The “Prometheus Triptych,” the most important painting by Oskar Kokoschka in the United Kingdom, will be exhibited for the first time in a decade at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, Somerset House, Strand, from Thursday, June 29, to Sunday, September 17. The exhibition will not only be the first devoted to the monumental “Prometheus Triptych,” one of Kokoschka’s largest and most ambitious works, but will also offer visitors a rare opportunity in a museum or gallery to contemplate in isolation just one great work of art.
The “Prometheus Triptych” was commissioned in 1950 by Count Antoine Seilern for the ceiling of his London house at 56 Princes Gate. After his death, the count bequeathed the triptych, together with his collection of Old Master paintings, to be displayed at the Courtauld Institute of Art. The triptych was rarely seen in public during Seilern’s lifetime and because of its enormous size – the three canvases together measure more than 12 feet wide – it has only been possible to show the work infrequently since his death. However, the artist’s fears for the future of his painting, which he thought would be abandoned and misunderstood by “a despicable contemporary world,” have not been realized.
Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Seilern (1901-1978) were both emigrés in London, having left their native Austria during the 1930s as the shadow of war loomed over Europe. Both were well-known figures in the Viennese art world and Kokoschka had made his reputation earlier in the century as one of the foremost avant-garde artists of the Vienna Secession alongside Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
Seilern bought a number of Kokoschka’s works during the war,but the idea of commissioning a ceiling painting only came in 1949.This represented a major commitment to Kokoschka, who was the onlycontemporary artist whose work formed a significant part ofSeilern’s collection and Seilern devoted an entire room in PrincesGate to Kokoschka’s paintings.
The ceiling project was first discussed in the summer of 1949, and by the end of the year Kokoschka had decided to begin work on a central panel depicting the Apocalypse, to be followed by two side panels. A contract for the center panel was drawn up in January 1950 for 17,500 Swiss francs and by early February Kokoschka had completed it. He then began work on the two side panels, initially with a scene of Amor and Psyche, which he abandoned in favor of Hades and Persephone. He worked on this simultaneously with the other panel, which depicts the punishment of Prometheus. Kokoschka seems to have made very few preparatory sketches for the paintings and worked at speed directly on the canvas.
Kokoschka worked with unceasing passion and commitment on the triptych, driven by a firm belief in the painting’s importance as his most complete and powerful artistic achievement. When he finished the monumental work on July 15, 1950, after only little more than six months, he wrote, “I put the last brush-stroke – I feel like saying axe-stroke – to my ceiling painting yesterday.”
Kokoschka intended the work to make a public statement, and when he persuaded Seilern to exhibit it at the 1952 Venice Biennale, he stated that the triptych was a warning of the consequences of “man’s intellectual arrogance.” He explained that the dangers faced by contemporary civilization were symbolized by the figure of Prometheus, “whose overweening nature drove him to steal fire so that man could challenge the gods.”
The artist’s fear was that culture and society were being dominated by science and technology, which threatened the freedom and individuality of mankind. Such fears became widespread as the cold war and nuclear arms race developed during the 1950s and the “Prometheus Triptych” can be seen as prophetic of the period.
When viewing the work, one is immediately struck by anexplosion of form and color with figures propelled through avoidlike space ranging from the darkest shadows to the brightestlights. In the center, an apocalyptic vision unfolds of the fourhorsemen rising up with a gathering storm from the underworld andcharging towards the earth.
The right-hand panel depicts Prometheus as punished by Zeus, chained to a rock with an eagle pecking at his liver. The left-hand panel, however, offers some sense of hope and regeneration with Persephone springing out of the clutches of Hades, who had abducted her, aided by her mother Demeter, who stands between them. In a late alteration to the panel, Kokoschka painted the figure of Hades as a self-portrait, adding a further layer of complexity to the work.
The exhibition of this work will be accompanied by a range of documentary material comprising photographs, letters and catalogs from archives in Vienna and London. The display will enhance the understanding of the painting’s contemporary context and allow the visitor to explore the background of the commission, its execution and subsequent reception. A selected display of Kokoschka’s works from Seilern’s collection, including the celebrated early woodcuts “The Dreaming Youths,” 1906-07, will be installed in an adjacent room.
In addition, there will be a gallery guide, a series of lectures and other educational events.
For information, 20 7848 2526 or www.courtauld.ac.uk.