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Houdini: Art and Magic

October 2, 2011 – January 16, 2012


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Introductory Text
Who knew that Harry Houdini—the legendary magician and escape artist—would make an exhilarating impact on popular and vanguard culture across three centuries? In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Houdini’s theater performances sold out, his outdoor presentations attracted tens of thousands of spectators, and his escapes made front-page news around the world. Posters, broadsides, films, and photographs captured the magician’s exploits, predicting the boundless fascination with entertainers in the media today. Over time, visual culture has mythologized Houdini, documenting the evolution of an American icon.
Remarkably, Houdini (1874–1926) rose to worldwide celebrity from the humblest of origins. An immigrant from Budapest and the son of a rabbi, Houdini contended with abject poverty, making his success story a source of tremendous pride for the Jewish community. He achieved mainstream acceptance despite anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant attitudes, and his escapes from the confinement of handcuffs, chains, packing crates, trunks, and boxes had particular resonance for those who sought liberation from political, ethnic, or religious oppression.
Houdini began as a youthful entertainer in the 1890s, who teamed with his wife, Bess, in the Metamorphosis illusion. He matured into a sophisticated magician presenting the East Indian Needle Trick, and went on to achieve daring escapes that earned him the titles “The World’s Handcuff King and Prison Breaker” and “The Justly World-Famous Self-Liberator.” Houdini performed throughout the United States and beyond, making several trips to San Francisco. In 1923, suspended from the seventh floor of the Hearst building on Third and Market streets, he writhed out of a straitjacket above thirty thousand anxious onlookers.
This exhibition chronicles the continued fascination with Houdini’s renowned feats, ranging from historic Houdiniana produced in his lifetime to contemporary films, books, and works of art. Artists have long mined magic and popular culture for source material, and in Houdini they have found a mother lode. His audacious use of his body and his ability to transform commonplace objects into magic apparatus have inspired installation artists, painters, filmmakers, and photographers.
There is no question that Houdini was the most famous magician who ever lived, that his hold on American culture persists, and that his identity is regularly adapted to reflect the times. Houdini often closed his performances with the question “Will wonders never cease?” Casting a spell on audiences today, Houdini’s persona remains as vibrant in contemporary culture as it was in the Golden Age of Magic.
BROOKE KAMIN RAPAPORT, Guest Curator

Deborah Oropallo (American, born 1954)



Houdini, 1989

Oil on canvas

Collection of Nat and Georgia Kramer
Bay Area artist Oropallo’s numerous Houdini paintings came out of an early fascination with magic and the affinity between magic and art-making. Oropallo first came upon Houdini as a youngster, when she was drawn to the revealing illustrations in how-to guides; safety, survival, and rescue manuals; and a book illustrating magic tricks. She has regularly referred to historic photographs as the source for her figurative paintings. She said recently: “Like painting, magic shares certain intangible qualities: illusion, sleight of hand, deception. There was not only mystery to Houdini’s work, but also poetry.”
Houdini in Film
Film was a powerful medium for documenting Houdini’s heroics and establishing his eminence. He was keenly aware of how motion pictures could accelerate his career and enhance his celebrity. For several years he hired cameramen to record his outdoor exploits. The Straitjacket Escape, for example, became the most chronicled and carefully managed performance in Houdini’s repertoire. Archival film footage of this feat, first executed in 1915, records his daring stunt and the throng of spectators. Later, from 1919 to 1923, he starred in feature-length silent films with far-flung narratives that capitalized on his daring.
Although Houdini deliberately controlled his image during his lifetime, after his death in 1926 and Bess’s death in 1943, his persona was transformed by prevailing cultural attitudes. In the post–World War II era of material excess and mass culture, Hollywood revived Houdini as a fictionalized figure. As played by Tony Curtis in the 1953 Paramount Pictures film Houdini, the magician was no longer an audacious apostle of grueling physical activity but rather a gallant leading man. Although the film received tepid reviews, it perpetuated the fiction that Houdini died by accident during a mishap in the Water Torture Cell. (In fact, he died from peritonitis resulting from a burst appendix.) In the late 1990s, multimedia artist Matthew Barney’s Cremaster series of films returned Houdini to vanguard status. The artist cast himself (in Cremaster 5) and novelist Norman Mailer (in Cremaster 2) as Houdini. The magician inspired Barney with his raw agility and endurance, as well as his interest in metamorphosis. Rarely has one artist gone to such lengths to interpret the work of a cultural icon.
Houdini, 1953

Starring Tony Curtis as Harry Houdini and Janet Leigh as Bess Houdini

Directed by George Marshall

Produced by George Pal

Excerpt from film, 1 min. 12 sec.

