"The Witch" is a modern Black Painting

The arthouse scene has been captivated over the past few weeks by Robert Eggers’ stunning debut, “The Witch,” a hypnotic, gothic fable set in 1600s New England. The story follows a Puritan family cast out of their village and into a lonely wilderness framed by deep, shadow-drenched woods. The family is accused of some kind of heresy and must build a new home for themselves as outcasts. An evil force in the woods soon begins harassing the family in subtle, terrifying ways. Soon it becomes evident that the family has caught the attention of a possible witch haunting the nearby forest. “The Witch” is beautifully baroque filmmaking. It revives the tradition of gothic, immersive cinema in the style of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s “Vampyr” or Benjamin Christensen’s classic, Satanic silent film “Haxan.” One of the film’s most prominent features is its stunning cinematography by Jarin Blaschke, which bathes the film in a chiaroscuro of shadow and light that can evoke Caravaggio, but even more closely, the “Black Paintings” period of the Spanish artist Francisco Goya.

It is no surprise to discover that Eggers is in fact, a fan of Goya’s work, because his film evokes the same, immediate sense of a world driven by nightmares. Both Goya’s “Black Paintings” and “The Witch” speak to their times in unique ways through the expression of dark imagery and themes.

Goya began his “Black Paintings” in 1819, at a time when Spain was roiled by social and political turmoil. The country had undergone a period of foreign occupation by Napoleon, starting a brutal guerrilla war against the French invaders which also spiraled into a kind of social civil war amongst Spanish society itself. All of Europe had been convulsed by the Napoleonic Wars, the shadow of the French Revolution, in essence the birth of the modern world. Like his contemporary William Blake, the times inspired in Goya apocalyptic visions of a society going mad, drenched in conflict and uncertainty. Old social orders were collapsing, war was everywhere. In the midst of all this, Goya himself was suffering from constant illness, to the point where he became almost completely deaf. This was a period when even the Holy Inquisition still held a grip on Spanish society, so even religious conflict remained part of Goya’s world.

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In “The Witch,” religious themes and imagery are used to express a constant battle between good and evil. Eggers reaches back into classic folk lore and uses animals as representations of dark forces. In the film, Black Phillip, the Puritan family’s ram, is the classic embodiment of a possible dark force as the family’s twins soon believe he might be an agent of the devil. In Goya’s “Witch’s Sabbath,” grotesquely-faced figures gather before a Satanic master of ceremonies with a black goat head. And although we believe we now live in post-religious, rational, scientific times, these images in paintings and film still strike a chord with us.

Like Goya we live in an age of turmoil and conflict, some of it very much wearing a religious veil. If black in the age of Goya meant witchcraft, today we associate the color with the black flag of ISIS, who’s messianic rebels execute their enemies whilst clad in black, on video for the world to see. Thus the universal, and timeless, appeal of art conceived in darkness. Even if we do not believe in literal witches haunting the woods and the night sky, we are aware of the dark impulses and dark ideas of fanatical groups, of the violence of war and the frightening feel of uncertainty. “The Witch,” like the Black Paintings, captivates its viewers because the mood and feelings it creates are all too familiar without the need to actually believe in magic.

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Violence is present too in both “The Witch” and the Black Paintings, two artistic visions conceived during a time of violence both abroad and at home. The post 9/11 world has seen endless conflict in the Middle East, while at the same time within the Western world, the threat of nihilistic violence in the form of mass shootings, or political terrorism such as the Paris attacks, has accustomed us to the awareness that violence can strike suddenly, and terribly at anytime in our lives. In “The Witch,” an unseen threat inflicts violence on the Puritan family in the night as animals are suddenly slaughtered and characters disappear. In Goya’s work, violence too lurks in the shadows, and reveals itself as a monstrosity.

Since high school and later film school, reading about the Iraq War or the horrors in Syria, an image has always resonated powerfully with me from Goya’s Black Paintings: “Saturn Devouring His Son,” a horrific expression of ancient myth which also captured the upheaval Spain was living through after the Napoleonic War. Being the son of a mother who survived the Salvadoran Civil War of the 1980s, which, like Syria, turned a country into an international proxy war, I have never seen a more striking image that fully states what civil war is.

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The terrors inflicted by a mysterious force on the Puritan family of “The Witch” also provokes an internal conflict within that family, threatening to shatter its bonds.

Like Ingmar Bergman, Eggers does much with the human face in “The Witch.” Silent moments still express much through glances, smiles, sad mouths and terrified eyes. This too is one of Goya’s most searing elements in the Black Paintings. Human faces are distorted, sometimes in a grotesque fashion, but the feelings they carry are unmistakable. Both artists finely preserve in their frame faces living through shattering moments. Whether it is as Syrian refugees, witnesses to a crime in suburban America or lost students maneuvering a very unforgiving economic landscape, at times nothing must be said, because it’s all written in our faces.

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If painting was the supreme visual expression of Goya’s time, then cinema is without a doubt the key art form of the last century and this one. “The Witch” is, in the end, an entertaining scare that even carries the subhead “A New England Folk Tale” in its opening titles, but there is something particularly special about its genre. Horror films, at least the good ones, transcend their usual groupings because they dig deep and say a lot through their imagery. “The Witch” isn’t even a very loud, flashy production; it is quiet and menacing. In the same way, Goya didn’t even mean for the Black Paintings to be exhibited in public, he would hang them in his villa as self-exorcisms of the sadness, horror and uncertainty he felt inside. He was experiencing a time when the old gods were coming down, war and revolution were being midwives to a modern age. For us, in this era saturated in technology, “The Witch” strikes a chord because it reaches back to the pre-industrial 1600s and reminds viewers of the primal instincts and feelings we all share. The Black Paintings and a 21st century arthouse film are linked through their craft and a reminder that every human age is dark, and yet full of intense creativity.