Follow Us on Twitter

Oskar Kokoschka: The Prometheus Triptych

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

The Prometheus Triptych, the most important painting by Oskar Kokoschka in the UK, will be exhibited for the first time in a decade at the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery in Somerset House, from June 29 to September 17, 2006.

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 to contemplate just one great work of art in isolation.

The Prometheus Triptych was commissioned in 1950 by Count Antoine Seilern for the ceiling of his London home. After his death and in keeping with his wishes, it went to the Courtauld Institute of Art, together with his remarkable collection of Old Master paintings.

Because of its enormous size (the three canvases together are more than eight metres wide), it was rarely seen in public during Seilern’s lifetime; and only infrequently since his death.

However, Kokoschka’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.

The painting consists of three panels. In the centre, is an apocalyptic vision of 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 this left-hand panel, Kokoschka painted the figure of Hades as a self-portrait, thus adding another layer of complexity to the work.

Kokoschka did, in fact, intend the work to make a public statement and when it was first exhibited at the 1952 Venice Biennale, he stated that it was a warning of the consequences of “man’s intellectual arrogance”.

As he explained, 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”.

His fear – that culture and society were being dominated by science and technology which threatened the freedom and individuality of mankind – became more widespread as the cold war and the nuclear arms race gathered pace during the 1950s. Thus, the Prometheus Triptych can be seen as prophetic of the period.

The exhibition will be accompanied by photographs, letters and catalogues from archives in Vienna and London; while in an adjacent room, a selection of Kokoschka’s works from Seilern’s collection, including the celebrated early woodcuts The Dreaming Youths (1906-7) will be on display.

Opening hours: Daily 10am to 6pm (last admission 5.15pm)

Tickets: Included in admission to permanent collection: Adult: £5, concessions £4, free on Mondays (10am to 2pm) and at all times for under 18s, full-time UK students and unwaged.