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From a feminist perspective, the news that John Everett Millais’ “Ophelia” and John William Waterhouse’s “The Lady of Shalott” came top in the recent poll of favourite British masterpieces was disappointing. The fact that these two hapless women – one of them dead, the other headed that way, both felled by unrequited love – captured the nation’s heart suggests that passivity is still a vote-winner when deciding who’s the fairest of them all.
The exhibition about witches at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art is in essence a voyage through male titillations and terrors. But it was impossible not to feel cheered by such a panoply of women, proud in their perversity and uniformly potent, especially as the final section unveils the female artists – Kiki Smith, Paula Rego, Ana Maria Pacheco – who have reclaimed history’s most persistent bad girl for their own.
From Albrecht Dürer to Cindy Sherman by way of Salvator Rosa, Goya, Delacroix and William Fuseli, we are treated to a mosaic of feminine malefice that leaves one awed at the hysteria lurking within the male psyche. (An alternative title for the exhibition would be: “How do I fear thee? Let me count the ways.”)
One remarkable characteristic of the representation of witches is how little it has changed over the centuries. John Bellany’s lantern-jawed she-man “The Witch” (1969) talks back to a string of androgynous crones, including the bald hag in Goya’s etching “When Day Breaks We Will be Off” (1799) and the hideous old woman cackling over a man’s body in Hans Baldung Grien’s 1544 woodcut “Bewitched Groom”.
The figure of the witch gave the artist free rein to explore taboos. Here are women who look like men disporting themselves with animals – cats, goats, owls and assorted monsters – that are clearly no ordinary pets. Among many images of witches riding beasts across the sky, the British Museum’s Dürer engraving “Witch Riding Backwards on a Goat” (1500) is a marvel of graphic virtuosity, delineating every hair of the goat’s pelt and every wrinkle of its rider’s tummy. The plethora of semi-naked elderly women conjured in merciless, lewd verisimilitude suggests that artists relished the challenge of depicting a nude that was the antithesis of the young, beautiful archetype.
Particularly imaginative is the Ashmolean’s etching of “The Allegory of Discord” (1770) by German engraver Melchior Küsel, the withered dugs of the serpent-haired fury rhyme provocatively with her snaky tresses and the flaming torch with which she stokes the fires of the argument that the gods are having on a passing cloud.
Such images draw much of their power from the near-surreal detail afforded by the medium of engraving. That this show abounds with a wealth of outstanding examples is no coincidence. Without the print revolution, witchcraft would never have ballooned into a phenomenon that would electrify Europe.
Aside from the distribution of images, the print industry opened the gates to a flood of religious texts denouncing witches while analysing their deeds in prurient detail. The most influential was the “Malleus Maleficarum”, first published in 1486-87 by two Dominican friars and subsequently reprinted in the 1490s in Nuremberg by Anton Koberger, whose 1494 edition is on display here.
Koberger was Dürer’s godfather, so it’s probable that the German master would have been familiar with the text, which explained that behind women’s propensity to witchcraft lay their inclination to deceit, debauchery, stupidity, superstition and vanity. The two Dürer prints on show – the aforementioned “Witch Riding” and an earlier engraving “The Four Witches” (1497), which shows a quartet of nude, pneumatic sirens clustered around a skull – were influential prototypes for the evolution of an iconography that shuttled between the witch as exquisite young maid and as horrid old hag, a schizophrenia that mirrored the irrational misogyny from which it sprang.
Nowhere was persecution more relentless than in Scotland, where the obsession of King James VI (James I of England) with witches saw him personally supervise their torture during the North Berwick witch trials.
Quite rightly then, the curators have included a section devoted to representations of the trio in Macbeth. (Shakespeare probably based their storm-stirring mischief on the king’s conviction that Scottish witches had summoned a tempest that nearly drowned him at sea). In a glorious pen-and-wash drawing, 17th-century Flemish sculptor John Michael Rysbrack highlights the women’s manly muscles and rats-tail hair with delicate inky scribbles. William Blake fantasises of voluptuous blondes guarded by a lascivious donkey.
Most evocative of these is John Martin’s oil painting “Macbeth, Banquo and the Three Witches” (c1820) where the trio descend in a vaporous spiral out of a shimmering, iridescent mountain range, scaled to apocalyptic proportions, that dwarfs the male protagonists and the kilt-clad army that is massing on the slopes below.
As a champion of Enlightenment clarity, Goya scorned the witch as a figment of fevered Catholic imaginations. Yet he still painted terror with medieval glee. On loan from London’s National Gallery, his oil painting “A Scene from the Forcibly Bewitched” (1798) shows a cleric who has stumbled into a witch’s bedroom frantically lighting his lamp while demonic donkeys rear out of the dark behind him in a spooky medley of white-tipped noses and blade-sharp hooves.
One possible danger when feminism reclaims the figure of the witch is that irony cancels out the shiver factor which is essential if the politics are to catch fire. Paula Rego never falls into that trap. Her etching “Straw Burning”, from the Pendle Witches series (1996), inspired by Blake Morrison’s poetry cycle about the 17th-century Pendle witch-hunts, figures a stocky, stiletto-wearing bride about to be consumed by flames as her occult menagerie dances around her.
Rego, the Portuguese-born heiress to Goya’s ambiguous Iberian darkness, scratches and shades her heroine with a graphic majesty to rival her predecessor. The bride may be doomed but her dark arts will live on in those devilish creatures.
‘Witches and Wicked Bodies’, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, until 3 November, www.nationalgalleries.org