The Myth of Oedipus: The Sphinx Artist: Kurt Seligmann (American, born Switzerland, 1900–1962)


Prints and Drawings

The Swiss-born artist Kurt Seligmann came to New York from Paris in 1939 and was one of the first Surrealist artists to immigrate to the UnitedStates. His departure was prompted by the German invasion of Polandand the outbreak of World War II, and his works echo the geopoliticalturmoil of the time. In 1944 Seligmann collaborated with the Americanart historian Meyer Schapiro on a print portfolio titled The Myth of Oedipus,which illustrates a classic saga from Greek mythology. In the myth, Laius,the king of Thebes and father of Oedipus, had been warned by an oraclethat one day his son would slay him, and after the boy’s birth, Laius andhis wife, Jocasta, left him in the mountains to die. A shepherd took thechild in, and Oedipus was subsequently adopted by the king of Corinthand his wife and raised as their son (shown in The Childhood of Oedipus).Years later, as a young man, Oedipus visited the oracle in Delphi andlearned that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother. Heresolved not to return to Corinth, fearing for the safety of his supposedparents, and he traveled to Thebes instead. On the way he encountered hisreal father, Laius, and killed him in a quarrel (The Slaying of Laius). He thenfound the city of Thebes plagued by the Sphinx, who asked every travelera riddle and killed those who could not answer it (The Sphinx). Oedipussolved the riddle (The Riddle), causing the Sphinx to kill herself in dismay,and as a reward for this feat, Oedipus received the throne of Thebes andthe recently widowed Jocasta’s hand in marriage (The Marriage). Oncethe truth about Oedipus’s parentage became known, Jocasta committedsuicide, and the stricken Oedipus went into exile in Colonus, near Athens,where—according to some versions of the tale—he was swallowed into theearth (Oedipus at Colonus).Seligmann kept only the very essence of this classical myth, representingthe main protagonists in an indefinite, abstract space. The figures aredepicted as almost fluid, organic forms, with their corporeal featuresdisguised under robes and bands, barely visible. The agitated shapes areinspired by the "wrapped and cyclonic landscapes" that the artist startedto produce in the early 1940s. In these works, Seligmann created shapesthrough a semiautomatist process of manipulating the surface of glassuntil it cracked or formed small craters, and then using a projector to tracethe cracks and fissures onto paper. By pairing the element of chance in hisartistic process with depictions of Oedipus’s certain fate, Seligmann evokes the tension between the conscious and the subconscious mind, as well as the inescapable consequences of human behavior. His choice of subject, the tale of a famous exile, was certainly no coincidence, and the artist might have personally identified with the protagonist, forced to leave his home and wander a foreign realm.




platemark: 17 5/8 × 11 11/16 in. (44.7 × 29.7 cm)
sheet: 21 7/16 × 15 9/16 in. (54.4 × 39.5 cm)

Credit Line

Gift of Mr. and Mrs. R. Kirk Askew, Jr.

Accession Number



20th century


Note: This electronic record was created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect the Yale University Art Gallery’s complete or current knowledge about the object. Review and updating of records is ongoing.

  • Frauke V. Josenhans et al., Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Art Gallery, 2017), 174, no. 22, ill
Object copyright
Additional information

Object/Work type



on "a" --- signed and dated in pencil LR: " K. Seligmann, 1944"

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