Triptych - Prometheus
Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980)
Oil and tempera on canvas
Height: 256.5 cm ( frame ); Width: 249.4 cm ( frame ); Height: 239 cm ( canvas ); Width: 233.6 cm ( canvas ); Depth: 6.5 cm ( frame);
Acquisition (source, method, date)
Seilern, Antoine (Count); bequest; 1978
About this work
This work was commissioned by the collector Count Antoine Seilern (1901-1978) for the entrance hall ceiling of his London house, 56 Princes Gate, in South Kensington. Seilern had begun to collect Kokoschka’s work during the Second World War when both men were living in London as Austrian émigrés, having escaped Nazi occupation in Central Europe. After the war, Princes Gate became a centre for scholars and students who came to see Seilern’s important Old Master paintings and drawings. The Prometheus Triptych offered a powerful statement of Kokoschka’s commitment to continuing the Baroque traditions of artists such as Rubens and Tiepolo whose work formed the central part of the Princes Gate collection.
In The Prometheus Triptych, Kokoschka revives Baroque qualities of vigorous figural movement and emotional intensity. His turbulent brushwork and use of plunging perspectives pulls the viewer into its pictorial space. By doing so, he hoped to counter contemporary trends towards abstract art, which he saw as two dimensional and coldly rational, lacking the emotional values which he regarded as essential for the survival of humanity and civilisation.
At the centre of the triptych is an explosive image of the biblical Apocalypse. This is flanked on the left by mythological scenes of Persephone escaping from Hades, and on the right by the punishment of Prometheus. Kokoschka intended this potent combination of subject matter to be a warning of the dangers of ‘man’s intellectual arrogance’. The recent experience of the Second World War convinced Kokoschka that civilisation had lost sight of compassion and its humanity in the pursuit of technological and scientific advancement. The Prometheus Triptych was painted in the belief that art had the potential to open the eyes of society to this impending crisis.
(Permanent collection label)
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Copyright: © The Samuel Courtauld Trust, The Courtauld Gallery, London/DACS 2003