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Thread: What Modern Witchcraft Means for Art History

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    Default What Modern Witchcraft Means for Art History

    What Modern Witchcraft Means for Art History

    Adam Heardman /MutualArt

    October 26, 2018

    They can conjure, confound, and compel. They can be figures of desire, devilment, celebration and resistance. According to King James I, “They can rayse storms and tempestes in the aire”. Witches are the quintessential symbol of the occult. But how does modern magic intersect with contemporary art? How is the representation of witches in art and culture changing? As the Witching Hour of All Hallow’s Eve looms, we take a look at the Ashmolean’s new exhibition, Spellbound, as well as speaking to artists, witches, and academics, to find out.

    Salvator Rosa, Witches at Their Incantations (1646). Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum/National Gallery.
    In the back of the world’s oldest museum, I’m confronted by a tiny, ragged ‘poppet’ doll made of stuffed fabric and wearing an Edwardian style black-gossamer dress. She’s in a large cabinet amongst other curios, atmospherically lit. Driven violently through her head is a stiletto dagger.
    The poppet is one of the most shocking and memorable images of the Oxford Ashmolean Museum’s current exhibition on witchcraft and magical thinking, Spellbound. Bringing together archival images, manuscripts, objects and artworks, the show displays the material remnants of humanity’s darker impulses throughout history.
    On show are the purple conjuring-jewels of London necromancer John Dee, pierced bull’s hearts, flayed toads, petrified cats, forced confessions from witch-trials. This is grim and compelling stuff. It exposes both the inherent violence of certain pagan practices, and the brutal anti-pagan acts committed in fear by Judeo-Christian authorities.

    'Poppet' of stuffed fabric with stiletto through face (c.1909-1913). Image courtesy Ashmolean Museum/Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle
    The exhibition claims that 'magical thinking' is a universal trait, something we all do. Superstition, hope, love are all part of an emotional spectrum which operates 'magically', and which we experience through relationships to objects (think lucky-charms or ‘I luv U’ padlocks on bridges).
    In this sense, the sheer terror inspired by witches through history seems absurd, especially seeing as many of the measures taken against them also bear the signs of ‘magical’ practice. The voodoo witch-doll being stabbed in the head is just one of many examples of this on display. Salvator Rosa’s harrowing painting Witches at Their Incantations (c.1646) adorns a wall in the final room. Nearby are several prints after designs by Albrecht Durer showing hypersexualized nude female witches. One picture, The Witches (1516) made by Lucantonio degli Uberti after a design by Hans Bablung Grien, shows salacious women cooking up a stew and ensnaring men. Some “flaccid sausages” hang by a spit, symbolizing male submission.“These hags care about nothing but their unconfined desire”, says the caption.
    “The nude female Witch is a common visual trope” says Caroline Tully, Honorary Fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne, and a practicing Witch. “Going back to ancient Greek pottery, the Witch from Homer’s Odyssey, Circe, is depicted naked.”
    The figure of the witch in art history has served as a symbolic way to explore and understand feelings of desire, fear, and confusion. Unfortunately, too, it has operated as a propagandist symbol to incite active oppression.

    Photograph of witch and medium, Helen Duncan producing 'ectoplasm' from her nose, supposedly the spirits of dead souls (c.1930). Duncan was the last person to be imprisoned under the British Witchcraft Act.
    Part of the psychosexual witch-fear of male-dominated societies plays itself out in these nude depictions, and it has a lot to do with power. Witches are seen as exploiting their feminine wiles to wrest authority from patriarchal lineages. But if magic has to do with ‘power’, Tully believes that its practitioners are in fact “thoughtful, knowledgeable, interesting people who manifest “power within”, or “empowerment”, rather than “power over”.
    Tully practices Magick (the ‘k’ being used to distinguish between “ceremonial magick and stage magic” - this is ritual performance rather than sideshow entertainment) to “gain empowerment through knowledge” of the cycles of the Sun, the Moon, the Zodiac signs, and the Pagan gods. For many witches, like many artists, their practice helps them to “understand existence”.
    Deconstructing these depictions is important, but it’s perhaps not always about resisting stereotypes. Artist and practicing witch Kitty Fedorec says they were “inspired and excited” by pop-culture depictions of witches. “It was exactly the commercialization of witchcraft that opened up its possibilities for me”, they tell me.

    Andy Warhol, The Witch​ (1981)
    The camp and kitschy depiction of witches through television, film, fancy-dress costume, and pop-images by Warhol and Hockney, perhaps serves to create a space for the celebration of Othered, non-normative personalities and practices.
    Questions over the representation of magic practitioners were raised recently after fragrance brand Pinrose released a ‘starter witch kit’. Insta-famous witch Erin Aquarian posted a scathing takedown of the ‘kit’, which included perfume (something Aquarian sees as problematically linked to capitalism and patriarchal beauty standards) and white sage herb, which has practical and spiritual value to indigenous peoples. Aquarian objected strongly to its commercial, non-indigenous use, but also to the kit’s prohibitive price tag.
    Whereas Fedorec has little problem with commercially available products of a witchy nature, they observe that there’s an important intersection with class - historically, persecuted witches were female members of lower social classes.
    Though a certain performative sense of mystery is important, witchcraft is essentially an inclusive practice, especially contemporary witchcraft. “Modern Witchcraft is essentially a creative movement that is empowering and life-enhancing”, insists Tully.

    David Hockney, Witch​ (c.1961)
    As we approach Halloween, the particular time of year when the occult receives mainstream attention, witches and magic-workers, it’s a great time to listen to creative magic practitioners about the details of witchcraft. Tully explains: “Witches usually call this seasonal festival ‘Samhain’...Samhain or Halloween is the time when the ‘veil between the worlds’ is believed to be thinnest, so the dead walk amongst us and we can commune with our ancestors”. And this commune with the dead or the occult is an essentially creative and artistic act. “Pagan ritual is inherently creative because it is a choreographed performance”.
    Artists whom Tully picks out as working to celebrate the communion and the performances made possible by witchcraft and paganism include Norman Lindsay, Rosaleen Norton, and Carolee Schneemann. Kitty Fedorec herself has an upcoming performance art piece at the Camden People’s Theatre, Same Day Dominion, is itself a ‘magical act’ drawing on ritual and witchcraft.
      Photographs from Carolee Schneemann's Eye Body series (1963).
    In the process of reclaiming the pagan image from art history, it's also important to remember paganism's own history of intense violence. Necromancy, after all, implies a pre-occupation with darkness and death. In the words of Professor Diane Purkiss, published historian and English Fellow at Keble College, Oxford, witches who performed magic "understood that it probably came from the dead, and from death and pain and sacrifice". In reconstructing a neo-paganism, and in making art that's a product of ritual practice, Purkiss is adamant that it's important to remember that "the truth about paganism in the Druidic, Germanic, Norse and Roman worlds is violent and in many respects shocking to our post-Judaeo-Christian sensibilities". Even in the most magic of circles, a little bit of skepticism can help refine the creative act, perhaps.
    So as you don your cape, hat and broom and summon your familiar, witches welcome you to the occult circle. But remember that you're participating in an artistic practice with its own histories of empowerments, oppressions, and violences. Most importantly, though, have a happy and spooky Samhain!

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