© Paramount Pictures Corp.

All rights reserved
Houdini Straitjacket Escape, Boston, c. 1920

Archival footage, 1 min.

Courtesy of Kino International
Matthew Barney (American, born 1967)

Cremaster 2, 1999

With Norman Mailer as Houdini

Excerpt from film, 1 min.

Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York



Portraits of the Magician
Houdini’s ascent to international acclaim as “The Handcuff King” in the 1890s coincided with breakthroughs in visual media, including advances in photography and filmmaking as well as the wide dissemination of lithographic posters. The magician himself carefully fostered and controlled the propagation of his image across continents, courting audiences for his appearances. The mass media eagerly propelled Houdini from a young sleight-of-hand magician—who may have appeared alongside belly dancers and snake charmers on the Midway of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—to a world-class performer.
This group of portraits, dating from 1903 to the present, traces Houdini’s evolution from novice magician to midcareer authority to the 1920s star of stage and screen. Newspaper photographers and the popular media were responsible for the proliferation of Houdini’s image and established a thorough record of his astounding feats.
Vik Muniz (Brazilian, born 1961)

Houdini, Pantheon (from Pictures of Ink), 2000

Digital C-print, AP 3

Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York
Muniz uses unconventional materials from the pantry and the utility closet—syrup, sugar, jelly, chocolate, wire, thread—to render cultural icons. Muniz’s deep passion for magic began when, as a child, he visited a museum featuring a cabinet of curiosities. His Pictures of Ink series features several notables who are heroes to the artist, including comic actor Buster Keaton and singer James Brown. For Muniz, Houdini has special appeal as an innovator who continually outdid himself by inventing new escapes. According to the artist, “If you think of Houdini as a man of art, you have to think of him as a man of science. As most artists in the past, he is always working at the edge of technological development. He knew the latest thing that was invented in technology. That’s why I think when you see interesting magic today, you have to think about films, imagination. That is the continuation of Houdini’s legacy.”
Harry Houdini, c. 1920

Gelatin silver print

The National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Bruce Cratsley (American, 1944–1998)

Hat and Wand of Houdini, the Louvre Museum, 1995

Gelatin silver print

Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Jonathan L. Fagin
John Cassidy (English, 1860–1939)

Portrait bust of Houdini, c. 1914

Bronze

Museum of the City of New York, 58.290.1



The Prince of the Air
Houdini was born Erik Weisz in Budapest in 1874, one of seven children of Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz and his wife, Cecilia. In 1878, the family immigrated to Appleton, Wisconsin, where the rabbi was hired to lead the Zion Reform Congregation; they changed their surname to Weiss, and Erik became Ehrich. Journeying from cosmopolitan Budapest to the rural Midwest was not easy for the Weiss family, who faced cultural and linguistic barriers. Ultimately, the Weiss children, and not their parents, adapted to American life. It was in Appleton that Houdini first performed publicly, presenting acrobatics in a backyard circus as “Ehrich, The Prince of the Air.” After less than four years in Appleton, the German-speaking Rabbi Weiss was dismissed from his position when congregants decided they would prefer a leader who could assimilate more easily, and the family relocated to Milwaukee. From there, the twelve-year-old Ehrich jumped a freight train bound for Missouri, but he eventually returned home.
In 1887, Rabbi Weiss moved with Erich to New York City, where he had various freelance positions as a Hebrew tutor, a mohel (one who performs circumcisions), an officiant at weddings and funerals, and finally, along with the teenage Ehrich, a laborer in New York’s garment district. In New York, Ehrich found his first performance partner, Jacob Hayman (or Hyman), a fellow worker in a necktie factory. They called themselves The Brothers Houdini, in homage to the French magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805–1871), considered by many to be the founder of modern magic. Ehrich changed his name to Harry Houdini, choosing a first name that sounded similar to his nickname, Ehrie.
Houdini committed himself to achieving great success in the entertainment world. His rigorous fitness regimen and punishing performance schedule in the lower rungs of American leisure—the urban dime museum and the rural traveling circus—put him in top condition, anticipating his future feats of physical daring. Houdini’s experiences are chronicled in his 1897–99 travel diary, never before on public view, displayed in the adjacent case. In 1899, Houdini got his big break: he was discovered by the vaudeville impresario Martin Beck (1867–1940). He began to tour the Orpheum theater circuit from the Midwest to California, and performed extensively in Europe between 1900 and 1905. By 1916, Houdini’s diary, also on view, reveals his contentment with fame and his nostalgia for the past.
Free Press, Winnipeg

