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Witches in spotlight in first major exhibition to explore 500 years of wicked history
Illustration to 'Tam O'Shanter' by Robert Burns. Study for an Engraving, John Faed. Brush, dark brown wash and white heightening on paper 6.40 x 8.50 cm. National Galleries of Scotland.

EDINBURGH.- The fascination for witches, which has gripped many Western artists from the sixteenth century to the present, is the subject of a major new exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art this summer. Witches and Wicked Bodies, delves into the dark and cruel origins of the classic image of the witch, and demonstrate how the now familiar old woman on a broomstick is just one part of a rich and very diverse visual tradition.

Witches and Wicked Bodies highlights the inventive approaches to the depiction of witches and witchcraft employed by a broad range of artists over the past 500 years, with striking examples by famous names such as Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach, Salvator Rosa, Francisco de Goya, Henry Fuseli, John William Waterhouse and William Blake. The selection also includes more recent interpretations of the subject, by twentieth-century and contemporary artists including Paula Rego, Kiki Smith and Edward Burra. The exhibition has been curated by the National Galleries of Scotland with artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge and contains major works on loan from the British Museum; the National Gallery (London); the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford; Tate; and the Victoria & Albert Museum, shown alongside key images from the Royal Scottish Academy and the Galleries’ own collections.

John Leighton, Director General of the National Galleries of Scotland, said:“We look to offer our public a world-class yet very distinctive programme of exhibitions. I believe that this is the first time that witchcraft across the ages has been the subject of a major art exhibition in the UK and we are delighted to be partners with the British Museum on this truly fascinating and compelling show.“

Europe has a long history of witchcraft and the persecution of witches was particularly widespread in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, accounting for thousands of deaths of women and even children. Prints and drawings dating from this period form a key part of the exhibition, showing how the advent of the printing press gave artists as well as writers the means to share ideas, myths and fears about witches from country to country. Engravings by Albrecht Dürer are being shown alongside woodcuts by Hans Baldung Grien and many other printmakers including Bruegel and de Gheyn.

The exhibition focuses on six key themes. The centrepiece of ‘Witches’ Sabbaths and Devilish Rituals’ is one of the most famous images of witches of all time – Salvator Rosa’s Witches at their Incantations on loan from the National Gallery (London). ‘Unnatural Acts of Flying’ includes the origins of the image of the witch as an old woman riding a broomstick against a night sky, but rather than the cloaked figure wearing a pointy hat that has become so widely known to adults and children alike, this section features more sinister images of flying witches attending black masses.

In ‘Magic Circles, Incantations and Raising the Dead’, visitors encounter glamorous witches cooking up spells as in Frans Francken’s 1606 painting Witches’ Sabbath. This powerful section also includes the luscious 1886 painting by John William Waterhouse, The Magic Circle.

‘Hideous Hags and Beautiful Witches’ includes the medusa-like witch with snakes for hair in John Hamilton Mortimer’s drawing Envy and Distraction. This introductory section also features unsettling works depicting old crones by Francisco de Goya – the exhibition contains a significant group of works by this major Spanish artist. Some of the images are genuinely frightening and disturbing, whereas others reveal the negative attitudes towards women in periods when they were very much seen as the second sex. Due to the particular association of women with witchcraft, these works highlight the ways in which a largely male-dominated European society has viewed female imperfections, highlighting the concerns created by women laying claim to special powers, or simply behaving in the ‘wrong’ way.

Works depicting the various appearances of the witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, in ‘Unholy Trinities and The Weird Sisters from Macbeth’, range from John Martin’s theatrical large-scale painting of Banquo and Macbeth lost on the blasted heath, with the turbulent skies swirling over exaggerated mountains, through to John Runciman’s striking drawing which here is interpreted as the Three Witches conspiring over Macbeth’s fate.

This fascinating thematic survey culminates with ‘The Persistence of Witches’. Works by Kiki Smith and Paula Rego mark a sea-change with these high-profile contemporary artists’ own take on a subject that had previously been almost exclusively male-dominated. In Smith’s study Out of the Woods, the artist herself explores the expressions and attitudes of the ‘witch,’ whereas Rego’s 1996 work Straw Burning relates to the famous Pendle Witch trials which took place in 1612 in Lancaster, 400 years ago.

The exhibition has been organised in partnership with the British Museum, whose loans include William Blake’s magnificent drawing The Whore of Babylon which is being shown alongside the National Galleries’ own Blake drawing, once thought to depict Hecate, the classical witch of the crossroads.

Witches and Wicked Bodies is an investigation of extremes, exploring the highly exaggerated ways in which witches have been represented, from hideous hags to beautiful seductresses who ‘bewitch’ unwary men.

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