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Document Type

Feature Article

Publication Date

Spring 5-1-2012

Publication Title

Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest: WUURD 7(2)


Peer Editor: Rachael Tellerman; Faculty Mentors: Angela Miller and Sabine Eckmann

This study poses the question of whether Robert Motherwell differed from other Abstract Expressionists in his conception of the ethical implications of abstract painting. It is explored through an examination of Motherwell’s series of paintings the Elegies to the Spanish Republic, which serves as a requiem for the Spanish Republic which was defeated during the Spanish Civil War. Motherwell, who was interested in symbolist poetry, founded his theories of abstraction in the symbolist aesthetic. He believed that symbolism, with its recourse to sensory information to convey emotion and meaning, was the key to expanding the implications of abstraction beyond the formal realm. In his Elegies to the Spanish Republic Motherwell was inspired by the work of Spanish poet Federico García Lorca and, in particular, “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” [Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías], about the death of a bullfighter in the ring. In the Elegies Motherwell translated Lorca’s poetic tropes, such as repetition and a symbolist use of color, into visual elements in his paintings. Through a formal analysis of the Elegies to the Spanish Republic, an examination of Motherwell’s writing, and an analysis of Lorca’s “Llanto por Ignacio Sánchez Mejías” this study asserts that Motherwell’s use of a symbolist visual language in the abstract Elegies and his references to the poetry of Lorca, were intended to provide ethical ground for the Elegies. Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic are an insistent reminder of the atrocity of the Spanish Civil War and the tragic demise of the Spanish Republic.

From the Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest: WUURD, Volume 7, Issue 2, Spring 2012. Published by the Office of Undergraduate Research, Joy Zalis Kiefer Director of Undergraduate Research and Assistant Dean in the College of Arts & Sciences; Kristin Sobotka, Editor.


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