Houdini, the Justly World-Famous Self-Liberator!, Orpheum Theatre, Winnipeg, Canada, c. 1915

Lithograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Knut Hansen (Danish, 1876–1926)

Houdini at the Wintergarten, Berlin, 1903

Lithograph

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus Young Collection
Houdini, The World-Famous Jail Breaker and Handcuff King!, City Varieties Music Hall, Leeds, England, 1902

Broadside

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
*Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weiss, c. 1875

Photograph

Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
*Ehrich Weiss (then Erik Weisz) at age three and a half, with his brother Theodore (then Ferencz Deszö), 1877

Photograph

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of George B. Beal

*College Avenue, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1867

Photograph

Appleton Public Library, Wisconsin


*Ehrich Weiss at age nine in the schoolyard, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1883

Photograph

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland

(The “x” indicates the young Houdini.)


*Ehrich Weiss at age eight, 1882

Photograph

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of George B. Beal
*Ehrich Weiss at age thirteen, 1887

Photograph

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of George B. Beal
*Ehrich Weiss at age fifteen, 1889

Photograph

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of George B. Beal
*Houdini’s travel diary, 1897–99

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland


*Harry Houdini, King of Chains, c. 1903

Russian pamphlet

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
*Harry Houdini, King of Chains, c. 1903

German postcard

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
*Houdini’s travel diary, 1916

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland

I then having time went to 305 E 69th St. the house from which we buried dear old Father.

I had not been there for many years, stood there in silent meditation half an hour, in my minds eye I saw Father leave the house the last time — he was brought back Oct 6 — 1892 in Peace & Silence.

I was 18 years of age — and now being 42 I could re-live through the whole scene.

It grieves me more now — than it did then. I can still hear our blessed mother weep in supplication . . .”
*The Houdini family at 278 West 113th Street in New York, with Bess’s mother in the window, c. 1910

Photograph

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
*Houdini with his mother, Cecilia Weiss, c. 1905

Photograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland

Bess Houdini
When Houdini met Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Rahner, a young song-and-dance performer at Coney Island, he found a new stage partner and companion. She was born in 1875 in Brooklyn to a German Catholic immigrant family. Their union was a subject of great contention in the Rahner household: her mother disapproved of Bess’s marriage to a Jew. Nonetheless, Harry and Bess wed in 1894. There are various accounts of who presided at their wedding: a Catholic priest, a rabbi, or a justice of the peace.
Bess’s petite frame made her the perfect magician’s partner, and Houdini capitalized on her agility in the Metamorphosis illusion, which required physical dexterity and speed. As The Houdinis, Harry and Bess began an itinerant life, performing in beer halls, dance halls, circuses, and dime museums, sharing the footlights with sideshow freaks and human oddities. When Houdini’s career was in ascent at the turn of the twentieth century, and escapes became central to his act, Bess’s time in the spotlight decreased. Her role evolved into that of Houdini’s behind-the-scenes supporter and champion. Two years after his death in 1926, Bess coauthored the first biography of her husband, Houdini: His Life-Story, From the Recollections and Documents of Beatrice Houdini, with Harold Kellock. It still stands today as a significant primary source.
*Bess Houdini in tights, c. 1894

Photograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
*Harry and Bess Houdini in the Welsh Brothers Circus, 1895 or 1896

Photograph

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
*Harry and Bess Houdini with theater impresario Martin Beck in automobile, c. 1900

Photograph

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
A Man of the Book
His father’s erudition and Houdini’s own relentless drive to educate himself motivated him to become a published author, book collector, and magic magazine editor and publisher. His books, including The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (1908), Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (1920), and A Magician Among the Spirits (1924), discussed specific issues in the magic field, such as magic history, Spiritualism, and shoddy showmanship. In his position at the helm of Conjurer’s Monthly, a periodical printed between 1906 and 1908, Houdini was at the center of the dialogue on magic. He wrote a column, complained about competitors, and dished out magic-world gossip. Much of Houdini’s extensive personal library, including four thousand volumes on Spiritualism, magic history, and theater, was bequeathed on his death to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.
*Conjurer’s Monthly Magazine

