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Robert Motherwell paintings, collages and prints at National Gallery of Australia

It was a classic case of louche New York gallery-goers and a misunderstood artist.

When New York artist Robert Motherwell began work on a series of images in the late 1940s, inspired by a dark Spanish poem about a fallen matador, his wife had just left him and he was suicidal.

NGA senior curator Jane Kinsman studies a portrait of the artist at the Robert Motherwell exhibition.
NGA senior curator Jane Kinsman studies a portrait of the artist at the Robert Motherwell exhibition. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

And when he eventually showed the work in a gallery, he named them after a repeated refrain in the poem – "At five in the afternoon".

Unfortunately, most gallery-goers assumed the title was a reference to cocktail hour, prompting a despondent Motherwell to begin referring to the works as “elegies” instead.

But these brooding works form just part of a vivid new exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia exploring the work of one of the key players of the abstract expressionist movement in America.

The exhibition – named after the whimsical cocktail faux-pas – draws on the gallery’s substantial collection of paintings, collages and prints by Motherwell.


Curator Jane Kinsman said the show – the first extensive look at the artist’s work in Australia – encompassed the three main phases of his career, not all of which was shadowed by the darkness of the Elegy series.

In fact, as a native Californian, his work was often infused with light and colour.

“He’s got that bright-light sensibility – big shadows and big colours,” she said.

She said he was drawn, early on, to the works of Matisse and Picasso, and once introduced to the community of Surrealists in New York who had fled Europe as World War II approached, he began creating “automatic” drawings.

Although they were created rapidly in an “unconscious” style, Motherwell’s works nevertheless resembled calligraphy.

He later became interested in collage, “a very important new way of making art in the early 20th century, and Motherwell really took to it”.

“He and [Jackson] Pollock worked on collages together for Peggy Guggenheim early in their career, and Motherwell continued that. We can see some early collages here where he’s going step by step, looking at things and working out colours and forms and so on.”

He also moved into printmaking, a medium Pollock was never able to understand or master.

“You can see as the exhibition progresses, he [Motherwell[ is expanding his horizons,” Ms Kinsman said.

As well as works from his long-term Elegy series, there is also a set of small prints in homage to James Joyce, a writer he admired enough to name his own foundation Dedalus, after Joyce’s literary alter-ego.

Robert Motherwell: At five in the afternoon is showing at the National Gallery of Australia until October 6.