Review of Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum

Last Monday, I decided to treat myself to the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition at the British Museum. It was my kind of treat because it covers a subject matter of much interest to me and it was also free.

The exhibition is based in Room 90 which is dedicated to prints. You follow a circular route which starts in antiquity and moves through to the late Victorian period. Given the medium of the exhibition, the focus is on depiction and representation rather than historical context. There is a timeline that shows some events, including European Witchcraft Trials during the 1600s and early 1700s, and a little historical context of what is shown in the prints but this is kept to a minimum. Most of the explanation of the different images tends toward stylistic analysis.

I would assume that most people who attend an exhibition like this have some knowledge of the history of the Witchcraft Trials, and the very real implication that the hatred of witches had on those who were executed, but even without this it was still possible to appreciate the differing visual representation of supernatural entities. Personally, I enjoyed the lack of sensationalism and the understated nature of the exhibition. This meant that it was respectful to those people who lost their lives due to accusations of witchcraft but wasn’t pushing any agenda.

The images could speak for themselves and, through their invocation of different versions of witches, they did. It was interesting to see the heritage of contemporary witches in popular culture. The focus in the prints tended to be on the monstrosity or grotesqueness of the female witch – something which was presented through haggard age, or quasi-masculine features, or animal appendages. Where the witch was presented as young and beautiful, this was shown to be a lie or a means of deceiving her intended victim. The exhibition highlighted the inherent fear of the female form when it is deemed to transgress the boundaries of normative gender and sexuality. In prints from the 1500s, images of aged crones doing unnatural things to male corpses were returned to time and again. These motifs suggested necrophilia as an unmanageable sexual appetite, and pointed the way to the Gothic witchcraft of science that awoke Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818).

The blurb next to the prints often drew your attention to the relationship between humans and animals, and the animality of the witches’ bodies. It was strange therefore that there was no mention of werewolves particularly since the Werewolf Trials ran almost concurrently to the European Witchcraft Trials. After the execution of Peter Stumpp in 1589, there were some incredibly gruesome prints circulated depicting the crimes and execution of this suspected werewolf. A brief excursion into this area of history would have balanced the exhibition by showing the wide spread fear of devilish practises beyond those committed by women. (Though I admit some bias on this point).

If you are of a Gothic sensibility, I would highly recommend spending a couple of hours at this exhibition before it closes in early January 2015. As a Gothicist, it was treat to see some of Fuselli’s drawings – he was a big fan of the witches from Macbeth – given his influence on Gothic literature. The British Museum is also only a 20 minute walk from the British Library so you can make a day of it by visiting their exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination and drawing connections between the two.

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