Prometheus Bound

Pieter Paul Rubens: Prometheus Bound

Pieter Paul Rubens: Prometheus Bound

Philadelphia Museum Of Art, 5/16/97

Tim Rollins
K.O.S. Members:
Daniel Castillo
Emanuel Carvajal
Robert Branch
Jorge Abreu

Danielle Rice Curator of Education, Philadelphia Museum of Art
John Ravenal
Associate Curator of Twentieth Century Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Danielle Rice: Is this the first time K.O.S. has seen Rubens' Prometheus?

Tim: This is Emanuel and Daniel's first visit here. Robert and Jorge have been here before, and I'm sure they saw it, but sometimes we don't possess the eyes that are able to truly see the work. When we are working on a theme, then everything we can find that relates to that theme becomes visible and important. What inspired this whole project was the first time I visited the PMA with some of my special ed. junior high school students in 1981. This was when the K.O.S. project was just beginning and I was a full-time art teacher in the New York public school system. This painting was by far the kids' favorite artwork, with Duchamp's Etant Données coming in a close second. Isn't that wild? So, the kids' enthusiasm for Prometheus Bound encouraged me to read Aeschylus and research other artworks, literature and music that have been created on this theme. We've been struggling to make our own Prometheus for fifteen years and finally we think we're onto something. The Prometheus of Aeschlyus has spoken to us, has come to us, very powerfully these last two years. So now we're going back to revisit as many of the original inspirations as possible.

Robert: It's amazing to see the confrontation - the fight - in the faces of both Prometheus and the eagle that's tearing out his liver. The eagle is really out to hurt and torture Prometheus. You can see it in the eagle's eyes - he's really getting pleasure out of this.

Danielle: So you see the bird and the man confronting each other because of the way they're staring in each other's eyes like that?

Robert: Yeah. There's a battle going on here.

Pieter Paul Rubens: Prometheus Bound (detail)

    The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons Georges De La Tour: The Repentant

    Richter: Two Candles Anselm Kiefer: Germany's Spiritual Heroes (detail)

Siqueiros: Collective Suicide

Jackson Pollock: The Flame

Hot Rod

Human Torch

Emanuel: Look at that fire!

Tim: You see, this is how we started our Prometheus. We had each member of K.O.S. create his own image of fire - his own flame. That led to our studying the image of fire throughout world culture. We've been looking at Turner's The Burning of The Houses of Parliament, the painting of Hubert Robert. Remember him? Some of us went to the National Gallery in Washington to check out the Georges De La Tour exhibition. He could really paint a flame. We've also studied the Gerhard Richter candle paintings, Anselm Kiefer's paintings from the 70s, Siqueiros' Collective Suicide, and the early Jackson Pollock The Flame at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Human Torch from Fantastic Four comic books and hot rod cars. So we were drawing and painting fire forever, but the results seemed too literal. In going back to several of the translations of the play, we realized that Prometheus doesn't directly give humankind fire. Instead, he brings down sparks hidden in a fennel stalk. He brings down something smaller than a fire, or even a flame. He gave us a spark, perhaps a glowing ember. In our translation of play, Emanuel came up with this great line for Prometheus' offering of fire - " luminous petals". A luminous petal - this perhaps goes back to the Prometheus of Brancusi that we all first saw in the retrospective that was at the Museum of Modern Art in New York a while back. The shape, the glowing light of that sculpture, the scale - all these elements are useful. We all saw Brancusi's Prometheus, but, once again, at the time it didn't quite register until we were seriously at work attempting our own Prometheus. Brancusi's pure, incandescent oval of light has become the most direct inspiration for our own interpretation.

Jorge: This scene isn't set in Greece, is it? And it's not in outer space, either.

Tim: According to the play, Prometheus is exiled to a desolate cliff at the edge of the world.

Rubens: Prometheus Bound (animated)

Rubens: Prometheus Bound (detail)

    Prometheus Bound (detail of bird)


Rubens: Prometheus Bound: Detail of Feathers

Rollins and K.O.S.: Amerika I

Danielle: One thing about the painting that you might want to know is the space on the left hand side was actually added by Rubens later. So the fire you see here now was initially left out. He added the landscape and the fire to the painting. If you look carefully, you can see the seam.

Tim: It could be too impacted and intense without that extra space. The composition is so much like the text - violent and twisted and spinning...

