Horror Brought To Life: Witches & Wicked Bodies

Witches and Wicked Bodies at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is the UK’s first major exhibition all about the depiction of witches in art. Naturally, when we were up Edinburgh for the final few shows of the Fringe we gathered up our familiars and hopped on a broomstick (actually it was the free shuttle bus) to check it out.

What I find so fascinating about the show is that it kicks off with prints and drawings that were made in the 15th century, a time when belief in witches and the awful things that black magic could do to a good Christian was very powerful and, given the overwhelmingly paternal nature of society back then, it’s hardly surprising to see witches either depicted as hideous old hags or lusty young women out to corrupt virtuous god fearing men. Naturally our entry point is Hideous Hags and Seductive Sorceresses.

The Four Witches, Durer © National Galleries of Scotland

The Four Witches, Durer © National Galleries of Scotland

Of course it was in the 1500s and 1600s that the craze for finding and executing witches really took off, but it’s worth remembering that at the same time Protestants and Catholics in Europe were even busier persecuting and burning each other over much less exciting things than Unnatural Acts of Flying (Part Two) or taking part in Witches Sabbaths and Devilish Rituals (Part Three). There are some really splendidly dark prints by Francisco Goya in these first sections of the show along with a pair of gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite canvasses by Frederick Sandys featuring a seductive Medea and Vivian the sorceress who imprisoned Merlin.

Unholy Trinities and the Weird Sisters of Macbeth (Part Four) looks at the power of three, an unholy trinity just like the three witches of Shakespeare’s play. Although belief in the power of witchcraft was still strong in Shakespeare’s day, within about 100 years, thanks to advances in science and reasoning, popular opinion about witchcraft had moved on from that of a societal threat to a means of adding a bit of spice to works of fiction There is a very splendid painting by Daniel Gardner (The Three Witches) of some fashionable ladies of Georgian society playing at being the Macbeth witches in this section that illustrates this point quite nicely.

The Triple Hecate, Blake © National Galleries of Scotland

The Triple Hecate, Blake © National Galleries of Scotland

This shift in attitude was even more apparent in John William Waterhouse’s The Magic Circle that forms the centrepiece of Magic Circles, Incantations and Raising the Dead (Part Five). By the time Waterhouse was working witches in the popular imagination of  the greater part of society had been firmly relegated to the realm of myth and legend when they weren’t scaring Victorian children into being good in bedtime stories.

The Magic Circle, Waterhouse © Tate, London

The Magic Circle, Waterhouse © Tate, London

The final part of the exhibition, The Persistence of Witches brings the exhibition’s theme up to date with works by Cindy Sherman, Paula Rego and Kiki Smith that invert the negative stereotype of the witch and reclaim it as a feminist icon.

Out of the Woods, Untitled (Encryption) 1:5, Smith © Tate, London 2012

Out of the Woods, Untitled (Encryption) 1:5, Smith © Tate, London 2012

Witches and Wicked Bodies runs at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art until 3 November. Admission: £7.00 (£5: concessions).

The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is a bit outside of the centre of Edinburgh in Belford Road. The easiest way to get there is to take the free shuttle bus from outside the Scottish National Gallery building in Princes Street.

Some interesting films about Witchcraft are: 

Night of the Eagle (US title Burn Witch Burn) 1962 – University lecturer Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) discovers that his wife, Tansy is using magic to further his career, when he makes her stop he discovers that Tansy isn’t the only witch on campus and things start to get nasty for him. Based upon the novel Conjure Wife by Fritz Lieber.

The Devil Rides Out (US title The Devil’s Bride) 1968 – Christopher Lee plays the Duc de’Richleau in Hammer’s adaptation of Dennis Wheatley’s most popular novel. Dreadful hokum really but notable for the Black Mass Sabbath being broken up by the Duc’s limo and the night spent in the pentacle with the visit of the Angel of Death.

Feature by Simon Ball

Connect with Simon: @RealShipsCook or here

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