Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Witches and Wicked Bodies

Witches and Wicked Bodies
Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
27 July - 3 November 2013


“The witch is dead, the wicked witch is dead!” – From the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz, whose famous chant was re-appropriated by some celebrating the recent death of Margaret Thatcher, to the costumes worn by children (and adults) on Halloween, the witch is still very much alive as a figure of nightmares, rebellion and curiosity in the modern world. Witches and Wicked Bodies, the current exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh, focuses on the modern history of that spectre, charting its artistic representation in the visual arts over the past six centuries.

From Dürer and Goya, to Sherman and Rego, the development of an archetype is shown in the context of the mainly European artistic movements and cultural sensibilities that shaped it, not to mention the religious persecutions and casual sexism and ageism that also contributed to the construction of the ‘witch’. There are many ways to select pictures of witches for a show such as this, but given the gothic atmosphere and religious history of the city, as well as its setting for Macbeth (both in the play itself and the performance of it countless times each year in the Fringe), it fittingly focuses on the witch as originally portrayed in Romantic and Gothic drawings and paintings, often inspired by Shakespeare and other literature. Paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder show dark fables and mythologised fear of sexuality and wild femininity, while William Blake’s “The Whore of Babylon” shows a monstrosity of Greek mythological proportions. The famous “The Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth” star witches who look rather more like men than women, and Agostino Veneziano’s “The Witches’ Rout (The Carcass)” embraces the morbid and horrific side of the witch narrative, in a gruesome Underworld where a witch is pulled by a chariot made from a huge carcass.
In most of these representations, the witch represents the spectre not only of evil, but female evil – compounding and encouraging a view of rebellious women as wicked and criminal, and using that myth to explain the otherwise incomprehensible crimes and unfortunate happenings that were as regular in centuries past as today. Even in paintings of witches who look masculine, that masculinity is used to show women without enough femininity, who are therefore supposedly flawed and ‘weird’. It is interesting, when viewing these works, and this behaviour, to consider the way that socially constructed stereotypes have been used throughout history to make sense of such ordinary phenomena as illness, economic problems, death and heartbreak. While the idea of the ‘witch’ tends to be confined to fairytales and Hollywood movies these days, the tendency to use a myth or a stereotype to exclude some people from society, and to provide an easy explanation for ‘bad things happening’, is familiar as ever. Seeing the way in which artists have contributed to this social behaviour (although some have also used art to comment on it or criticise it, including Sherman) is especially fascinating and inspires many questions about the role of art in social cohesion and division, and the interplay between social assumptions and artistic portrayal. “Witches and Wicked Bodies” is a fascinating and provocative exhibition, in its exposition of that relationship between social stereotype and fine art.

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