Oskar Kokoschka: The Prometheus Triptych, 29 June – 17 September

The Myth of Prometheus Triptych
Oscar Kokoschka The Myth of Prometheus Triptych, The Apocalypse, 1950, Oil on canvas, Detail

This summer sees the return to public display of one of the Courtauld Gallery’s most important 20th century paintings, Oskar Kokoschka’s monumental Prometheus Triptych. It has been ten years since the three huge canvases were last shown and this will be the first exhibition devoted entirely to this complex work, which Kokoschka’s considered to be his major statement on art, myth and society.

The Prometheus Triptych was commissioned in 1950 by Count Antoine Seilern for the ceiling his London house at 56 Princes Gate. Kokoschka painted the three enormous canvases, measuring over 8 metres in total length, on the premises in a little over six months. On 15 July Kokoschka wrote, “I put the last brush-stroke (I feel like saying axe-stroke) to my ceiling painting yesterday.” Dennis Farr, former Director of the Courtauld Institute Galleries, visited Princes Gate as a student and saw Kokoschka at work on the triptych, recalling recently that “dressed in his characteristic blue-and-white striped butchers’ apron… his dramatic, passionate performance, his glittering eyes and greying hair all made an indelible impression.”

The same ‘indelible impression’ is made by the triptych itself; one is immediately stuck by an explosion of form and colour, figures propelled through a void-like space ranging from the darkest shadows to the brightest lights. What unfolds from the centre panel is a vision of the apocalypse, flanked on the left by a scene of Persephone and Hades and on the right by the punishment of Prometheus. Such an unusual combination of mythological and biblical subjects was intended as a warning of what Kokoschka called “man’s intellectual arrogance”. Painted at the very outset of the Cold War, the triptych’s political and cultural resonance would become clear over the subsequent decades. 

The exhibition brings together a selection of documentary material from the Courtauld and from archives in Austria and Germany. The documents trace the development of the commission and the subsequent reception of the painting. The exhibition, which will be officially opened by the Austrian Ambassador to the UK, Her Excellency Dr. Gabrielle Matzner-Holzer, will also offer something that is now rather rare in museums and galleries – the space to contemplate just one great work of art in isolation.

Dr Barnaby Wright – Curator