Daniel: Why are the chains holding him down so light? In the play, doesn't Aeschylus describe them as real heavy? Prometheus is so pumped up ... he could break those chains in a minute.

Danielle: My experience with teaching about this painting is that the work just grabs you by the gut. The more you look at it, the stranger it gets. The longer I spend with people in front of it, the more they start to deconstruct it. One of the things people always notice is the discrepancy between the chain - this tiny, bracelet-like chain - and this huge, massive guy.

Robert: Maybe the chain is to point out the irony of Prometheus' situation. It wasn't the chain that was his punishment, but his actions, his fate.

Tim: I don't think the flimsiness of the chain is a mistake. It's so thin and loose - it suggests the opportunity for escape. This Prometheus is going through and he will find a way to survive this incredible punishment. Danielle, can you tell us about how the bird was painted? When you think about it, Rubens' working methods and ours have something in common.

Danielle: The bird was painted by an artist named Franz Snyder. At the time he was the best bird and animal painter around. So Rubens hired him to work on the bird.

Tim: Isn't that great? He knew that Snyder could paint the bird better, so he simply got him involved in the painting.

Danielle: You can see the difference in the texture of the paint, in the detailing of the feathers. There are two very different artists at work here. Rubens is more of an idea man. He sketches in broadly. But look at the detail and texture of Snyder's painting, especially here in the bird's feathers. It's so different from the look of the drapery. Rubens would never put that kind of effort into his own painting, but Rubens wanted the look that Snyder would provide.

Tim: He just used another artist as a resource. And you can tell that there is something very strange about the look of this painting - there are different touches here. I think what makes our own work strange or attractive to people is that while our paintings usually look cohesive, there is something odd, something funny going on. There is no individual touch that is responsible.

Rubens: Prometheus Bound

Rubens: Prometheus Bound (detail of claw)

Rubens: Prometheus Bound

Rubens: Prometheus Bound (original canvas without added left panel)

Look at the diagonal in the composition of the painting, from the upper left to the lower right - this look of falling. We can use that in our painting. It's essential to the theme - this sense of falling. Rubens' Prometheus is bound, but barely; there is the movement of tumbling down, out of the picture. There's contingency in this painting. Something powerful is about to occur.

Robert: I like that he added something extra to the painting after he thought he was finished. We've done that, too.

Tim: There's so much freedom here. Rubens isn't playing by the rules.

Daniel: Everything about the painting is real strong. The shape of the figures. The struggle...

Jorge: The way the eagle's claws are stuck into Prometheus' flesh ... they're bound together...

Tim: But look at the expression on Prometheus' face. It's so determined. Sure, he's hurting, but he's still defiant.

Robert: The eagle is definitely looking at Prometheus, but Prometheus is looking beyond the eagle.

Danielle: What's strange to me is that whole upper right triangle - this dark area. Your eye never goes up there. You have to force yourself to go there.

Tim: I bet that's the reference to limbo, to desolation, that's so pronounced in the play.

Danielle: Perhaps! That's where the bird emerges from.

Tim: It would be great to see this without the added section. It would be so claustrophobic and violent ...

Danielle: You could do that digitally on the computer...

Tim: Why did he add it anyway?

Danielle: There are a number of different reasons. The reason most often cited is an art historical one. Rubens was coming out of Mannerism, where everything is exaggerated and compressed, into a bolder, more open form of expression. And the added plane actually helps identify the figure of Prometheus. The painting could be confused without it.

Rubens: Prometheus Bound
    (detail of sky)

Rubens: The Deposition

Rubens: The Deposition (detail)

Tim: I see hope again there in the background sky. It looks like the dawn is coming. It's not a sunset. It's the beginning of a new day.

Danielle: That light makes the scene slightly more hopeful at second glance.

Tim: When I first saw this Prometheus, I thought it was more or less a direct illustration of the play. But now, I find it full of struggle and hope. Prometheus is strong - he still has power and fight. He's suffering, but not extinguished. He's invincible. Whoever has the gift of fire - the gift of creation - always has the power of renewal as well.

Danielle: Another widely held interpretation is that this Prometheus figure suggests the crucifixion of Christ. That helps explain the placement of the gash where the eagle is eating the liver. This wound is placed in the same area where traditional representations of the crucifixion depict the piercing of Christ's side. This in turn places the painting in the context of the the Counter-Reformation. I'm not sure why some historians have backed off this reading ...

