Witches and Wicked Bodies at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

By Sarah Jackson | 30 July 2013

Exhibition preview: Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until November 3 2013

Henry Fuseli, Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth (1785)
Henry Fuseli, Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth (1785). Mezzotint on paper© British Museum
In one of the major shows of 2013 in Scotland, the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is staging a 500-year span of art depicting Witches and Wicked Bodies.

It seems at first to be a strange move for a modern art gallery to showcase works from Dürer to William Blake, but it’s a subject matter that still holds fascination and significance today.

Women’s bodies have always been used in art as an arena in which the social fears of the time have been portrayed. During periods of religious or political turmoil, witch hunts intensified while artists used witches and witchcraft to embody that chaos and anxiety in visual form.

The exhibition is arranged thematically, investigating depictions of witches and witchcraft across the ages. One section examines the idea of a witches Sabbath – a meeting of those practising witchcraft – while another looks at the airborne witch, including an engraving by Paul Sandby satirising the emigration from Scotland to England by way of a witch carrying two men on an particularly phallic broomstick.

Prints and drawings from the 16th and 17th centuries reveal how earlier iconography of witches inspired by church reform developed and became more mainstream with the advent of the printing press.

Thanks to this new technology artists and writers were able to share their ideas and fears of witches across the country and even the world, feeding each other’s imaginations in a way that had not been possible before.

Witches provide a flexible canvas on which to depict fears about the flight of reason and rise of black magic. They tend to be depicted either as ugly and deformed crones (such as John Raphel Smith’s depiction of the three witches in Macbeth) or dangerous and seductive beauties (such as Daniel Gardner’s depiction of the Weird Sisters as beautiful aristocratic socialites).

We have to wait until the 20th century to see female artists re-appropriating the visual portrayal of witches from the male gaze. Markéta Luskacová’s photograph of a woman in carnival costume in Bohemia in 2000 reveals that images of the occult and magic are still powerful and unsettling.

Throughout history in times of great social anxiety and fear witches have provided artists with a visual language to depict their apprehension for the unknown. This exhibition reveals the enduring power of that symbol throughout the past 500 years, deeply embedding negative images of women well into the modern day.


More pictures:

Alexander Runciman, The Witches Showing Macbeth the Apparitions (about 1771, 1772)
Alexander Runciman, The Witches Showing Macbeth the Apparitions (circa 1771/1772). Pen and brown ink on paper© National Galleries of Scotland
Dürer, The Four Witches (Bartsch No. 75 (89))
Dürer, The Four Witches (Bartsch No. 75 (89)). Engraving on paper© National Galleries of Scotland
William Blake, The Triple Hecate (c. 1795)
William Blake, The Triple Hecate (circa 1795). Polytype on paper© National Galleries of Scotland
William Blake, The Whore of Babylon (1809)
William Blake, The Whore of Babylon (1809). Pen and black ink and water colours© The Trustees of the British Museum
After Jacques de Gheyn II; engraved by Zacharias Dolendo, Invidia (Envy) (1596-7)
After Jacques de Gheyn II (1565-1629); engraved by Zacharias Dolendo. Invidia (Envy) (1596-7). Engraving© Trustees of the British Museum, London
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