“a single marvellous thing on which to brood […] the most important 20th century German painting in Britain.”
Brian Sewell, Evening Standard
The Prometheus Triptych, the most important painting by Oskar Kokoschka in the United Kingdom, will be exhibited for the first time in over a decade. It 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 remarkable collection of Old Master paintings, to be displayed at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Prometheus was rarely seen in public during Seilern’s lifetime and because of its enormous size – the three canvases together measure over eight metres 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 realised.
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980) and Count 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 Kokoshka who was the only contemporary artist whose work formed a significant part of Seilern’s collection. Seilern devoted an entire room in Princes Gate 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 centre panel was drawn up in January 1950 for 17,500 Swiss francs and by 8 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 favour 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. Dennis Farr, former director of the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery, was taken to Princes Gate as a student to see Kokoschka at work and recalled that “dressed in his characteristic blue and white striped butcher’s apron … his dramatic, passionate performance, his glittering eyes and greying hair all made an indelible impression”.
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 15 July 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 civilisation were symbolised 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 Prometheus Triptych one is immediately struck by an explosion of form and colour with figures propelled through a void-like space ranging from the darkest shadows to the brightest lights. In the centre an apocalyptic vision unfolds of the four horsemen rising up with a gathering storm from the underworld and charging towards the earth. The right-hand panel depicts Prometheus as punished by Zeus, chained to a rock with an eagle pecking at his liver. However the left-hand panel 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 enthralling work will be accompanied by a range of documentary material comprising photographs, letters and catalogues 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 lithographs The Dreaming Youths, 1906-7, will be installed in an adjacent room.