Franz von Stuck • Prometheus
Oil on canvas
105 : 97 cm
Signed lower right: "FRANZ VON STUCK"
- The Artist's Estate
- Private Collection Familie Heilmann-Stuck - Baden-Württemberg
- Galery Ritthaler
- Private Collection
Heinrich Voss, Franz von Stuck 1863–1928. Werkkatalog der Gemälde mit einer Einführung in seinen Symbolismus, Munich 1973, p. 233, no. 593/97
- ‘Muenchener Kunstausstellung’, Glaspalast 1927, no. 2610
- Kunsthandlung Gerstenberger, Chemnitz, March 1928, no. 4
- ‘Ehrenausstellung Franz von Stuck’, Glaspalast, Munich 1929, no. 2699
The story of Prometheus is one of the best-known legends in Greek mythology. It centres on the figure of Prometheus, the son of Iapetus, a Titan. At a sacrificial feast shared by men and gods Prometheus uses a cunning ploy to deceive Zeus. He cuts up a bull and divides it into two parts. He tricks the father of the gods into choosing the worst portion – the bones and fat of the animal – and acquires the best portion for mankind to feast on. Zeus in his anger avenges himself by withholding fire from men but Prometheus steals it from the gods, hiding it inside a hollow fennel stalk, and restores it to man. Zeus punishes Prometheus for his trickery by arresting him and has him chained to a rock in the barren mountains of the Caucasus. Here he is forced to endure the torment of a giant eagle sent by Zeus to feed in the daytime on his liver which is renewed again nightly. Generations later, the Greek hero Heracles comes to slay the eagle with an arrow and releases the suffering Prometheus from his torture. Prometheus is eventually pardoned by Zeus and granted his freedom.
Figures from classical mythology are frequently encountered in Franz von Stuck’s oeuvre. In most cases they exemplify the contrast between the Apollonian and the Dionysian by juxtaposing measure, order and harmony with ecstasy, excess and sensuality. In Stuck’s work hybrid creatures such as centaurs and fauns are often used to illustrate these axioms while gods, demi-gods and heroes are almost always used metaphorically, symbolizing the momentous, eternally valid issues of human destiny.
Stuck’s rare portrayals of the heroic sufferer, an individual doomed to perpetual struggle and exposed to existential agony or torturous passivity, are remarkable for their pathos and drama. Key examples from this body of work are the four paintings Sisyphus (first version: 1899, second version: 1920, both now in private hands), Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra (1915, Museum Villa Stuck, Munich) and the present oil titled Prometheus (c.1926). All four works are almost square in format and their frames are based on Stuck’s own designs.
Stuck never openly addressed political themes in his work but it is interesting to note that he executed all four above-mentioned paintings during or after World War I – with the exception of the first version of Sisyphus. He was profoundly patriotic and like many other German artists of the period had welcomed the Kaiserreich’s Declaration of War against the Entente Powers in August 1914. Public approval for the war ran high and general propaganda encouraged him to believe in an early victory. But in November 1918, after four years of privation and unimagined horror, the war ended in a catastrophic military defeat for Germany. The defeat was accompanied by far-reaching political and social upheavals which were further aggravated by the Treaty of Versailles. A combination of factors plunged Germany into chaos and destitution – among them the sense of national humiliation inflicted by the infamous ‘war guilt’ clause forcing Germany to acknowledge sole responsibility for the war and for all loss and damage suffered by Allied nations. Added to this were major territorial changes and the divisive issue of war debts and reparations, obligations which the German government found itself unable to meet.
Seen against this backdrop and in light of other works Stuck executed in the 1920s, such as The Fall of the Nibelungs (circa 1920, Private Collection) and The Angel of Judgment (circa 1922, Künstlerhaus, Munich), the present painting was obviously intended as a metaphor for the suffering of Germany and its people. The tense, naked figure of Prometheus lies spread-eagled on a rock chained by his wrists and ankles. The powerful diagonal of his body cuts into the pictorial space underlining the inevitability and pathos of his suffering. The smooth surface of his athlete’s physique recalls ancient Greek sculpture while the tension in his posture betrays the turbulence of his emotional state. The sinister figure of his tormentor stands immobile nearby, waiting to inflict further brutalities on the defenceless victim. Condemned to passivity yet stoically defiant, Prometheus will one day rise up again. Gigantic waves and bright streaks of lightning heighten the drama of the scene. Stuck’s portrayal of Prometheus emits a solemn majesty despite the general tone of sombreness, not least because of its lavishly designed frame and archaic architectural language. The lateral surrounds are marbled and the almost-square canvas is bordered with gilt egg-and-dart moulding. A panel or socle decorated with gold leaf bears the engraved title in majuscules, underscoring the importance of the work and transforming it into a Gesamtkunstwerk. Here Stuck returned to a process that he had already adopted in a number of other paintings. The first of these important works was Sin (first version: 1893, Neue Pinakothek Munich). He integrated elements of the framing solution for his sombre, erotically charged portrayal of the Sphinx (1904, Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt) such as the neutral marbled socle bearing the title into the design of the present frame.
Two years after completing the present painting Stuck died suddenly at the age of sixty-five. He was spared the fate of seeing his work misappropriated and abused only a few years later under the NS regime.
Franz von Stuck
1863 Tettenweis (Bavaria) - 1928 Munich
Franz Stuck’s life is a story of rags to riches. A miller’s son, he advanced to be one of the most highly respected artists of his day. His princely lifestyle contrasted starkly with his modest beginnings, earning him the title Malerfürst.
As a child, Stuck showed precocious skill as a draughtsman. Unusually for a boy of his social rank, his talents were nurtured from an early age and he was sent to train at the Kunstgewerbeschule in Munich. After completing his training he enrolled at the Munich Academy. As an academy student in the years 1881-5 he produced humorous drawings for illustrated magazines and provided sketches for a portfolio titled Allegorien und Embleme. These works demonstrate a growing sensibility for ornamental effect and a penchant for highly imaginative mythological imagery, both of which were to form the bedrock of his artistic practice and bring him widespread recognition.
Stuck’s breakthrough came in 1889 when he was awarded a gold medal for a painting titled Der Wächter des Paradieses at the annual exhibition staged at the Munich Glaspalast. The painting, an idealized life-sized self-portrait, is now in the collection of the Museum Villa Stuck in Munich. As a founder member of the Munich Secession in 1892 he was able to exercise increasing influence in official artistic circles. His appointment as professor at the Munich Academy in 1895, coupled with the construction of a magnificent villa on Prinzregentenstrasse in 1897-8 elevated his social status. The building was built and decorated according to his own plans – an attempt to create his own ideal of the Gesamtkunstwerk through a symbiosis of architecture, painting and sculpture. He was ennobled in 1905.
Stuck’s importance lies in his unrivalled ability – as a draughtsman, painter and sculptor – to use his unerring decorative sensibility to break down the boundaries between fine and applied art. Echoing Arnold Böcklin and Max Klinger, his Symbolist imagery is filled with yearning for a world enraptured by beauty, between heroism and hedonism. Paintings like Die Sünde (Neue Pinakothek Munich), Der Krieg (Neue Pinakothek Munich) and Der Kuss der Sphinx (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest) and sculptures such as Verwundeter Kentaur and Reitende Amazone are icons of early twentieth-century art – works whose aesthetic appeal and pulling power are still unabated.