Triptych – The Apocalypse
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980), Triptych – The Apocalypse, 1950, © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka/ DACS 2021

The Myth of Prometheus

Oskar Kokoschka

Oskar Kokoschka was commissioned to paint this large triptych in 1950 by Count Antoine Seilern for the entrance-hall ceiling of his London house, 56 Princes Gate, South Kensington. Kokoschka spent over six months working on the canvases on easels in a room at the house. On 15 July he wrote: ‘I put the last brush-stroke (I feel like saying axe-stroke) to my ceiling painting yesterday… This is perhaps my last big painting, and perhaps it’s my best.’ The commission gave Kokoschka the opportunity to produce a monumental work following the tradition of Baroque painters such as Rubens and Tiepolo, whom he admired and whose work formed a central part of Seilern’s art collection.

Kokoschka reworked biblical and mythological stories in the triptych to express his fears for humanity following the Second World War and the beginning of the Cold War era. The central canvas shows the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse charging towards unsuspecting figures on the hillside opposite. This apocalyptic vision is flanked on the right by a canvas depicting Prometheus in chains, as punished by Zeus for stealing the fire of divine wisdom. For Kokoschka, Prometheus symbolised humanity’s deadly desire for power beyond its control. The left-hand canvas shows the earth goddess Demeter receiving her daughter Persephone as she is freed from the clutches of Hades, god of the underworld (represented as the artist’s self-portrait). This scene offers the hope of freedom and regeneration, which Kokoschka maintained was only possible by returning to compassionate maternal values, depicted here as the joyful reunion of mother and daughter.

“a single marvellous thing on which to brood […] the most important 20th century German painting in Britain.”
Brian Sewell, Evening Standard

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Two men sit across from each other at a table covered with a brown tablecloth, playing cards. Both men wear overcoats and hats, and the man on the left smokes a pipe. They sit inside a wooden building. i Paul Cézanne (1839-1906) The Card Players, around 1892-96, The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust)