Koren Der Harootian, Prometheus and Vulture

Koren Der Harootian, Prometheus and Vulture, 1948. Marble, 62-1/2 × 33-3/4 × 15-1/2 inches. Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art Gift of Haik Kavookjian, 1948 (48.142a-c). Photo by Paul Bardagjy.

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Valerie Fletcher: Koren Der Harootian was born in 1909 in Armenia; it was then Turkey and his family fled the area, as did so many Armenians under the repressive regime of the Turks. He and his family came to the United States and settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, which actually was a nexus for Armenian immigrants. It was there in Worcester that Der Harootian first learned about art from the local, quite good museum. He lived a peripatetic life living in various places, but eventually worked in Philadelphia, where in 1975, he did a monument commemorating the Armenian genocide. The sculpture, Prometheus and Vulture in marble from 1948 is characteristic of many post-World War II sculptures that turned to classical Greco-Roman mythology as a means of expressing their angst and suffering of the war.

Der Harootian’s sculpture, Prometheus and the Vulture from 1948, draws upon the well-known ancient Greek myth of Prometheus who defied the patriarchal dominant god Zeus. Prometheus in secret brought them knowledge and skills ranging from the alphabet to medicine. The most important of course of his gifts was fire. Fire, which allowed them to not only be warm in the winter and to cook but also to make metal such as bronze, and therefore to advance their technological knowledge and military abilities. This angered Zeus so greatly that he chained Prometheus to a mountain crag and everyday, Zeus sent his vulture to rip out Prometheus’s liver and eat it. Each night as Prometheus slept, his liver would regenerate and the vulture would come back the next day.

This was a tremendous analogy to the amount of suffering and oppression, death and misery that had occurred during World War II. However, the story of Prometheus has an optimistic ending. Eventually, the hero Hercules would come and release Prometheus from his bondage and suffering. And so the story was a clear analogy to the millions and millions of people whom after years of World War were finally released from their suffering and oppression.

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Koren Der Harootian, Prometheus and Vulture, 1948.

American, born in Armenia, 1909-1992

In 1915 Koren Der Harootian, his mother, and siblings fled Armenia to escape the persecution and genocide of the ruling Turks. They first went to Russia and eventually immigrated to the United States where they settled in an Armenian community in Worcester, Massachusetts. Der Harootian studied painting at the school of the local museum and independently developed his skill with watercolor landscapes. While living in Jamaica in the 1930s he befriended sculptor Edna Manley (1900–1987) whose primitive, eroticizing style had a profound impact on his work. Eventually, Der Harootian began to carve figure sculptures in wood and stone using handmade tools. Together, Manley and Der Harootian offered an alternative to sedate artistic traditions and stimulated a new genre steeped in Jamaican culture.

The story of Prometheus had great resonance during this time. According to ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus refused to obey Zeus’s command that humans be left to perish in their miserable primitive condition. Prometheus defied Zeus by giving humans fire, launching a new era of progress, learning, and culture. Angered, Zeus punished Prometheus by chaining him to a high mountain where each day a vulture would tear Prometheus’s flesh and eat his liver. At night his body would heal so that the punishment could begin again. Finally, after thirteen human generations, the half-divine hero Hercules liberated Prometheus.

In Prometheus and Vulture, the hero strains against his chains, reeling in pain, as the vulture plunges for his daily attack. Prometheus is understood to be the god of foresight; knowing that he would eventually be released, he endured hundreds of years of torment in order to bring critical knowledge to humans. Though primitive in style, Der Harootian’s narratives and his penchant for symbolism recall the ancient Greeks. He favored classical and religious subjects as metaphors for the fears, violence, and conflicts of World War II. Many people in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America also suffered bitterly during the war. But, like Prometheus, they believed their struggle was critical to the advancement of mankind and that they would eventually be released from oppression and torment.

Koren Der Harootian, Prometheus and Vulture, 1948. Photo by Ben Aqua.
Koren Der Harootian, Prometheus and Vulture, 1948. Photo by Ben Aqua.

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