Whether you imagine a witch as a monstrous Macbeth conjuror or a more innocuous pointy-hatted character riding a broomstick, it’s likely the visuals of art have something to do with it. Last week, the British Museum opened Witches and Wicked Bodies, an exhibition on the changing appearance of the witch.
It seems that lately there’s quite the occult vein running through museums, whether it’s last year’s Angel of the Odd examining the supernatural and witchcraft in Romanticism at the Musée d’Orsay, or Sympathy for the Devil now at the Cantor Arts Center, which explores the changing way the devil is depicted (it even includes an edition of the same 16th-century “The Witches Procession” engraving by Agostino Veneziano in Witches and Wicked Bodies).
Witches and Wicked Bodies was previously staged at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art last year, and is in a way a curated coven of the best in witchy art from the United Kingdom’s art institutions. Much of the exhibition comes from the British Museum, but there’s also work from the British Library, Ashmolean, Tate Britain, and the Victorian & Albert Museum. Each item in the circle shows a particular reflection of what the broadly defined witch looks like — a person, usually a woman (although not always), using often unspeakable means to bend reality to malevolent purposes.
For example, Hans Baldung, who inherited some interest in the sinister from working in Dürer’s workshop (his mentor is also included in the show), published his 1510 “Witches Sabbath,” a woodcut of naked women with implements of sorcery, riding on goats, offering meat to the sky, in Strasbourg. Not inconsequentially, it was this city’s bishop who “had been made executor of a papal bull against witchcraft in 1484,” the British Museum explains. “Baldung’s obsession with magic and witchcraft gave vivid expression to the fears of religious heresy, social dissolution, and hidden female powers that preyed on the late medieval imagination.” Witches will never look like one thing, as their definition is in what they do rather than who they are, and how artists decide to portray them will always be more a reflection of themselves.
Witches and wicked bodies is on view at the British Museum (Great Russell Street, London) until January 11, 2015.