The figure of the witch has haunted many an artists work, from the strange and disturbing phantasmagorias of Albrecht Durer and Hans Baldung Grien at the time when the Early Modern witch trials were sweeping across large swathes of Europe to the feminist re-envisionings of Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini and Alison Blickle.
The archetypal image of the witch created in the Early Modern period is of a women, alternatively a hideous crone or a beautiful temptress, engaging in nocturnal flights upon enchanted broomsticks or diabolical animals to attend Sabbaths presided over by the Devil in animal form, where they participate in sexual orgies and blood rites. This delirious but potent fantasy contributed to the hysteria that resulted in around 50,000 executions between 1424 to 1785. Even after the witch craze abated she lingered in art as a femme fatale in the 19th Century, only to be reborn and recast in spectacular fashion in the 20th and 21st Centuries as an unlikely heroine and High Priestess of a new religion.
Below is a brief tour of pictorial representations across the centuries from the 16th to the 21st that highlights the spell that the witch and her craft has cast across cultures and periods.
One of the most glaring omissions from Breton’s Anthologie de l’ humour noir is of the symbolist writer Leon Bloy. Bloy’s scathing, vitriolic assaults on the bourgeoisie are certainly fine examples of black humour. His highly idiosyncratic, reactionary Catholicism is diametrically opposed to the Surrealist militant left-wing atheism, however the similarly politically inclined decadent writers J.K Huysmans and Villers de L’isle-Adam are both included. Maybe the absence of Bloy has more to do with his personality, he had an enormous talent for making enemies. By the end of his impoverished life he had managed to fall out with everyone in the Parisian literary world, former friends especially, and had earned the nickname The Ungrateful Beggar for his constant written requests for money.
The following story by Leon Bloy was much admired by Borges who positions it as one of the few precedents of Kafka. Translation is my own.
One of the most important of the Austrian Symbolists, Alfred Kubin was the master of macabre art and the morbid image, who, in his insistence upon portraying all the horrors lurking just beneath the surface in the unconscious mind, can reasonably be said to have anticipated the Surrealists.
His life reads like a cross between a Freudian case study and a decadent fiction. He didn’t meet his father until he was two and afterwards he only felt, ‘hate, hate, hate’ towards him. His beloved mother died when he was ten and the following year he lost his virginity to a pregnant friend. This unhappy childhood led to his abortive suicide attempt on his mother’s grave when he was nineteen. He joined the army but that resulted in a nervous breakdown.
Kubin worked primarily as a book illustrator, mainly of Gothic and fantastic fiction, notably Edgar Allen Poe, E.T.A Hoffman and Gustav Meyrick. In 1906 he married the half-Jewish heiress Hedwig Grundler and they moved to an isolated 12th century castle in Upper Austria, where he was to remain to his death. The marriage was a success, much to everyone’s surprise as Hedwig had a heavy morphine dependency that required frequent hospitalizations.
Kubin was a friend of both Paul Klee and Vasily Kandinsky and did show with their Blauer Riter group, however his avant-garde involvement ended by the time of the WWI.
Kubin was also a talented writer and his brilliant proto-surrealist novel The Other Side of 1909 (which I intend to write about in detail at some point) was much admired by his friend Franz Kafka and also by that troubling genius of German letters, Ernst Junger.
After the scandal and subsequent prosecution that attended the publication of Les Fleurs Du Mal (see The Flowers of Evil: Litanies Of Satan), the decadent writer and theorist of Dandyism, Barbey D’Aurevilly told his friend Charles Baudelaire that after such a book it only remains for him to choose between the muzzle of the pistol and the foot of the cross.
It was nicely put and neatly summarized the dilemma facing the true decadent. D’Aurevilly, like many other decadents, including J.K Huysmans, Leon Bloy (see The Captives of Longjumeau) and Villers de l’isle Adam (see To the Dreamers, To the Deriders) opted for the cross. However the Catholicism re-adopted by the decadents retained more than a whiff of sulphur about it. Often it seems as if they decided to pledge their devotion to God just in order to celebrate Satan and all his works, revelling all the more in the sins of the flesh. Sin gives sensuality an additional flavour. It is no exaggeration to say that the French Symbolists invented themodern conception of Satanism.
D’Aurevilly’s masterpiece is the short story collection Les Diaboliques, a celebration of crime and immorality. No matter how much the bored gentleman dandies try to excel in evil in Les Diaboliques they are no match for the Devil’s representatives on earth, all of whom wear petticoats. Containing such bon-mots as “The Devil teaches women what they are – or they would teach it to the Devil if he did not know” and “Next to the wound, what a woman makes best is the bandage”, D’Aurevilly encapsulated the misogyny of the decadents in glittering, cynical one-liners. The book was illustrated by the Decadent artist par excellence Felicien Rops who also illustrated Les Fleurs Du Mal and whose entire artistic production was dedicated to an expose of the grip that Sin, Death and The Devil holds over the world.
Hokusai’s ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) woodcut design for the three volume collection of erotic tales Young Pines from 1814 is the most famous example of shunga (pictures of spring; spring being a euphemism for sex) created by the one of the masters of Japanese art from the Edo period.
Depicting a shell diver being caressed intimately by two octopi, the surrounding text tells of the mutual pleasure experienced by both the woman and the octopi. However when the image was first seen in the West it was without a sufficient understanding of the accompanying text and critics, including Edmond de Goncourt interpreted the design as representing a non consensual act.
The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife influenced Felicien Rops, Rodin and Pablo Picasso who painted his own version in 1903, and along with other shuga shaped the perception of the exotically other Far East as an ultra-sophisticated, decadent playground, where eroticism had been refined by every possible means into a deviant art-form. The ultimate expression of this Orientalizing tendency can be found in Octave Mirbeau’s opiated fantasy of a mythic China in Le Jardin des supplices (The Torture Garden). In Japan it has been hugely influential and has spawned a whole sub-genre within anime and manga.