September 1906, May 1907, May 1908, and July 1908

Collection of Arthur Moses, Fort Worth, Texas
*Harry Houdini

The Unmasking of Robert-Houdin (first edition, American version), 1908

Kevin A. Connolly Collection

*Harry Houdini

Miracle Mongers and Their Methods (first edition), 1920

Kevin A. Connolly Collection


*Harry Houdini

A Magician Among the Spirits (signed first edition), 1924

Collection of Kenneth Silverman


Beatrice Houdini among her husband’s collection of books, n.d.

Photograph

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection
Allen Ruppersberg (American, born 1944)

Houdini Again, 1972

Library overdue notice for Houdini’s Escapes, dated September 14, 1972



Courtesy of the artist and Christine Burgin, New York
For Houdini Again, Ruppersberg checked out several books on the magician from the Los Angeles Public Library and never returned them. In a nod to the magic practice of vanishing objects, the disappearance of the books from the library collection forms a conceptual artwork, documented through a series of overdue notices sent to the artist in the mail. One of them is on view here.
Escape, Metamorphosis, and Transformation
During magic’s golden age, from the 1890s to the 1920s, live performance—including traveling circuses and vaudeville—captivated working-class spectators seeking an escape from labor and daily life. At that time, American entertainment featured no motion pictures with sound, no television shows, and no radio programs for a mass audience to enjoy in leisure time. Urban venues attracted a wealthier audience and paid performers higher wages. Vaudeville was the ticket to success for singers, musicians, dancers, comedians, acrobats, and magicians such as Fred Astaire, Fanny Brice, Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, Al Jolson, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers.
Houdini catapulted to stardom when he was discovered by Martin Beck, the proprietor of the Orpheum circuit of theaters, which eventually included forty-five vaudeville theaters located in thirty-six cities across the United States and Canada. Touring this theater network signaled that a performer was in “the big time.” It was the Handcuff Escape that first caught Beck’s eye and subsequently sealed Houdini’s identity as “The Handcuff King.” While Houdini continued to perform handcuff breakouts, he devised more advanced escapes that used his entire body. Embedded in Houdini’s ventures were competing impulses: he simultaneously courted mortality and celebrated the triumph of life. The size of his audience only increased as he raised the stakes of his act.
Spectators could identify with Houdini’s own metamorphosis from foreign immigrant to native star, an inspiring backstory that solidified his popularity. He was bagged and hustled into a packing trunk, folded and sealed in a milk can, hung suspended by his ankles in a water-filled cell, and dangled outdoors in front of thousands of people in a straitjacket—and escaped from them all. The resounding relief among onlookers when Houdini survived was based in personal and inspiring symbolism.
Needle Threading Trick
Houdini probably first performed the East Indian Needle Threading Trick in public at the Orpheum in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1899. Ancient sword swallowing or nineteenth-century bead swallowing may have inspired this trick. Today’s magicians have reinterpreted the act by ingesting razor blades.
In amplifying the needle trick with innovative showmanship, Houdini transformed a small-scale parlor performance into a wonder of stagecraft that could captivate a large audience in a grand theater. He would call volunteers to the stage, ask them to examine a package of needles, and request that they peer into his mouth to look for hidden gimmicks. He would next lay the needles on his outstretched tongue and swallow them. With much theatricality, he would drink water to push down the needles. Then Houdini would unravel some thread and consume that, too. After further histrionics, he would reach into his mouth and slowly pull out a long filament with needles threaded along its length. Photographs of Houdini with an outstretched arm and an open mouth document this climactic moment.
Dietz, New York

Houdini demonstrating the Needle Threading Trick, c. 1915

Photograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland


Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle does the Needle Trick for Houdini (still from the motion picture Back

Stage), c. 1919

Gelatin silver print

George Eastman House

Motion Picture Department Collection


*Collection of Houdini’s needles and thread, c. 1915

Metal and string

From the Collections of the American Museum of Magic, Marshall, Michigan
Jane Hammond (American, born 1950)

