Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Apparently Witches and Wicked Bodies is the UK’s first large scale gallery exhibtion dedicated to the subject, surprising given the extensive interest that artists have shown over the last five centuries for images of malevolent hags and mysterious sorceresses. The pictures on display in the show cover most of this period, and works by some of the biggest names in the art history canon are included, amongst them Francisco Goya, Henry Fuseli and Albrecht Dürer. Many of the artworks are on loan from the incredible collection in London’s British Museum, some come from the Tate and a few are from Scotland’s own national collection, but all of them share a fascination with the strange power of these mythical, magical women.

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

The Four Witches, Albrecht Dürer, 1497

Some of the most striking works on show are the small but powerful monochrome prints, which employ line and tone to create dramatic effects. Goya’s paintings and drawings are rather creepy at the best of times; the prints on display here are downright terrifying. Many of the works included were produced at a time when the existence of witches was beyond doubt, and some books which describe ways to identify and deal with them are also exhibited, complete with elaborate illustrations.

L'Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

L’Appel de la Nuit, Paul Delvaux, 1938

Witches were certainly not shy, and many are represented as naked and unashamed, flaunting bodies which are either youthful and tempting, or ancient and shrivelled. If, like me, you assumed that the idea of a witch flying on a broomstick was a modern, ‘Disneyfied’ concept, then think again – some of the earliest works in the exhibition show them doing just that. Others even fly around on goats, potent symbols of the devil.

Witches' Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbath, Franz Franken, 1606

Witches’ Sabbaths are also well represented, the scenes of diabolical drama featuring crowds of sorceresses indulging in magical excess providing material for some shockingly violent and erotic visions.

 Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth, Henry Fuseli, 1783

This being Edinburgh, the three witches which appear in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth get a room all to themselves, demonstrating just how compelling a symbol of mystery and intrigue they were for artists over the years, both in Scotland and around the world. The representations of them could hardly be more different; from bald, whiskered crones to fancy-dressed society beauties, these enchantresses who seemed able to predict the future and shape history in the process, have meant many things to many people.

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Untitled (Encryption) from Out of the Woods, Kiki Smith, 2002

Not everything here is historic, and contemporary art also gets a decent look in too. Paula Rego’s prints owe an obvious debt to those of Goya, all dark shadows and strange, otherwordly figures, while Kiki Smith turns her self portrait into an image of a creepy little witch with a huge head and tiny stunted body. Many of the more recent works are by women artists, and a number have obviously feminist intentions, finally changing the image of these witches from lonely, ugly outcasts to powerful independent women.

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

The Magic Circle, John William Waterhouse, 1886

With four large rooms filled with fascinating works, plus an extensive catalogue featuring colour reproductions and academic essays, Witches and Wicked Bodies is an incredibly comprehensive survey of this magical subject. It is one which has already captivated artists and audiences for centuries. I don’t doubt it will continue to do the same for many centuries to come.

http://www.nationalgalleries.org/whatson/exhibitions/witches-wicked-bodies/

Update: The exhibition has transferred to the British Museum in London until January 2015, details can be found here.

All images courtesy of the National Galleries of Scotland

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11 Responses to “Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art”

  1. We’ve just been briefly (not all that informatively) discussing Waterhouse on my blog because I put up one of his “Circe” depictions, so it was nice timing to see one of his paintings here, too. And thanks for the link! I must explore it later today when I’ve some spare time.

  2. Thanks for this. Durer’s ‘Melancolia’ is one of my favourite pieces of art. If you haven’t done so already check out the work of Leonora Carrington.
    Edinburgh is an amazing city – must get back there soon.
    Cheers. Take care.

  3. By the way, I follow another blog by a history prof who often posts on history from a visual/artistic/architectural perspective, and she also put up a post on this exhibit: http://streetsofsalem.com/2013/08/21/witches-three/

  4. Fabulous! Love the Three Weird Sisters painting – very evocative!

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