October 19, 2022

Wicked Witches

         This is the time of year when you start to see witches - though more likely it’ll be the plastic ones stuck running into a tree trunk than actual unholy sorceresses sailing through the sky.  Still, with the magic of block prints we can see a variety of visions of witches.  From lone hags to whole covens, engaged in various witchy activities, and dating from 1720 to 1985...  Despite all the variety, though, I have stuck with a few main themes.  First, these witches are all of the wicked variety, and second all relatively old and ugly (except for the one young woman hitching a ride).  I have also given preference to witches riding broomsticks, although I did make exceptions for a couple of particularly famous witches.
        We’ll start with some standard modern Hallowe’eny witches by Gwenda Morgan.  These are more cartoony than horrifying, and each one has her black cat with her.  I like the way Morgan has done the sky, simultaneously making it look stormy and making black witches show up against black night.  But I actually like the ground down below best of all.
        Stepping back to the not so happy part of the history of witches, I have several illustrations from works purporting to tell of actual demonology and witchcraft.  In the old, crude wood block print a woman is approached by two witches and a demon, (and one of the witches is a man).  The witch below is accompanied by a crow, and also by the younger woman who worries me by not holding on at all.  Which is definitely proof of witchcraft, if you ask me!  And the illustration to the right of the grouping shows where we got our image of the witch, the 
pointy hats being simply a standard fashion at the time when witch hysteria was at its height in England.  She’s got her cat with her, but she is riding her broomstick backwards, a variation that used to be more common than it is now.
        Moving on to modern art, This wood block print by Ernst Barlach illustrates Walpurgisnacht in a scene from Goethe’s Faust.  Walpurgisnacht is actually April 30, not October 31, but it’s the night when Germanic witches gather on the mountaintops for their revels.  You can see that a couple of these witches are riding broomsticks, but one is also riding a goat, another traditional witch’s mount, and I’m not actually sure what the one in the top left is using for transportation.
        The next two pieces illustrate particularly famous witches.  First is the wicked witch from the fairy tale “Hänsel and Gretel.”  Here she is feeling the bone that Hänsel holds out through his prison, and wondering why he doesn’t seem to be fattening up.  I just love Batten’s depiction, with the curve of the nose reflecting the curve of the back, the wonderful black robe, the bunch of big keys and the woolly slippers…  By contrast, Moser’s Wicked Witch of the West has almost no detail at all, just one huge swirl of black cape and a gleam of madness in her eye.  (In case you’re old enough and are thinking she looks a little familiar, Moser modeled her after Nancy Reagan!)  Moser is famous for his black shadows, and they certainly do the job when it’s a wicked witch we’re looking at.
        And finally another somewhat comic witch by Escher.  This witch’s goofy grin makes her seem more bonkers than evil.  Her broom seems to have lost most of its straw, but I do like the swoosh lines showing how she’s zigzagged up from the Dutch city below (Oudewater).  And we end as we began, with my particular delight in the ground below.
        Real witches would be terrifying.  Real witchcraft accusations against innocent people are terrifying.  And that's why I definitely like to keep my witches confined to art.

[Pictures: Midnight Madness, wood engraving by Gwenda Morgan, 1955 (Image from Kevis House Gallery);

Three Persons upon three Broom-staves, wood block print from The History of Witches and Wizards by W.P., 1720 (Image from wellcome collection);

A Witch of about the middle of the Fifteenth Century, engraving by F. Armytage from Demonology and Witchcraft by Scott, 1868 edition (Image from MFLIBRA);

The Ride through the Murky Air, engraving by John Gilbert from The Lancashire Witches by W.H. Ainsworth, 1854 (Image from Project Gutenberg);

Goethe Walpurgisnacht, woodcut by Ernst Barlach, 1922 (Image from V&A);

The Witch, illustration by John D. Batten from Hansel and Gretel, 1916 (Image from Monster Brains);

The Wicked Witch of the West, wood engraving by Barry Moser from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Baum, 1985 edition (Image from Invaluable);

Scholastica (Flying Witch), woodcut by M.C. Escher, 1931 (Image from Skot Foreman Gallery).]

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