The New-York Historical Society Education Division provides dynamic programming and curriculum resources for students in New York and beyond. The Teen Historian blog features research and writing from high school students in our after-school programs who’ve used these resources to deepen their understanding of American history.
Witches’ Sabbath was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
Written by Zeki Hirsch, 11th Grade
Sitting just outside a display of the renowned Four Freedoms paintings, this small but striking work stands out starkly from the vivid colors and quirky characters of Norman Rockwell. Ukrainian-American artist Boris Artzybasheff’s Witches’ Sabbath, made in 1942 for LIFE magazine, is a dark, grotesque snapshot of one of Europe’s greatest threats ever: the Third Reich.
Around the artwork, some of the most high-ranking, influential Nazi officials wreak havoc across a dark landscape. Heinrich Himmler, leader of the infamous SS, sports a pig’s hind legs and tail, holding a whip in one hand and a noose in the other. Hermann Göring, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe, and later the highest-ranking Nazi tried at Nuremburg, pins yet another medal on his now-crowded uniform. Vichy politician and Nazi collaborator Pierre Laval is gripped at the ankle by a stahlhelm-clad squid. A gaunt Joseph Goebbels shrieks through a megaphone, a reference to his position as the head of the Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment, which was tasked with brainwashing the German people and drilling Hitler’s lies into their heads. Listening to Goebbels’ ramblings with an abnormally large ear is Adolf Hitler, himself. The Führer pokes his head out of a cave and grimaces, dominating the painting as he watches his plans fall together on the grey-brown moonscape. All of these characters are portrayed as anthropomorphic swastikas; living, breathing embodiments of fascism and chaos. The only uncorrupted human forms in the piece are on the far left, hanging from a swastika-shaped tree on cobweb-like nooses. Their emaciated bodies echo the atrocities that were taking place from Lyon to Kraków, as countless Jews, Romani, and political dissidents were rounded up and systematically murdered in concentration camps. Artzybasheff, however, did include some humor in this otherwise gloomy work. For example, Göring’s epaulettes (decorative ornaments on the shoulders of a uniform) are in the shape of pretzels. This is almost certainly a jab at Göring’s overweight frame.
At first glance, Witches’ Sabbath may seem almost out of place among the idealistic and occasionally cheery Rockwell paintings in Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. Although Artzybasheff and Rockwell differed in how they depicted the World War II and the events surrounding it, they hardly differed in their opinions on the war. Many of the Rockwell paintings featured in the exhibit were made to serve as advertisement for war bonds or magazine covers for The Saturday Evening Post. They were inspired by patriotic fervor and love of country. Artzybasheff was no different. When his native Ukraine was invaded by the Nazis as part of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, Artzybasheff could only sit in awe and horror in his residence in New York, unable to do anything to help his homeland. Feeling an urgent need to speak out against fascism, he took to mocking the Nazis through a series of artworks, which included Witches’ Sabbath. He also created a series of less surreal but equally potent covers for Time magazine, which sanctified Allied leaders just as much as they insulted Axis leaders. Artzybasheff believed that the commanders and politicians that spearheaded the Allied powers would cleanse the world of one of the most brutal regimes in history, just like Rockwell believed that invigorating the American people on the home front would combat the plague of Nazism.
Artzybasheff’s use of the idea of the “Witches’ Sabbath” is undoubtedly meant to reflect their twisted ideology. As much as the regime prided itself in its order and organization, Artzybasheff reveals that the reality of the matter was much different. This can be seen perhaps most clearly in the painting’s title. In Christian folklore, a “Witches’ Sabbath” was a congregation of women that worshiped Satan, the Great He-Goat, on Halloween. This became a popular subject for artists in the 18th century, and Artzybasheff revived its message in a new, contemporary context. The frenzied festivals of the witches were usually depicted in the wilderness, far from any signs of civilization. Sometimes they included violence, with artists like Francisco de Goya going as far as to represent child sacrifice. Artzybasheff’s Witches’ Sabbath is comprised of only men, and Satan’s place is filled by Hitler. The message is clear – if Hitler was not stopped, the entire world would turn into a hellish nightmare.
It is easy to forget that wars are fought not only with guns, but also with pens and brushes. While the dystopian society of the Third Reich outlawed art that criticized the government and labeled it as “degenerate,” artists like Boris Artzybasheff strived to maintain hope of freedom for everyone across the world, whether they lived in New York or Berlin. Witches’ Sabbath is only one of a myriad of examples of this philosophy in Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms. The paintbrush is truly mightier than the sword.
“Boris Artzybasheff.” Terra Foundation. Accessed August 2, 2018. https://collection.terraamericanart.org/view/people/asitem/items$0040null:113/0
“‘Final Solution’: Overview.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed August 2, 2018. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005151
“Heinrich Himmler.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed August 2, 2018. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007407
“Hermann Göring.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed August 2, 2018. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007112
“Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed August 2, 2018. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10008224
“The Great He-Goat.” Museo del Prado. Accessed August 2, 2018. https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/art-work/the-great-he-goat/09559184-cfeb-48fe-8acc-89b070b64d92
“War News and Strange Brews: The Art of Boris Artzybasheff.” Syracuse University Art Galleries. Accessed August 2, 2018. http://suart.syr.edu/suart-exhibitions/war-news-and-strange-brews-the-art-of-boris-artzybasheff/#.W2MdnlVKjIV