This July the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art opens its doors to spells, witchery and supernatural foul play with the UK’s first ever large-scale exhibition dedicated to the depiction of witches in art. Witches & Wicked Bodies is made up of over 80 works by influential artists, including Goya, Henry Fuseli, Albrecht Dürer, Salvator Rosa, William Blake, John William Waterhouse, Edward Burra, Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman and Paula Rego. The exhibition has been curated by artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge.
The exhibition charts how the depiction of witches and witchcraft has evolved over the past 500 years while remaining a compelling subject for artists, revealing each generation’s unique take on the subject. Works by high-profile contemporary women artists are interspersed with those of men, showing how, in the final part of the period marked by the growth of feminism, the subject of witches attracted another new audience among artists.
Witches & Wicked Bodies draws from all parts of the National Galleries of Scotland’s collections. The exhibition is in partnership with the British Museum, London, which has lent 38 works to the show, including some of its most important prints and drawings. Key works also come from Tate and the Victoria & Albert Museum, London; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery, and a wealth of other British public and private collections.
Witches & Wicked Bodies examines the visual culture of the witch from the late fifteenth century, highlighting the extremes of representation which have become embedded within that culture; from horrendous old crones to dangerously beautiful sirens. The exhibition identifies the aspects of witches’ activities of most interest to artists over time: their nocturnal flights; their sinister gatherings; their recurrence in threes; and their power to effect devilish rituals and spells. From Hecate to the Weird Sisters of Macbeth, female witches have appealed to writers as well as artists, and the exhibition also explores visual manifestations of this interest.
Witches & Wicked Bodies starts darkly, both visually and metaphorically. The opening image is a horrific old crone being borne along in a chariot made of a fantastical creature’s skeleton, thought to be by Agostino Veneziano (The Witches’ Rout [The Carcass], c.1520). It is juxtaposed with two intense oil paintings which glow brightly against the dark walls, featuring dangerously beautiful classical and medieval witches, Medea (1866-8) and Vivien (1863), by Pre-Raphaelite artist Frederick Sandys. Hideous Hags & Seductive Sorceresses, the first of six thematic sections, also contains works on paper by some of the most famous draughtsmen of all time, including Dürer, Blake and Goya. Incorporating many prints, drawings and popular printed broadsheets relating to the witch trials, the exhibition illustrates the close connections between images of witches and the ‘print revolution’ in the mid-15th century.
Unnatural Acts of Flying, thematic section number two, includes an unruly crowd of airborne witches riding a disparate selection of creatures, who sweep in on Lucas Cranach’s melancholic woman in orange (Allegory of Melancholy, 1528). This stunning northern renaissance painting, another splash of bright colour arising from the shadows, is surrounded by a diverse group of prints and drawings representing witches in flight, from Goya’s weird and wonderful old hags and nubile witches, to Dürer’s terrible harridan flying backwards on a goat.
Witches’ Sabbaths & Devilish Rituals, the adjacent thematic section, includes Salvator Rosa’s famous painting Witches at their Incantations (c.1646), depicting a ghoulish selection of atrocities attributed to witches’ covens. Here, too, the dark subject matter is reflected in the tone of the room, with night scenes predominating, including a fabulously theatrical small painting by Goya, A Scene from ‘The Forcibly Bewitched’ .
Unholy Trinities & The Weird Sisters of Macbeth is an unsettling juxtaposition of extreme ugliness and beauty, with a delicate watercolour by William Blake (The Night of Enitharmon’s Joy, c. 1795) and a sugary-sweet, late-eighteenth-century ‘fancy’ portrait by Daniel Gardner of three high-profile society beauties, including Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire (The Three Witches from Macbeth, 1775), shown alongside Henry Fuseli’s melodramatic Macbeth, Banquo and the Witches (c.1793-4) and James Barry’s Satan, Sin and Death (c. 1792-5).
There is the opportunity to appreciate artists’ close examination of the meaningful details of witchcraft, from the horrible ‘hands of glory’ (skeleton hands of convicted criminals used as candelabra), to grimoires, the great books of spells used by witches. Bringing the theme up to date, works include Cindy Sherman and Kiki Smith’s explorations of themselves as witches, Paula Rego’s interpretation of Blake Morrison’s poems about the Pendle witches of the seventeenth century and Markéta Luskačová’s enigmatic photograph of a Czech woman in carnival costume. A number of works by Scottish artists, including Alan Davie, John Bellany and John and Alexander Runciman, are shown.
Complementing the exhibition will be a comprehensive programme of events. This includes a high-profile series of talks and lectures, including contributions by Lyndal Roper, Regius Professor of History at the University of Oxford, Professor Marina Warner, cultural historian, critic, novelist and short story writer , and Dr Diane Purkiss, Fellow at Keble College, Oxford. The key-note opening lecture will be presented by the exhibition’s guest curator Deanna Petherbridge. In conjunction with Filmhouse and the British Film Institute, we will also be presenting Dark Visions, a complementary programme of film screenings allowing us to explore cinema’s contribution to the visual culture of the witch in the twentieth century, including Häxan (1922), The Innocents (1961) and Witchfinder General (1968).
On Halloween, 31 October, the National Galleries will present the third in the 2013 By Night series with a Witches & Wicked Bodies event. This special event will include live music, exhibition tours, pop-up bars and ghoulish activities.
Award-winning Scottish children’s theatre company, Catherine Wheels, will present HUFF in September in the Studio at Modern One. This brand-new theatre experience takes creative inspiration from the selection of works on show in Witches & Wicked Bodies. A novel approach to the story of the Three Little Pigs, HUFF will be open to the public at weekends and to school groups throughout the week, from September 14 to 22, tying in with tours and visits to Witches & Wicked Bodies.
The striking catalogue, Witches & Wicked Bodies by curator Deanna Petherbridge featuring all of the works from the exhibition, published by the National Galleries of Scotland, is available now online, in National Galleries shops and on amazon.com, priced £14.95.