Untitled (193,184,141,109), 1990

Oil on linen

Collection of Madeleine and David Lubar
The drama of the magician pulling needles on a long thread from his mouth inspired artist Hammond to scrutinize the Needle Threading Trick. In her painting, Houdini is poised to perform the trick. But rather than needles, silhouettes of two women in antebellum dress emerge from his mouth as the magician balances on a tightrope with a spotlight shining behind him. The tightrope becomes a metaphor—Houdini is conceived as a transitional figure between the Civil War period and the modern era.
“You wouldn’t see [Houdini] on a poster with fourteen white doves in the air,” Hammond has said. “He’s more nuts-and-bolts. In all the magic books, everyone has doves, ribbons, and smoke. You associate Houdini with boxes, locks, ropes, the humbler accoutrements. Houdini pried open my consciousness coming through a different door—being tied up, ropes, and bondage.”
Jane Hammond (American, born 1950)

Untitled (221,181,275,156,227), 1991–92

Oil on canvas

Private collection
In Hammond’s painting, the magician huddles in a magic trunk, evoking the Metamorphosis, as stage birds circle above. He whistles for the birds to return, in a scene of humorous disarray. Birds were a standard prop for stage magicians, although Houdini rarely used them in performance.
Metamorphosis Illusion
In the Metamorphosis, Houdini’s earliest famous illusion, the magician was bagged and then sealed in a trunk by an assistant who, seconds later, reappeared bagged and sealed in the same trunk while the magician stood free. Magic experts Milbourne and Maurine Christopher credited two of Houdini’s distinguished predecessors, the English magician John Nevil Maskelyne (1839–1917) and the French illusionist Alexander Herrmann (called Herrmann the Great, 1844–1896), as having first performed the Metamorphosis. Houdini, however, enhanced the trick’s showmanship, endowing a simple steamer trunk with mystery.
In the 1890s, Houdini performed the Metamorphosis with a fellow factory worker, Jacob Hyman, before teaming with his brother Theodore Weiss (nicknamed Dash, and later called Hardeen). After Harry and Bess married in 1894, Bess became an ideal partner for this illusion, her small frame enabling the couple to perform the Metamorphosis in three seconds.
Both Houdini and Bess were depicted in posters and photographs documenting the Metamorphosis—the only time that Bess was featured in promotional graphics. By 1899, when theater producer Martin Beck signed Houdini on the Orpheum circuit, Bess disappeared from the publicity for the act, although she continued to perform occasionally as an assistant to her husband. Houdini’s promotion to vaudeville was accompanied by Bess’s demotion from the visual record. She was merely the magician’s wife, her symbolic vanishing act documented in poster form.
Metamorphosis Trunk, late 19th or early 20th century

Wood and metal

Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
The Houdinis, Original Introducers of Metamorphosis, Exchanging Places in 3 Seconds, c. 1895

Lithograph

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
The Houdinis, Metamorphosis, Exchange Made in 3 Seconds, c. 1895

Lithograph

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus Young Collection
The Sphinx, October 1936, with cover photograph of Bess and Harry Houdini performing with the Metamorphosis Trunk, c. 1895

The Jewish Museum, New York


Return of the Greatest of All Magicians, the Houdinis, Smith’s Opera House, 1898

Broadside

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Liebler and Maass Lithographers, New York

The Houdinis, Introducing the Only and Original Metamorphosis, Change in 3 Seconds!, 1895

Lithograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland

Dietz, New York

Houdini, in a packing case, being lowered into New York Harbor, July 20, 1914

Photograph

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Handcuff Escape
Before Houdini became “The Handcuff King,” he was already familiar with manacles and locks. There is extensive lore linked to Houdini’s earliest fixation with fetters. To help his impoverished family, he apprenticed to locksmiths as a boy in Wisconsin. His mother secured aromatic baked goods in cupboards, but Houdini’s childhood sweet tooth led him to jimmy open the locks. For fun, he unlocked stores on Appleton’s Main Street after shopkeepers had gone home.
Houdini’s celebrity was built on the handcuff challenge: he invited spectators to shackle him in their handcuffs and, without fail, broke free. Houdini also visited jails in the towns where he toured and confronted the local authorities to handcuff him and lock him up. Of course, Houdini, who was often nude when he performed these jailhouse feats, always freed himself. At the London Hippodrome, during his European tour of 1904, Houdini escaped from a monstrous set of handcuffs provided by the Daily Illustrated Mirror. In his bridge jumps, he would be secured with handcuffs, leg-cuffs, and chains before being placed in a locked box and thrown into a river, as seen in footage from a jump in Rochester, New York, in 1907, on view in this gallery.
Bridge jump with handcuffs, Rochester, New York, 1907

Archival footage, 1 min. 30 sec.

