In his eulogy for Robert Motherwell the English critic Bryan Robertson remarked, “No other artist in this century could have been quite so much in love with literature, and, above all, poetry.” It is thus not surprising that at different stages of his life the artist was thinking of illustrating poems, among them Charles Baudelaire’s complete poems, Richard Huelsenbeck’s Dada poems, Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables, and Rafael Alberti’s A la Pintura.
When in 1972 the shelves of his personal library were overflowing, it was time once again for him to donate parts of it. While I was helping to prepare a preliminary selection of books to be donated, some small drawings fell out of one of the volumes (of unrelated content, as it turned out). These pen-and-ink contour drawings of animals—a dog, a tortoise, a bee, a grasshopper, and three lions—were at first glance reminiscent of some of Picasso’s drawings, such as the stag with his “line-dot” antlers and the quasi “one-line” lions. I was unsure about what I had stumbled upon and showed them to Robert who, obviously delighted about the surprising find, told me their story.
In 1945 he had been commissioned by publishers Reynal & Hitchcock to illustrate an edition of Jean de la Fontaine’s Fables, which Marianne Moore was translating into English. Both Motherwell and Moore had accepted their respective commissions with enthusiasm. She, like the seventeenth century French poet, was a keen observer of animals, and looked forward to translating the language of Louis XIV into contemporary English. With enthusiasm grounded in his devotion to Moore’s poetry he would be illustrating her elegant verse which—he wrote to her—he had admired all his adult life.
At the time, Motherwell’s drawings were already held in high esteem; a reviewer of his first solo exhibition at the Samuel M. Kootz Gallery considered the drawings on display “his most characteristic expression.” In any case his being chosen as the illustrator for the volume was not as incongruous as it may seem today.
In 1944, he had published a review of an illustrated children’s book in The New Republic. “Calder’s Three Young Rats” was a collection of old rhymes with drawings by the sculptor, and Motherwell praised the images: “They are the illustrations of a man who has done what no other American has yet been able to do—create a great non-illustrative art—and who knows in consequence where the problems of art cease and those of illustration begin.” That may have been on his mind as he approached the Fables. When he praises Calder’s drawings as being “based on line, on outline . . . fresh, simple, humorous, awkward, direct,” he could have been describing his own, which in their brevity and directness match those simple tales with a moral.
During the summer of 1945, after Motherwell had completed a group of the commissioned drawings (some with collaged elements), he learned that Moore had decided on a bilingual publication, with La Fontaine’s French original and Moore’s translation on facing pages, leaving no room for images. The commission having been cancelled, Motherwell wrote to Moore, graciously accepting her decision, upon which she, in turn, assured him of her enduring admiration of his art.
The collaboration between the young artist and the revered older poet had not materialized and was all but forgotten until that day in 1972 when some of the Fable-related drawings fell out of a book slated for deaccession. That discovery so delighted the artist that he presented one of the three little lions to me.
The lion plays many roles in the Fables first told by Aesop, in La Fontaine’s retelling, and eventually in Moore’s translation of the latter. Motherwell chose the roaring lion featured in “The Lion and the Mouse.” The beast is rendered as a stick figure with attributes reduced to essentials: the open mouth spiked with teeth, a ruff for a mane, eyes, and testicles. In 1948 those ovoid shapes would return as the dominant feature in another Motherwell illustration of a poem, Harold Rosenberg’s “The Bird for Every Bird” (1948). Soon followed by the closely related composition titled At Five in the Afternoon (1948–89), that drawing marks the beginning of the series “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” (1948-91). The ovals in the Elegies can be compared to attributes characterizing not only the bull but also the little male lion. Is it too daring to claim that the origin of Motherwell’s signature image can be traced back to his illustration of a poem?
While the Marianne Moore project had not come to fruition, the animal drawings of 1945 were rediscovered just when the artist had completed one of the great livres d’artiste of the twentieth century: Rafael Alberti’s A la Pintura (1948), a poem about color, lavishly illustrated by Motherwell, was published to great acclaim in 1972.