Witches and Wicked Bodies, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh – review

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Modern art, you could say, turned on its axis around a representation of witches: Picasso insisted “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” was “my first exorcism painting – yes absolutely!” Edinburgh’s new exhibition asks: why do men paint women as hags? And what happens when women – Kiki Smith, Cindy Sherman – depict themselves as hags?

Images of the female body, idealised or exaggeratedly hideous, are a battleground in art and social history. Witch-hunts intensified during periods of religious or political turmoil; artists from Dürer to Goya show how witches embody the sleep of reason, abuse of power, irrational forces. Dürer signed his drawing of a shrieking witch riding backwards on a goat, symbol of the devil, with a reversed AD monogram: witchcraft reverses human norms. In the series “Los Caprichos”, Goya satirised a dying world of superstition through comically menacing portrayals of repulsive brujas: an elderly instructor guides a young nude using a broomstick as dildo in “Pretty Teacher”; scrawny crones gesticulate wildly at a starry sky, in horror at the enlightenment of dawn, in “When Day Breaks We Will Be Off”. Contemporaneously, William Blake’s “Triple Hecate” and “Whore of Babylon” castigated the hypocrisy and moral turpitude of 1790s London; two centuries later Paula Rego’s witches are as charged with pathos and indignation.

Witchery offered a vocabulary of theatrical grotesque from the romantics on: Delacroix’s illustrations of Goethe’s Walpurgis scene; Henry Fuseli’s “Macbeth, Banquo and Witches” and “Three Weird Sisters from Macbeth”; and Daniel Gardner’s bizarre, diaphanous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, and two other glamorous socialites as “Three Witches from Macbeth”, with cauldron of roses and carnations; Victorian narrative paintings such as Frederick Sandys’ compellingly awkward “Medea” and “Vivien” and John William Waterhouse’s “The Magic Circle”.

Reflecting 19th-century fears of women’s changing roles, these resonate with classical and biblical antecedents, underlining the sexual anxiety that, as this extensive survey dramatises, has given the witch archetype enduring power.

Until November 3, www.nationalgalleries.org

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