CHRIS FREMANTLE

What art have I seen? Spellbound

Posted in Exhibitions by chrisfremantle on November 24, 2018

The Spellbound: Magic, Ritual & Witchcraft exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is really very problematic. It seems to be both parochial and also evade the deeper issues.

The exhibition contains a wide range of material culture from spell books and equipment through troves of clothing and shoes found secreted in houses, paintings and prints representing witchcraft and devilry, as well as some contemporary art which ‘channels’ the theme.

On the parochial front it seems to focus wholly on the southern half of mainland Britain, not address Scotland at all (Tam O’Shanter?), nor the North of England, nor Salem in Massachusetts, nor Norway, nor Africa… the view of the subject we are left with is very geographically specific – not that there is anything wrong with that, except I’m left wondering if that’s accurate? After all one of the most compelling objects is a South American object – an obsidian mirror apparently owned by John Dee. What other connections are there?

But on the evasion of deeper issues, the criticism is more fundamental. There are references to patriarchy and witch trials. There is a chair designed to test whether a witch is heavier or lighter than a church bible (lighter and you are a witch). But there seemed to be no contextual discussion on what shifts in the cultures of Europe and North America in the 17th Century such that women suddenly start being burnt for witchcraft. Not all witches are women and not all ritual and magic is associated with women, but women become the focus of violence and the exhibition could have enlightened us. Rather it left us with an idea of the various aspects of the practice, but no larger understanding.

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