Giulia Bartrum, curator, British Museum
The major Prints and Drawings exhibition at the Museum this autumn, aptly timed to coincide with Halloween, will provide a rich and compelling survey of the history of witches and witchcraft from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. It has been co-curated by artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge, who has made a lengthy study of the subject in the visual arts. It is a version of the exhibition Witches and wicked bodies at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, last year, with a focus on prints and drawings from the British Museum and a few loans from the V&A, the Ashmolean, Tate Britain and the British Library.
Efforts to understand, interpret, apportion blame and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture for seemingly malevolent deeds have had a place in society since the world of classical antiquity and Biblical times. Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery. The magus, or wise practitioner of ‘natural magic’ or occult ‘sciences’, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women. They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They were thought to represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world. Witches fly on broomsticks or backwards on dragons or beasts, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat of 1501 or Hans Baldung’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1510.
They are often depicted within cave-like kitchens surrounded by demons, performing evil spells, or raising the dead within magic circles, as in the powerful work of Salvator Rosa, Jacques de Gheyn and Jan van der Velde. Francisco de Goya turned witches into an art form all of its own, whereby grotesque women conducting hideous activities on animals and children were represented in strikingly beautiful aquatint etchings. Goya used them as a way of satirising divisive social, political and religious issues of his day. Witches were also shown as bewitching seductresses intent on ensnaring their male victims, seen in the wonderful etching by Giovanni Battista Castiglione of Circe, who turned Odysseus’ companions into beasts.
The exhibition also includes several classical Greek vessels and examples of Renaissance maiolica to emphasise the importance of the subject in the decorative arts. During the Romantic period, Henry Fuseli’s Weird Sisters from Macbeth influenced generations of theatre-goers, and illustrations of Goethe’s Faust were popularised by Eugène Delacroix. The rise of children’s literature and folklore studies meant that the image of the old hag with a broomstick was appropriated for children’s stories. Witch subjects appealed to the artists and writers involved with Romanticism, from the wild inventions of Delacroix and von Holst, to the mock classicism of late Burne-Jones or Waterhouse. The interest in emotion, poetic sources and a preoccupation with sexuality led the Pre-Raphaelites to the construction of the image of the femme-fatale. These alluring and predatory women range from Lilith and Circe to the Nordic Valkyries. Their danger to men is an expression of the fear of women’s increasing political and social power, but the images concur with the long misogynist tradition of representations of female witches. The international Symbolist movement including Redon, Franz von Stuck and Otto Greiner was profoundly inflected by the interest in the occult and Satanism at the end of the century. The key work was Joris-Carl Huysman’s banned novel Là-Bas (The Damned) 1891. Witchcraft was no longer feared in the same way in Europe, but the danger to society of the mysterious ‘other’ was an endless source of inspiration for artists and writers.
Witches and wicked bodies is in Room 90 from 25 September 2014 to 11 January 2015. Admission free.