|Witches and Wicked Bodies highlights the inventive approaches to the depiction of witches and witchcraft employed by a broad range of artists over the past 500 years, with striking examples by famous names such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Salvator Rosa, Francisco de Goya, Henry Fuseli, John William Waterhouse and William Blake. The selection also includes more recent interpretations of the subject, by twentieth-century and contemporary artists including Paula Rego, Kiki Smith and Edward Burra.
Europe has a long history of witchcraft and the persecution of witches was particularly widespread in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, accounting for thousands of deaths of women and even children. Prints and drawings dating from this period form a key part of the exhibition, showing how the advent of the printing press gave artists as well as writers the means to share ideas, myths and fears about witches from country to country. Engravings by Albrecht Dürer are shown alongside woodcuts by Hans Baldung Grien and many other printmakers including Bruegel and de Gheyn.
The exhibition focuses on six key themes. The centrepiece of ‘Witches’ Sabbaths and Devilish Rituals’ is one of the most famous images of witches of all time – Salvator Rosa’s Witches at their Incantations on loan from the National Gallery (London). ‘Unnatural Acts of Flying’ includes the origins of the image of the witch as an old woman riding a broomstick against a night sky, but rather than the cloaked figure wearing a pointy hat that has become so widely known to adults and children alike, this section features more sinister images of flying witches attending black masses.
In ‘Magic Circles, Incantations and Raising the Dead’, visitors encounter glamorous witches cooking up spells as in Frans Francken’s 1606 painting Witches’ Sabbath. This section also includes the luscious 1886 painting by John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle.
'Hideous Hags and Beautiful Witches’ includes the medusa-like witch with snakes for hair in John Hamilton Mortimer’s drawing Envy and Distraction. This introductory section also features unsettling works depicting old crones by Francisco de Goya – the exhibition contains a significant group of works by this major Spanish artist. Some of the images are genuinely frightening and disturbing, whereas others reveal the negative attitudes towards women in periods when they were very much seen as the second sex. Due to the particular association of women with witchcraft, these works highlight the ways in which a largely male-dominated European society has viewed female imperfections, highlighting the concerns created by women laying claim to special powers, or simply behaving in the ‘wrong’ way.
The exhibition has been curated by the National Galleries of Scotland with artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge and will contain major works on loan from the British Museum; the National Gallery (London); the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Tate; and the Victoria & Albert Museum, to be shown alongside key images from the Royal Scottish Academy and the Galleries’ own collections.
An illustrated catalogue accompanies this exhibition.
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art Website