Champagne-drinking Witches, 1902
I have two copies of this postcard and I don’t know how I would resist the urge to buy another if I ever see one again: it is simply magnificent. The first one I bought is French, with no caption on the front; the second one is German (below), published by ‘F. Schüler, Berlin N.W.6.’ and ‘Meisenbach Riffarth & Co., Leipzig’, with the captions: ‘Hexenzug—Walpurgisnacht’ [Witch’s flight—Walpurgisnacht] and ‘Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan!’ [Women eternally pull us up!] (a joke I explain below).
I think the French card is the older of the two, or the original printing, but that could be because I got the French one first. The caption on the front of the German card certainly looks like an after-thought, the way it is squeezed around the edges of the image. The backs of both cards are undivided (there is no space for a message), which means they were both published before 1903; the text on the back of the French card is ‘Carte postale’ [postcard] and ‘Ce coté est exclusivement réservé à l’ adresse’ [This area is exclusively reserved for the address]. This, and the fact that stamps can go on either side of this address, suggests a date of about 1902 (see here for dating French postcards).
Now to the artwork: the anonymous artist has produced a complex Walpurgisnacht scene.
The central figures (above) are five bonneted Gibson-girl witches on a single broom, happy and smiling. The rear figure is waving a champagne bottle, suggesting that the sabbat will be a very well-catered affair.
To the left of our witches is a group of bats, owls, ravens and other birds, and a woman — looking like a skeletal Mother Superior — flying a huge pig!
Below Mother Superior are two admirers, or suitors, of a Flora figure, with flowers in her hair, and apples on her breasts. Leaning over the shoulders of this figure is a snake with an Old Mother Hubbard face; watching from below is a naked woman holding a fan.
To the right of our five witches are two men in dinner jackets. The thin man is being dragged up into the sky by a pair of gorgeous, but wingless, succubi (is there any other type?); the fat man is being lifted by another gorgeous, but winged, demon. He has dropped his umbrella and seems ready to fall out of his jacket. Scattered about are falling books and sundry leering demons, one with a pitch-fork.
At centre, below is Old Nick himself. Dressed in a frock-coat, monocle and gloves, the dapper devil is dancing with a smitten and fainting beauty.
It may be that the whole composition is a meditation on the perils of dancing and drink. One moment our Gibson-girl is safe at home, the next the very devil himself has her on the dance-floor. Before you know it, she is on an express-broom to the sabbat. The men are tempted — as Adam was of yore — by these bonneted beauties, and before they know it, they are dragged off kicking and screaming too.
Of course, everyone seems to be having far too much fun for this to be a dour meditation on the nefarious schemes of the devil. And, surely, I’m not the only one who wants to join them!
BTW: the German joke is, that women are supposed to elevate men, to be their moral and spiritual guide, to exist as a kind of domestic ‘angel in the house’; here the men are literally elevated, dragged upward, by woman-as-she-actually-is, a lustful demon, spirit or fallen angel. This is a very typical fin de siècle fantasy of feminine evil. Anyone interested in this sort of thing should read Idols of Perversity.
[UPDATE 14 January 2008: Sharon Weintraub (who I mentioned in Bisque ‘Nudie’ Witch, 1920s) has suggested that the five young witches mounted on a broom together may represent the five Barrison Sisters: they are ‘certainly dressed in costumes typical of the sisters (long pleated girlish dresses, babyish bonnets, long, loose curls, and exposed black stockings) and ‘the sisters were featured in advertisements for de Lossy-Holdman champagne’.
Sharon has two short — but beautifully illustrated — chapters on figurines inspired by the Barrison Sisters in her Bawdy Bisques and Naughty Novelties: German Bathing Beauties and Their Risqué Kin (2005). The chapters are titled: ‘I Love Little Pussy, Her Coat is So Warm …’ (83-86) and ‘The Embarrassing Sisters’ (90-92)]
[UPDATE 6 June 2011: Noah Osford has identified the phrase “Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan!” as the last line of Geothe’s “Faust” (Part 2, Act 5, ll. 1070–71). There are a few translations of Faust online, where this line is translated as “The Eternally Female Draws Us Onward” or “The eternal feminine draws us upward.” In 1878 Anna Swanwick translated these lines from the “Chorus Mysticus” as “The ever-womanly / Draws us above.”]