Elegy to sight loss, Motherwell Elegy to the Spanish Republic.

Sculptural idea developed from Motherwell's Elegy paintings.

In looking directly at my project brief 'ways of seeing' I was developing ideas that engaged with the process of distorted vision as directly experienced by myself. I was looking at ways of presenting this and the context in which I could make this visible to the viewer. I had become very interested in abstract expressionism and in particular the works of Robert Motherwell. Motherwell for me represented the intellectual force of the movement and was someone who was highly regarded for his writing as well as his painting. He studied philosophy and aesthetics at Stanford and Harvard and became one of the few Abstract Expressionists who regularly discussed his art and its theory, making his ideas available through frequent lectures, writing and interviews.

I turned to Motherwell as he seemed to be a link to a period of pure painterly abstraction that could provide an intellectual foundation to ideas contained within 21st century modern art. I recognise that earlier I had addressed the idea of over intellectualism but Motherwell for me seemed to be doing something very important and I wanted to engage with his vast series of paintings dealing with the theme of the Spanish civil war and the rise of fascism in Europe.

I found it interesting that Motherwell had taken a subject that Picasso owned from a painting perspective with his formidable Guernica and sought to reduce it to its essential emotional elements. To take this great work and reinvent it as a collection of pure abstract tones of black, grey and white and vertical blocks and ovoids suggested enormous self belief in this form of expression. Motherwell's background in philosophy and aesthetics seemed to give him the appropriate gravitas to attempt this even though at the time this method of painting was largely ignored and not considered intelligent art.

Motherwell went on to spend 40 years working on these paintings and he produced over 140 dealing with this same subject matter. His paintings represented the loss of democracy and the dark brooding forces lying at the heart of fascism. He sought an abstract language that could embody his humanist feelings and his deep sense of loss and mourning. There were a number of leading writers and artists that were profoundly affected by the Spanish civil war on both sides of the Atlantic and each were formulating their own unique response to the events. Motherwell chose the abstracted reduced form that on initial viewing makes his symbology hard to associate with precise meanings of the conflict but he instead strongly believed that the internal dark brooding power of these forms could convey the depth of his emotional disquiet.

Motherwell had looked to develop a new pictorial language and it was interesting that these early Elegy paintings were influenced by poetry. The structure of some of Lorca's poetry together with that of his friend Harold Rosenborg seemed to encourage Motherwell to look for something he might be able to poetically replicate as a visual experience. His reduced forms were designed to elicit a direct emotional response just as poetry works on the emotional response to language. Poetry leaves gaps and works with the essential reduced elements of language to develop an emotional response and Motherwell was similarly looking for the poetic reduced form in his paintings. Lorca had used the term pena negra (black grief) and Motherwell had characterised his alternating black abstract shapes as being representative of Lorca's language.

I was very interested in the cross fertilisation between poetry and abstract art. I was also interested in Motherwell taking another field of painting as a starting point and reducing this to his own form that he felt might better express his visual response which was more akin to the emotional feelings derived from poetry. It isn't surprising that someone who had started out by studying philosophy and language might see a visual route back to that which would enable him to explore the visual surface of the canvas as a space for poetry and philosophy.

In my piece I took these vertical forms that had represented in Motherwell's work towers of grief or a general dark brooding presence and converted that into a sculptural sense of the vertical using recycled plastic sheeting cut into 3 long strips. I was influenced by the long strips of fabric one sees at the fascist rallies in 1930's Germany that usually contain a symbolic emblem at their centre. I felt these shapes held a power that historically belonged to art and ideas of grief or loss. The idea of expressing personal sight loss as these long vertical columns seemed an appropriate way to represent my own mourning and loss. The size of these strips suggests an overwhelming sense of inevitability and their black stillness a sadness and impending blackness.

The piece is really a compiled journey to sight loss from my perspective. It begins with the visual distortion which is represented by the black electrical tape that doesn't match up across the 3 columns. I have represented the early stages of light dimming via the grey columns which stand in front of the final black strips which are the eventual dark blindness or complete lack of light. I personally think it is interesting to explore one's project within the context of greater art works and to use them as a basis for developing and creating one's own visual responses. I am also very interested in the link between other art forms such as poetry and music and how they might cross into a visual language. Motherwell sought his foundations in philosophy and poetry and to reduce what the canvas held in order to convey pure elements of emotion. His canvases needed to be empty of all but the essential components in order that he could develop his visual ideas. I felt it much like Malevich returning to the black square in order to clear the visual field for his new work.

I am not sure I agree entirely with Motherwell's wider supposition that 'without ethical consciousness the audience is only sensual, one of aesthetes…. ‘The Elegies’ reflect the internationalist in me, interested in the historical forces of the 20th century, with strong feelings about the conflicting forces in it.… Without ethical consciousness, the painter is only a decorator.' This may be a part of the elegies themselves but as an abstract expressionist it does seem strange that he would try to reduce expression itself into these conflicting categories. As a philosopher his idea of a universality of ethics as some constant unchanging force that all viewers of art can relate to and engage with seems strange. This would heavily limit the subject matters artists could engage with and introduce another very narrow prescriptive approach and further interpretative processes which abstract expressionism seemed to be itself all about undoing.

 

 

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