Stillleben mit Zentaur (Still Life with Centaur) is an allegory on the felicity of love. It depicts Kokoschka's favorite subjects: the attraction between man and woman, and the battle between the sexes. In the foreground of the painting is a magnificent still life of fruit laid on a tray: a large sliced watermelon, a red pear, and a blue fruit - possibly a fig. In the background, in an idyllic landscape, one can see two erotic scenes from Greek mythology. On the right a centaur, a creature half-man half-horse, is holding a beautiful woman in his arms, ready to carry her away. Since ancient times the centaur has been considered as a prototype of virility in art. Here, the figures recall the scene of the abduction of Deianeira by the centaur Nessos, a motif particularly popular in art. However, this scene does not depict the forceful abduction of a woman, as is the case in the famous Mannerist sculptures of Giambologna or Adriaen de Vries, nor is it a demonstration of masculinity, as Pablo Picasso preferred. Kokoschka’s depiction is that of an alluring woman hovering in the centaur’s arms, yet her charms and triumphant posture reveal her to be the superior one. The centaur appears to succumbs to the power of her feminine sensuousness. In the left of the background the intimate, even sacred nature of the erotic act is depicted by Leda and the swan, a disguised Zeus, supreme of all the gods. This intimate scene is sheltered by a curtain propped by a pillar. Against this background, the sliced melon and the bright colours of the fruit gain an erotic connotation, serving as symbols for the power of femininity.
As the date ‘1948’ inscribed on the reverse of the canvas suggests, Kokoschka began the painting during his stay in Florence that year, completing it later in London. The starting point of the painting was a watercolour with a melon and fruit that Kokoschka had painted at that time. As the dedication on the sheet reveals, he gifted the work to his friend Leopoldo Zorzi in Fiesole. Starting from the sliced melon and the abundance of ripe fruit in the watercolour, Kokoschka then transferred the subject of the painting to the realm of romantic relationships and gave it an ancient guise. Kokoschka particularly loved the theme of ‘Leda and the Swan’, creating a lithograph of the subject in 1951. In his collection of antiques and non-European works of art, today housed in the Fondation Oskar Kokoschka in Vevey, there are two objects depicting the subject: a gem, and a small porcelain sculpture. When Zorzi got married in June 1952 Kokoschka was invited to attend, however due to a car breakdown he arrived only after the newlywed couple had already departed. The artist presented this painting to the couple as a wedding gift. Since the bride's name was Elena, Kokoschka may have subsequently given the painting the subtitle Il ratto della bella Elena. The Venetian collector Francesco Pospisil delivered the gift on behalf of Kokoschka. His label on the reverse of the canvas reveals the stopover of the painting in Palazzo Sagredo on the Canale Grande in Venice, where Francesco Pospisil resided with his collection of important works of art from the 16th and 17th centuries.
We thank Katharina Erling for her help in researching the work and for writing this essay.