Born in Armenia during the time of persecution and genocide by the ruling Turks, Koren der Harootian witnessed a massacre in 1915 and fled with his mother and siblings to Russia. After coming to the United States in 1921, they settled in Worcester, Massachusetts, a haven for Armenian immigrants. Der Harootian first studied painting at the local museum’s school and independently developed his skill with watercolor landscapes in 1928–29. Der Harootian spent most of the 1930s in Jamaica, where he began to carve figure sculptures in wood.
With his watercolors and sculptures selling well, the artist spent 1938–39 in London, where carving wood and stone became the focus of his practice. Back in Jamaica in 1940–44 and thereafter in New York, Der Harootian favored classical and religious subjects (such as David and Goliath and Orpheus and Eurydice) as metaphors for the fears, violence, and conflicts of World War II.
Der Harootian increased the scale of his works in the early 1950s and began to exhibit in Philadelphia, where members of the local Armenian community encouraged him. In 1975 they commissioned him to create a multifigure bronze monument to commemorate the Armenian genocide.
Prometheus and Vulture, 1948
According to ancient Greek mythology, Prometheus refused to obey the patriarchal god Zeus’s command that humans be left to perish in their miserable primitive condition. Prometheus secretly gave them skills and knowledge, ranging from the alphabet and astronomy to medicine and art. His last gift was fire, which launched a new era of progress, learning, and culture. This angered Zeus so greatly that he chained Prometheus to a high mountain crag for eternity. Each day the god’s vulture would swoop down to tear open Prometheus’s flesh and eat his liver. Each night his body would heal so that the punishment could begin again. Finally, after thirteen human generations, the half-divine hero Hercules liberated Prometheus.
This myth had great resonance in the years following World War II. So many people in Europe, Africa, Asia, and America had suffered during the war, and for years their tragedies seemed to have no end. Finally, like Prometheus, they were released from oppression and torment.
Der Harootian may have been aware of the importance of the Promethean and other heroic myths in the contemporary philosophy of existentialism. In 1946–47 the movement’s pioneering philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre, made an influential and successful lecture tour through the United States. In his widely read Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Albert Camus featured the comparable Greek hero Sisyphus, who was condemned to roll a boulder up a mountain, only to have it roll down again, in perpetuity. Camus concluded that there is meaning within this seemingly pointless and hopeless punishment because “the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.”
Valerie Fletcher is Senior Curator at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Her research on groundbreaking aspects of international, globalized, and transnational art have resulted in numerous exhibitions and publications.