The exhibition was an exploration of how Witches have been perceived in various artistic mediums throughout history, with an obvious emphasis upon the visual. The exhibition was not a presentation of how Witches may have truly been or how they may have even perceived themselves. This was the presentation of an artistic viewpoint, how Witches and their related subjects, magic, sorcery, necromancy, are perceived by artists and presented in art forms.
This was not a scientific, anthropological study of how Witches truly were or even are. As such the exhibition presented an artistic mirror, in which our society sees itself, its fears and how it perceives what may confuse or puzzle. Those who visited the exhibition expecting to see accurate depictions of Witchcraft, based upon folk practice and documentary sources, not only misunderstood the concept of the exhibition but would have left sadly disappointed.
The earliest works on display dated from the fifteenth century and the latest from the nineteenth. This was a collection of almost half a millennia of artistic interpretation of sorcery, placed together for comparison and enjoyment. Yet no artwork of whatever medium, exists in a vacuum. Each works reflected in some manner a social, cultural, political or theological influence.
The works on display included many world famous examples by such renowned artists as Durer, Stuck, Goya, Delacroix, Rossetti, Burne-Jones and Sandys. Indeed it was a remarkable surprise to see the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood so well attested as an influence upon the subject, although the examples on display were not what one would expect, being of a less romantic nature than their usual output.
A presentation of this nature, with its distorted bodies and twisted features, contrasting with those slightly more romantic depictions from Shakespeare, raises questions about the nature of art. How do we define art and can art really be defined at all, without placing limits upon it? What is the function of art beyond the aesthetic? Not that the aesthetic quality of art is in anyway unimportant, indeed one could argue that it is the vital element. Yet beyond that, what is the function of art and should art always have a meaning? Is it possible to produce art without a symbolist meaning? Is art descriptive, challenging or purely a reflective model, trapped within the social and cultural context of its time of origin?
Much of the exhibition unsurprisingly, concentrated upon the female form, contrasting the loathsome; secret, black and midnight hags of Shakespeare, with the more seductive Lilith archetype. Thrown into this cauldron of metaphors was the occasional Medea but primarily the femininity explored was of two extremes, the repulsiveness of great age with that of the sexual allure of youth.
The exhibition reflected that social and traditional belief, that women are more inclined towards sorcery than men. Few male practitioners are named in our history and this is reflected in art. Figures such as Dee and names from the Scottish trials such as Fian, stand out because they are so few in number. Therefore the most notable other male named and included in this exhibition was Faust, yet the most striking artistic reference to his famous story was not of him but of Mephistopheles. Thus depicting as with the pictures of the female sorcerers, the maleficent influence of the Devil, tempting man and woman alike from the path of salvation.
To be able to stand, study and contemplate these wonders of European art, some so famous in their familiarity that they feel like old friends, was very special. I travelled to see the works of Durer and Goya. My intent, to see the originals with my own eyes, rather than via some other medium, a book or the Internet. It is therefore difficult to express my enjoyment and pleasure, in not only seeing those works but the many other treasures gathered for this important exhibition.
Almost five hundred years of European culture was explored, comparing the more traditional, evil and loathsome imaginings of evil with the later, more sceptical and sometimes humorous. The Devil himself travels from the most repulsive, to become an almost dashing figure in the guise of a later Mephistopheles.
The figure of the female Witch, shown as equally repulsive in the earlier works, likewise became increasing more attractive and less an object of fear, as the beginning of the twentieth century approached. Yet even if we accommodate this change in depiction, there remained a disturbing paradox. Each and every image presented was almost without exception, a negative one. From the hags of Durer and Goya, through Medea killing her children, to Lady Macbeth and the company Witches, the allure still held an element of danger, an undertone of malice and evil.
The scientific advancement of the nineteenth century and the improved educational foundation of Victorian society, brought about a general scepticism towards sorcery. Was that the victory of the Devil and of Witchcraft? Did society embrace the Witch or simply cease to believe in magic?
The exhibition ‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’ ran at the British Museum in London, from the 24th of September 2014 to the 11th of January 2015.