Kokoschka photograph
Photograph of Kokoschka at work on The Prometheus Triptych, collections of the University of Applied Arts, Vienna, detail

This year the Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery’s programme of exhibitions explores aspects of Count Antoine Seilern’s distinguished paintings collection. The summer exhibition focused upon Oskar Kokoschka’s monumental Prometheus Triptych, commissioned by Seilern for the ceiling of his London home in 1950. These extraordinary paintings had not been on public display for over a decade and although Kokoschka feared that the triptych would be overlooked by future generations, this exhibition has greatly enhanced our understanding and appreciation of this ambitious and provocative work.

The exhibition has provided an opportunity to assess the physical condition of the canvases. The triptych, particularly the left canvas, has a recorded history of flaking and subsequent consolidation treatments. The large scale of the paintings; their complex, mixed media technique of oil and tempera and particularly the substantial re-working of large passages have all contributed to a tendency for the paint to become raised and flake away. This phenomena is largely related to those passages Kokoschka is known to have reworked, such as in the area between the figures of Demeter and Persephone. On examination of the works in store before the exhibition was finalised the central and right panels were found to be stable but the left panel had, once again, areas where the paint was raised. Whilst it was sufficiently stable to travel back to the Gallery these areas were consolidated prior to hanging which has stabilised the work for the medium term. Due to the inherent problems with the paint surface the canvases will require ongoing monitoring and further treatment in the future.

As well as providing an opportunity to conserve the triptych, exciting documentary material relating to the work has come to light from archives in Zürich and Vienna. This includes the discovery of photographs of the artist at work on the painting together with a cache of letters and diaries, which offer new information about the background to the commission. Thanks to the generous work of Dr Ruth Häusler at the Zentralbibliothek in Zürich, further material is continuing to be found including recently a letter written by Kokoschka’s wife Olda in September 1949. In it she persuades her husband to persevere in negotiations with Seilern over the commissioning of the triptych which had stalled due to a disagreement over the amount Kokoschka had proposed to charge. Olda reveals that Seilern had confided to her his plans to bequeath his entire collection to the Courtauld Institute of Art and she encourages Kokoschka to consider how important it would be to be “represented worthily” in such a major public collection. It is a fitting conclusion to the exhibition to discover that not only does the Courtauld safeguard the future life of the triptych but also may have played an important role in its very inception.

GRAEME BARRACLOUGH – Paintings Conservator