwell, the creator of the monumental series “Elegy to the Spanish Republic”, which was recently on display at the Dominique Levy Gallery in NYC, where it ran from November 2015 through January 2016. Those of us who gathered at this retrospective in early December epitomized the kind of audience the artist desired, as our multigenerational group of 25 consisted of many relatives and supporters of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, including two sets of sisters, a grandchild, and four daughters whose fathers had been incarcerated in San Pedro, as well as ALBA director Marina Garde. How fitting that the family of Lincoln Vet Ernest Amatniek had come here to mark his 100th birthday at an exhibition celebrating the centenary of Motherwell’s birth! As the docent it was an honor to lead this group who greatly admired the artist’s steadfast anti-fascist commitment, which had led him to complete 250 works in this series, working from 1948 right up until his death in 1991 on a subgroup titled “Mourning Elegies.”
We understood and related to Motherwell’s conviction that the Spanish anti-fascist war was “the most moving political event of my early life…a prologue to the great drama of my generation, World War II.” In a sense, Motherwell was a figurative precursor to the ARMH, the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, raising a stubborn insistence that the heroes and values of the Second Spanish Republic should not be forgotten, during a period in which Republican prisoners were used as slave laborers to construct the monument for the “Valley of the (fascist) Fallen,” when families lived in fear of acknowledging Republicans buried in mass graves and Franco was hailed as a US ally of the Free World. He said: “these paintings reflect…a private insistence that a terrible death has happened that should not be forgot…it occurred to me that I cared deepest about the defeat of the Spanish republic. In 1949, with WW II having ended, I felt that the Spanish republic was largely forgotten. The image fitted my sense that there ought to be an elegy, a funeral lament, for the Spanish republic.” In that light, we regarded the tall vertical shapes in the Elegies as stelai marking the graves of the unsung Republican heroes and their humanity. Beginning the Elegy series before the political climate in Spain permitted actual physical exhumations, identifications and reburials with dignity, Motherwell insisted on accountability, convinced that tragedy repeats itself in our memory no matter how much time has passed. Indeed the poet Barbara Guest compares Motherwell to a type of forensic anthropologist in her own homage to Motherwell “All Elegies are Black and White” with the lines “I think when you oppose black against white, /Archaeologist, you have raised a dream which is bitter”.
While our group agreed that we shared a common language with Motherwell in terms of his works’ cultural and political references, we sought to gain a deeper understanding of the visual vocabulary and language of the Elegies. There were many questions as to why the artist had responded to the fall of the Spanish Republic in a style that bridged the gap between surrealism and abstract expressionism. We wanted to see how the art on display reflected the “ethical consciousness” without which, in Motherwell’s own words, “the artist was merely a decorator.” Fortunately, Motherwell, who lectured and taught throughout his career, shed some light on it when he eloquently stated that after the world had witnessed the unprecedented carnage of the fascist bombardments and attacks on civilians, “figurative tradition was inadequate, the mind forgets language, it loses representation…Bright color no longer represents social reality…Velázquez, Goya and Picasso’s Guernica play down colors in favor of grays and blacks, a somber symbolization of reality for which I have always felt a shock of recognition.”
With that context in mind, people began to bring their own experiences to their perceptions as they studied the Elegies. We all slowed down, adjusting our eyes to note the subtle variations and shifts from one canvas to another even as all the paintings worked within the limited color palette and range of shapes to which Motherwell limited himself. It was exciting to be part of this community constructing meaning together. One participant likened the black ovoids to the seeds of the Republican ideals buried under the white snows of winter, citing the optimism of the refrain from the German anti-fascist song Peat Bog Soldiers, which states “Winter will in time be past.” Some saw the black shapes as women clad in traditional Spanish mourning, while the ovoids evoked the bombs and artillery unleashed on the civilian population for others. One person observed how thinly Motherwell had applied a coat of white paint in one variation, comparing the traces of ochre and brown earthtones which could be seen underneath to the debris of both the moral decay and the contents of the unmarked graves, whitewashed and buried under the dictatorship of Franco. As if to confirm this, in a video at the gallery Motherwell, an artist who drew on literary correspondences in his work cites the influence of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in particular a reference to life as a “whited sepulcher.” Sharing our interpretations enhanced the viewing for us all, which concluded with a reading of Barbara Guest’s “All Elegies are Black and White: to Robert Motherwell,” excerpted below. Many thanks to Sue Yellin and Georgia Weaver for helping to coordinate this event.
All Elegies are Black and White
Barbara Guest to Robert Motherwell
To make an elegy of Spain
Is to make a song of the abyss.
It is to cut a gorge into one’s soul
Which is suddenly no longer private.
This privacy which has become invaded
straightens itself up, it sings,
“I am proud as a canon.”
Can you imagine the shock over the world
Against which two enormous black rocks roll
This world that looks like a white cloud
Shifting it’s buttocks?
When the guitar strikes…
A procession of those tasters of ecstasy…
Whose black songs are elegies
Whose elegies are white.
Nancy Wallach, daughter of Lincoln Veteran Hy Wallach, is a member of the ALBA board.