At Five in the Afternoon: Robert Motherwell Meets Federico García Lorca

Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon, 1950, oil on canvas, 3 x 4 feet.

I begin a painting with a series of mistakes. The painting comes out of the correction of mistakes by feeling. I begin with shapes and colors which are not related internally nor to the external world; I work without images. Ultimate unifications come about through modulation of the surface by innumerable trials and errors. The final picture is the process arrested at the moment when what I was looking for flashes into view. My pictures have layers of mistakes buried in them—an X-ray would disclose crimes—layers of consciousness, of willing. They are a succession of humiliations resulting from the realization that only in a state of quickened subjectivity—a freedom from conscious notions, and with what I always suppose to be secondary or accidental colors and shapes—do I find the unknown, which nevertheless I recognize when I come upon it, for which I am always searching. 

The absolute which lies in the background of all my activities of relating seems to retreat as I get on its track; yet the relative cannot exist without some point of support. However, the closer one gets to the absolute, the more mercilessly all the weaknesses of my work are revealed. 

For me the medium of oil painting resists, more strongly than others, content cut off from external relations. It continually threatens, because of its motility and subtlety, to complicate a work beyond the simplicity inherent in a high order of abstraction. I attribute my increasing devotion to oil, lately as against the constructionalism of collage, to a greater involvement in the human world. A shift in one’s human situation entails a shift in one’s technique and subject-matter.

—Robert Motherwell, “Statement,” Motherwell exhibition catalogue at Samuel Kootz Gallery, New York, 1947. 

After receiving his BA degree from Stanford University (1937), Robert Motherwell continued his studies at Harvard, completing one year of a the Ph.D program there. Motherwell dropped out, but in 1940 decided to continue his studies at Columbia University under the tutelage of celebrated art history professor Meyer Shapiro. Shapiro, recognizing Motherwell’s real desire to be a painter, introduced him to emigré painter and writer Kurt Seligmann, who was deeply versed in the tenets of Surrealism. It turned out to be Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta who most actively engaged Motherwell’s intellect, pushing him off on a journey to uncover his own original creative principle. 

A major turning point for Motherwell came in the summer of 1941, which he spent with Matta in Mexico. Matta introduced him to “automatism” (i.e. free association), and this set the painter to a technique he called “artful scribbling.  It became the starting point for all of his future work. Motherwell was intensely intellectual, and the process of accessing spontaneity was a perfect foil to his to impulse to reason. This device tapped into deep subconscious roots; for Motherwell it provided the means of getting to the innermost, or pre-conscious, self from which true creativity sprung.  Motherwell grabbed tightly a hold of the notion that pictures would, to paraphrase Miró, assert themselves under his brush. Through this overarching principle, he succeeded in brilliantly connecting in an unbroken line action painting (i.e.  The New York School) to Surrrealism. 

Perhaps Matta’s even more profound contribution to Motherwell’s development was his enthusiasm for the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca.

The aura of fatality is overwhelming in García Lorca’s 1934 poem “The Goring and the Death.” He repeats the line “at five in the afternoon” 28 times in 52 lines, forecasting the bullfighter’s death with each knell of the repeat. The poem is a metaphor for the Spanish Civil War, and an eerie foreshadowing of García Lorca’s own tragic death two years later at the hands of the Franco’s regime.  

At five in the afternoon 
It was exactly five in the afternoon.
A boy brought the white sheet
at five in the afternoon.
A basketful of lime in readiness
at five in the afternoon.
Beyond that, death and death alone
at five in the afternoon. 

Motherwell’s At Five in the Afternoon (1949) was a prelude to his artistic tour de force, the Elegy to the Spanish Republic series, which eventually came to include some 200 paintings.  Together they are a visual lament for the poet, his bullfighter, and the original Republic of Spain. 

Wider Connections

PBS  “American Masters” on Motherwell

SF MOMA’s Motherwell collection

Robert Motherwell: The Complete Prints

Selected Poems of Frederico García Lorca

Roberto Matta images

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