Witches and Wicked Bodies at the British Museum

Thursday 11 December 2014

'The sleep of Reason produces Monsters' | Richard Earlom, after David Teniers the Younger, The Witch | another visitor takes in the exhibition

A couple of months ago I took myself on a trip to visit a couple of the exhibitions which had been on my 'to see' list. First up was Witches and Wicked Bodies, tucked away in a gallery at the top of the British Museum, past all the mummies and hieroglyphs, in room 90. The exhibition is one I had my eye on when it was previously situated in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art - I hadn't realised at the time it was going to be going to the British Museum, so I even bought myself the exhibition book; but now it's here for the Londoners, and I wanted to see it in the flesh (print?).

Witches and Wicked Bodies is a fascinating exploration of the portrayal of witchcraft and wizardry in art over the last five hundred years, with artworks from the British Museum, the V&A, the National Gallery and Tate. The range of artists is incredible, including dreamlike drawings from Odilon Redon, pieces by William Blake, and even the infamous Francisco de Goya. The exhibition shows the social and artistic history of magic, with particularly interesting focus on the way that women were associated with magic and evil-doing. Despite the fact that magicians and mages were often male, historically women have most commonly been the victim of witch-hunts. Earlier on, women were depicted as hideous crones with wild hair and hanging breasts - the classic Shakespearean 'weird sister' - collecting body parts, torturing animals and generally causing havoc whilst riding around on broomsticks and cooking up disgusting potions in cauldrons. Female sexuality was also a primary topic for artists, and often portrayed as related to evil - tempting, beautiful seductresses abound, wrapped in snakes or luring sailors to their deaths.

The exhibition is certainly worth seeing, and I definitely recommend it. It's not a bells-and-whistles exhibition with multimedia and interactive screens - it's a clear, informative and interesting presentation which lets the strange and beautiful artwork by some of the great masters of the subject speak for themselves. And keep an eye out for the details in the pieces - there's often some very funny, bizarre things to see that are easy to miss (there seems to be a trend for sodomy among miniature demons...) It's free, and on until Sunday 11th January.

Detail from Agostino Veneziano, The witches' procession ('Lo Stregozzo'), c. 1520 | Detail Andrew Lawrence, after Salvator Rosa, Saul and the Witch of Endor, c. 1740s | James I, King of England, Daemonologie, in forme of a dialogue, 2nd edition, London, 1603 | Siren or harpy holding a staff and bowl, Greek red-figured oil flask, c. 320 BC, Puglia, Italy | Details from Andries Jacobsz Stock, after Jacques de Gheyn II, Preparation for the Witches' Sabbath, c. 1610 | Franz von Stuck, Sensuality (Die Sinnlichkeit), c. 1889-91 | Simeon Solomon, Corruptio Optimi Pessima (The corruption of the best is the worst), 1893 | Pieter van de Heyden, after Pieter Bruegel the Elder, St James and the Magician Hermogenes, 1565
[All photographs by Laura Blair]