Tim: They shouldn't. I believe that Aeschylus - and Greek tragedy as a whole - was highly influential in the structure and the tone and the ethos of the Gospels. Prometheus Bound is all about the price that must be paid for loving mankind.

Jorge: This Prometheus reminds me of a super-hero, kind of like the Incredible Hulk.

Robert: Let's go look at the Brancusi, now.

Constantin Brancusi:Prometheus

Constantin Brancusi: Prometheus (detail)

from poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey

Constantin Brancusi: The Newborn

At the Prometheus of Brancusi

Danielle: Have you seen this before?

Tim: Some of us have seen it here. We have all seen a version of it at the Brancusi retrospective at MOMA last year. This is like The Newborn, but it's earlier piece - like an archetype for all of the work that is to follow.

John Ravenal: Take a really good look. There are one or two little details that are telling.

Jorge: It's an egg...also a head.

Robert: In Rubens' Prometheus, he's a guy who pays for giving mankind fire. Here, Brancusi is playing Prometheus - he's giving life to this little chunk of marble - to stone.

Tim: It's an egg, it's a face, it's a head, it's a brain ... but first of all it's art, it's pure sculpture. It's intelligence made material. But like the Prometheus of Rubens, it's full of possibility, potential, growth. It's almost like a fetus. It's full of beginning.

John: Very deliberately.

Emanuel: And you can see the beginning of eyes, a nose, an ear... you can see all that in the shadow that it casts on the pedestal.

John: And this piece has all these great imperfections. You have a sense that this is like a creamy, translucent skin that is containing life - shown honestly with blemishes and all. Brancusi was very aware of the nature of marble, with its light and its irregularities.

Tim: Marble suits the Prometheus theme because it contains light. This piece of marble is glowing.

Jorge: Rubens' Prometheus glows too. It's like he's made of light when everything else in the painting is dark - except the fire.

Tim: There's something so moving and touching about this Prometheus; it teeters on the edge of corniness. It's about to hatch.

John: So much of Brancusi is about birth and growth and origins, all as metaphors for creativity.

Tim: So much of recent art is about what is impossible. The modernists were about what is imaginable. The perfection - the utopia - of Brancusi may be an idealistic myth, but I believe it's a myth we need to survive with beauty.

Emanuel: Doesn't The Newborn look like the face of a crying baby?

John: Exactly. It's like a crying baby. It's lower lip seems almost quivering, like the way a baby would cry in a cartoon.

Daniel: Are there any other Prometheus works here?

John: There's the Lipchitz sculpture out in front of the museum.

Danielle: We used to display this amazing Thomas Cole painting with Prometheus chained to the side of the Palisades with a huge turkey vulture coming to attack him. The vulture is much more noticeable than the figure of Prometheus.

Jorge: In the Brancusi, is the acrylic cover and the linen pedestal part of the artwork?

Tim: No. I think this is before Brancusi started creating his own pedestals to become part of the whole sculpture. His Prometheus is just an object, maybe for a table. We can check that out. He took these beautiful, funky photographs of his own work in his studio, so maybe we can find out how he wanted his Prometheus to be displayed.

Jacques Lipchitz: Prometheus Strangling the Vulture

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: Untitled

At the Prometheus Unbound by Jacques Lipchitz

This is Prometheus?

Daniel: This is huge! Look how he's beating down that bird!

Tim: He just couldn't take it any more!

Robert: What year is this from? It looks like a cartoon done up in bronze!

Tim: This is from 1944. It looks like Prometheus and the bird are dancing ...

Emanuel: Or the bird is trying to kiss him or something ...

Daniel: This is so different from the Brancusi. I really don't know what to say about it. It doesn't look as serious as the other works we've seen.

Emanuel: It's real cartoony.

Robert: I don't think it even compares to the Rubens or the Brancusi. What makes Prometheus so dramatic is that he will always be in pursuit of his victory. And that eternal pursuit is actually more fulfilling than the achievement of the victory, which Lipchitz is presenting here.

Emanuel: Seeing these different interpretations of Prometheus Bound, I think we're on the right track with our own version. Both Rubens and Brancusi show the beginnings of something. Life is beginning in their works. I understand the Lipchitz sculpture, but it just doesn't have the power or feeling of the Rubens and the Brancusi. The Lipchitz just shows the battle between Prometheus and the eagle, not the struggle. Prometheus is becoming free.

Next Dialogue

Prometheus Bound