Devil Hugging a Witch, public domain.
‘Surrealism & Witchcraft’, exploring characterizations of the witch figure, opened November 16 at the LAMB Gallery in the heart of Mayfair. The exhibit featured 19 paintings from 11 female artists who play with elements of surrealism in their work. The art ranged from charming to strange to unsettling. This was not an exhibit that necessarily blew you away; it welcomed you with open arms while still holding you at a distance. The art itself was thought provoking, but the way it was curated seemed to demand a BA in Contemporary Art to understand the intricacies of each piece.
The gallery itself is very small and did not take very long to wander through, especially because the gallery did not provide information about any of the art. If you wanted to know what you were looking at, you had to look through the gallery’s website to find the online catalogue. Even on the website, the information they provided was sparse. You mainly had to rely on your own eyes, critical skills, and imagination in order to tease out what each piece of art might be attempting to convey. We know the witch in her many forms: the evil green woman with a pointy hat, the beautiful seductress who casts spells to torture men, the grandmother who offers medicinal teas meant to cure your ailments. ‘Surrealism and Witchcraft’ did not successfully fulfil its promise to trace the origins of the witch figure. Instead it challenged our perceptions of her and explored the witch figure’s relationship with themes of gender and sexuality, spirituality, folklore, and nature.
The witch figure has often been used to represent a rebellion against stereotypical feminine roles and spaces (especially those that characterise women as powerless). This exhibit still maintained the strangeness that often comes along with witchcraft, it also featured much more ordinary and domestic depictions of the witch. You could see the entanglement of the strange and ordinary in every piece on view in the gallery, especially in the series of witch hats by London-born artist Leonora Carrington which greeted you as you walked through the gallery door. Each of the five hats has its own distinctive personality, brought to life by their bright colours and the whimsical buoyancy of their design. They have a storybook quality to them that evokes a sense of childlike wonder—the same sort of otherworldly delight often found in Studio Ghibli movies. These witch hats blend together elements of the Celtic mythology she enjoyed as a child and her place living in Mexico City, where she lived at the time when these were painted. Throughout her life, Carrington wore many hats as a wife, mother, muse of a surrealist coterie, and co-founder of the Mexican women's liberation movement. The domestic and feminine roles she played greatly influenced her artistic work, and we see this at play with her interest in the way that the witch figure manifests in these five little hats.
These delightful little hats were juxtaposed with the far more sinister, entrancing ‘Devotion’ by Tali Lennox. ‘Devotion’ depicts a weeping heart, a subversion of the popular Christian sacred heart icon. It seems to be a reclamation of the icon, stolen from Christians the way that they stole from pagans. Its eyes seem omniscient in the way they stare outside of the canvas. You might wonder why this heart weeps, but without any description of the art next to the painting or posted somewhere online, the intention behind the heart’s tears is left for you to decide.
By far, one of the most interesting pieces on display in the gallery was the set of ceramic tarot cards made by Alma Berow. Although the cards were beautiful in themselves, they were distinguished from the rest of the works on display mainly by the fact that they were the only work in this exhibit that wasn’t in a frame or painted on a canvas. Instead, they appeared to be floating in front of the wall—as if held there by magic (the magic was actually just four nails hammered into the wall on each of the card’s four corners). Berow is best known for her sculptures of everyday objects like dirty ashtrays and pocket litter. These ceramic cards are a slight diversion from these ‘trash’ sculptures she normally makes, but they display her allegiance to making the ordinary beautiful. Berow modelled her ceramic cards after the first 22 cards of the iconic (if not overused) Rider-Waite deck. Side-by-side, the cards stitch together a story of one’s journey through life. These first 22 cards, called the Major Arcana, are each assigned a number 0-21. Berow excludes the Fool (card 0) and instead places the Magician (card 1) at the top. The Fool represents the archetypal naive everyman character just before he sets out on a journey where he is shaped and hardened by the challenges he faces at each stage of his quest. The Magician, on the other hand, is the master of manifestation who creates his own reality. By placing him at the top of this hierarchy, Berow could be imparting advice to her audience: do not approach life as the fool, but as the magician.
Each piece on display in ‘Surrealism and Witchcraft’ offers a unique, distinctive nod to the witch figure, but the exhibit as a whole seemed to lack direction. I felt that the minimalistic curation style inhibited the exhibit’s ability to showcase the versatility of the witch figure and her significance as a symbol of power. Aside from the fact that LAMB did not provide sufficient information about each piece of art in the gallery, I must commend them for the way that they placed new, emerging artists alongside well-established artists like Paula Rego and Leonara Carrington. Many of the pieces on display in this exhibit were created within the last few years, and these contemporary voices invigorated the exhibit with a crackling energy that made up for the curators’ lack of information or storytelling. Overall, this exhibit felt like a dance through the realm of spirits and dreams, led by the presence of the witch figure. We twirled round and round, never quite reaching a conclusion to the enchanting tune or an understanding of why we had started dancing in the first place.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn