Diana Laulainen-Schein

title.none: Hults, Witch as Muse (Diana Laulainen-Schein)

identifier.other: baj9928.0701.010 07.01.10

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Diana Laulainen-Schein, Arizona State Univeristy,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Hults, Linda C. The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 345. $49.95 978-0-8122-3869-3. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.01.10

Hults, Linda C. The Witch as Muse: Art, Gender, and Power in Early Modern Europe. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. xiv, 345. $49.95 978-0-8122-3869-3. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Diana Laulainen-Schein
Arizona State Univeristy

The Witch as Muse by Linda Hults is not simply an art history book with an intriguing theme; it is an exceptionally well-written monograph produced by an art historian who has spent over a decade thinking about her subject. As such, the book is not for the faint of heart. The writing is erudite and complex and discusses theories and principles related to the process of art that are not readily accessible to a beginning scholar in the field. Beyond art and art theory, the book is well-researched and one will be hard-pressed to find errors in her interpretation and application of witchcraft historiography. General witchcraft historians should approach the text with an awareness that witchcraft historiography informs her interpretations of witches in art but without any expectation that Hults might use art analysis to significantly impact witchcraft interpretation. Indeed, it is unrealistic to expect broad interpretations to be accurately drawn from a handful of artists and their artworks, particularly given the contexts in which they were created.

Rather than a comprehensive survey of the witch in art, The Witch as Muse, as stated in the preface, is "a deep rendering of the artists' engagement" of the theme of witchcraft (xii). The distinction is important and shapes the text that follows. Hults begins with a comprehensive and accurate review of witchcraft historiography as it relates to her task of analyzing "the understanding of witchcraft and the persecution of witches in specific times and places" (xii). Chapter Two then presents the constructs of art theory and the discourses that influenced the artists' decisions as to form and content throughout the creative processes that produced these images. In the remaining five chapters, Hults traces the use of the witch as a central figure in art by examining major artists who addressed the theme, including Albert Dürer, Hans Baldung Grien, Frans Francken II, Jacques de Gheyn II, Salvatore Rose, and Francisco Goya.

The chapters unfold chronologically while generally focusing thematically and, by consequence, geographically. Within each chapter, Hults provides a concise yet informative and essential review of the social and political milieus in which the artists worked. These details allow Hults to place her discussions of various artists in both the larger historical and the more personal individual contexts in which the art of witchcraft was produced. With those frameworks in place, she moves on to detailed and fascinating analyses of individual works of art; these analyses are what truly mark The Witch as Muse as a work of distinction.

Hults makes it clear that these works were not only an expression of the artists' creativity but also of the intellectual arguments about the nature of witchcraft, arguments that were constantly being refashioned over time and that varied by locale. This is an important point when placing this text in the larger context of witchcraft historiography. Studies of witchcraft can begin from "below" amongst the general populace, who generally were responsible for the immediate accusations of witchcraft, or from "above" amongst the elites, who debated the issue in intellectual discourses and were responsible for the judicial processes that condemned accused witches. Hults studies artists who necessarily operated in the world of the elite. As such, their art provides a window of understanding into elite belief. That window, however, necessarily privileges masculine discourses, thereby focusing the discussion on the femininity of the accused, particularly in the early chapters. The chapter that covers Goya, however, refreshingly details the breakdown of the stereotypically female witch alongside the rise of skepticism and Enlightment ideals. The window of understanding is also obscured by other factors as discussed below.

At this point, it is important to note that like many potential readers, I am a witchcraft historian, not an art historian. The comments that follow, therefore, are heavily influenced by my vantage point and in many ways reflect difficulties with this perspective rather than with deficiencies of Hults as a scholar and author. The natural inclination for a witchcraft historian is to approach this book with the intent to discover what can be learned about the construction of witchcraft belief. Indeed the first question that came to mind was what, if anything, a study of the images of witches could lend to an understanding of the witchcraft phenomenon. That question, however, turns out to be inappropriate for this text. Uncovering the motivations of the artists in producing their art is central to Hults' purpose. Those motivations are personal and related to the immediate world of the artist, and she is both thorough and persuasive in her analyses of these motivations. Despite that success, the extent to which those motivations can be used to extrapolate a larger view of belief is limited, particularly if one wishes to go beyond the elite world in which artists operated.

A recurring problem for a witchcraft historian is the multiplicity of layers through which the evidence, in this case the art, is filtered. Filtered messages are, of course, a problem with other kinds of documentary sources. In the case of the most common evidence used in the case of witchcraft study, court documents, historians must consider whether the voices of the court officials are a true reflection of the individuals who accused and were accused.[1] In the instance of art, the problem is intensified as the "meaning" is filtered further though the brush of the artist who is not necessarily interested in reporting events as he sees them but in producing a work of art that will appeal to potential patrons or purchasers. There seems to be a further problem with any attempt to use art as an avenue of understanding witchcraft accusation, namely that beyond the intent of the artist is the filter of what the viewer sees. It should perhaps go without saying that there is no guarantee that the messages sent and the message received were the same.

Thus the underlying assumption that somewhere amongst "the evidence" lies a version of the truth cannot be assumed when examining the works of an artist. Hults' title is indicative of this problem in that the witch is a muse, a guiding spirit, and an inspiration to these artists. The "problem" is primarily one for some readers, however, since the text is more about how the subject of witchcraft was used, how it influenced artists and their art, and how the resulting art was a reflection of contemporary views on witchcraft.

One issue with the book that is solely the fault of the publisher is the reproduction of the artwork. The art in this text is central and the poor quality makes it difficult to study the various details that Hults discusses so thoroughly. Luckily, in this day and age, readers can search the Internet to find images that they wish to study more intently. Doing so often yields the added bonus of seeing the artwork in the original colors but is necessarily more unwieldy than simply turning a page in the text to study the image. It is recommended that readers of this text do take the time to seek out these more detailed images, though, since the greatest of Hults' many accomplishments in this text is her exquisite analysis of the details in each piece of art.

NOTES [1] Marian Gibson deals extensively with this problem in her volume Reading Witchcraft: Stories of Early English Witches. New York: Routledge, 1999.