Robert Motherwell, At Five in the Afternoon (detail), 1950. Oil on hardboard. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, bequest of Josephine Morris. Art © Dedalus Foundation Inc./Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Between Life and Death: Robert Motherwell’s Elegies in Bay Area Collections

Jump to

Mounted in celebration of the centennial of the artist’s birth, this one-room exhibition presents thirteen works by the pioneering Abstract Expressionist Robert Motherwell (1915 – 1991) from his seminal series Elegies to the Spanish Republic. The exhibition features the Fine Arts Museums’ painting At Five in the Afternoon (1950), one of the earliest works in the series, as well as prints from the artist’s books in the Achenbach collections. Additional works from the series are drawn from other local private and public collections.

In San Francisco in 1937, Motherwell heard the novelist and art theorist André Malraux speak at a rally concerning the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), provoking his interest in a moral issue that would provide the subject and inspiration for his work for the rest of his life. He ultimately produced more than 250 paintings and works on paper exploring the topic, allowing him to express in visual form what he described as a “funeral song for something one cared about.”

This focused exhibition is an opportunity to better understand and appreciate an important painting in the Museums’ collection and its relationship to one of Motherwell’s most significant bodies of work. Reflecting the chaos, turmoil, suffering, and moral uncertainties of the mid-twentieth century, the series is a testament to the timeless and transcendent aspects of the human condition, such as the co-existence of joy and pain, of hope and suffering, and of life and death.


This exhibition is organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in collaboration with the Dedalus Foundation.

Currently on view