Simon Schama makes a guest appearance on set, during the re-enactment and filming of the biblical narrative of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife, overseen by Klee’s drypoint etching Angelus Novus 2011
Oil on canvas
122 x 91.5 cm
Based on the biblical narrative in the book of Genesis 39:7-12
The story of Potiphar’s wife and her attempted seduction of her husband’s slave Joseph is found in the Old Testament set during the period of the Hebrew enslavement in Egypt. While she (who is not given a name but exists in the shadow of her illustrious husband’s name) lusts after Joseph he rejects her advances. Seeking vengeance Potiphar’s wife steals Joseph’s jacket and sets him up as having seduced or molested her by showing her husband the jacket ostensibly left in her chambers. “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned”. * Joseph is accordingly punished by the husband Potiphar (Pharoah’s right hand man) who throws him into gaol.
I have modernised the story by creating the scenario as a film set and/or re-enactment. Re-enactors, as opposed to actors are currently omnipresent; hobbyists attempting to defer their own reality and live out phantasies. The artist/painter poses as the cinematographer who decides what the camera captures and what will be seen. The viewer of the painting is voyeuristically on the set getting a behind-the-scene preview of the making of the re-enactment and film.
The medium of photography and film has latterly radically challenged the supremacy of Painting. This struggle for medium supremacy is as ancient as the story of Potophar’s wife and was later codified and referred to as the concept of the ‘paragone’ in the renaissance. Paintings are challenged and have become marginalised by film.
Joseph was modelled on the ancient sculpture of the dying Gaul. He is a beefy boy and his visibly circumcised penis asserts his Hebraic origins. In the far background contemporary historian Simon Schama is shown strolling/mincing (as only he can do) through the portals onto the set. His presence adds another layer and gives veracity to an otherwise imaginative illusion. Illusionistic Painting’s imperative is after all, as with film, to suspend the disbelief of the viewer utilising whatever means available. Above the buildings, based on the ancient temple complex at Philae, is Paul Klee’s etching/ watercolour Angelus Novus, now depicted as a celebratory string of lights-type decoration. This etching/ watercolour became all important when Walter Benjamin, the famous early twentieth century thinker, writer and bibliophile acquired it and treasured it above everything he owned until his tragic suicide while fleeing Nazi tyranny. He wrote about Klee’s Angelus Novus ** in his ninth thesis in the essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History and Simon Schama the contemporary historian is fixated by this.
* The quotation is “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned/ Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.” by William Congreve in The Mourning Bride of 1697.
**Angelus Novus is a Copper etching plate, Intaglio printing with acidic watercolor on drypoint by Paul Klee, painted in 1920, and now in the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.