Motherwell’s series Elegy to the Spanish Republic, is derived in a very sophisticated way from a poem by Lorca called “Lament for Ignacio Sánchez Mejías,” an account of the death of a bullfighter. Motherwell shows his superiority to the leftist art of the thirties, an important antagonistic source for all the abstract expressionists, by recognizing that the history of the left is a history of defeats, and so any authentic leftist art has to be elegiac rather than heroic. How he tries to make the work heroic again, and how difficult it was to do that, is the interesting story.
The imagery of Motherwell’s series, black egg like ovals and black sometimes curved phallic verticals, comes from the poem and from the history of the bullfight. Because of the position of the bull’s head, in the final passes toreros often take wounds in the inside of their thighs, so castration is always a risk. Lorca has the line “death laid eggs in the wound,” which refers literally to the gangrene that killed Mejías, but “eggs” is also slang for testicles. Historically, a great fight might result in the awarding of the bull’s organs to the torero as an honor, but in modern times this has been substituted by the ears. Motherwell’s pictures are enormous emblems of castration.
The question that arises is whether they are too literary or not literary enough.