Courtesy of Kino International
Houdini, Victory, Victory, Victory, Still King of Hand-Cuffs, London Hippodrome,

March 17, 1904

Broadside

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland


U.S. Sign Board Co., Russell Morgan, Cincinnati

Europe’s Eclipsing Sensation, Houdini, lobby display, c. 1906

Oil on plywood

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Handcuffs, late 19th or early 20th century

Metal


Sidney H. Radner Collection at The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1999.25.1, 1996.184.5, 1999.25.3, 1999.25.4, 1999.25.5, 1999.25.6, 1996.184.7a,b, 1996.184.8a,b, 1996.184.9a,b

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Handcuffs, late 19th or early 20th century

Metal


Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Handcuffs, late 19th or early 20th century

Metal


Kevin A. Connolly Collection

As Houdini’s celebrity escalated, so did the market for his magic apparatus. While the use of common, recognizable objects in performance—such as needles and thread, a milk can, a packing crate, or handcuffs—distinguished Houdini from his peers in magic, it also made his tools susceptible to imitation and dissemination. Houdini was well aware of copycats and kept the creation and rigorous inspection of his apparatus secret, sharing information only with his closest colleagues. Despite his efforts, replicas proliferated, especially handcuffs, because they were mass-produced items easily available to the public.


Manacled Harry Houdini, n.d.

Cabinet photograph

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Studio photograph of Houdini in white trunks and chains, c. 1905

Modern photograph from historic print

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Houdini seated in chains including chains around his neck, n.d.

Gelatin silver print

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Hinson
Houdini jumps from Harvard Bridge, Boston, Massachusetts, April 30, 1908

Modern photographs from original glass slides

Courtesy Library of Congress, Washington D.C., Prints and Photographs Division
Keith’s Theatre News, with image of lobby display, January 1906

Pamphlet

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
No Locks Can Hold Houdini at Keith’s, n.d.

Card


Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Houdini in shackles, side view, bent at the waist, n.d.

Photograph

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Houdini in shackles, n.d.

Photograph

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Houdini bent in chains, c. 1905

Photograph

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Deborah Oropallo (American, born 1954)



Escape Artist, 1993

Oil on canvas


Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, with funds from Evelyn and Leonard A. Lauder, 95.100

Oropallo superimposes handcuffs, magician’s hands, and floating text reading “Handcuff King” on a minimalist grid, using abstraction to create an atmospheric composition. Illusion, artifice, and mystique pervade both the artist’s canvas and the magician’s stagecraft. Oropallo recently said, “It’s basically an artist’s job to make people look—to look at what you know and to question what you know. And Houdini operated in the same arena.”


Milk Can Escape
The Milk Can Escape was a prime example of Houdini’s constant pursuit of new, ever more daring feats. He chose an object common in the lives of a mass public: the milk can, a symbol of rural America. Houdini’s stage milk can, however, was larger than those that went from farm to dairy to home; it could accommodate his folded body and gallons of water. Advertisements boldly warned that should Houdini not escape, “failure means a drowning death.” Photographs show him in his bathing suit, ready to take on the challenge. He first performed this escape in 1908 in Saint Louis, Missouri.
Houdini would tuck his body into the can, his wrists secured. Assistants would add water until it poured out of the milk can and onto the stage. After the top was anchored in place with padlocks, a curtain was drawn and the audience waited, with great trepidation, for Houdini to reappear unscathed. To heighten the dramatic tension, Franz Kukol, one of Houdini’s assistants, would advance onto the stage brandishing a large ax—just in case. Seconds ticked on and the audience became restless. Just at the moment when Kukol raised the ax to save him, Houdini emerged from the milk can to deafening applause.
Milk Can, c. 1908

Metal


From the Collections of the American Museum of Magic, Marshall, Michigan
Houdini performing the Milk Can Escape, c. 1908

Photograph

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus Young Collection
Houdini with the Milk Can, c. 1908

Photograph

Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com


Water Torture Cell Escape
In performances like his bridge jumps, the Milk Can Escape, and the Water Torture Cell, Houdini used the prospect of drowning to terrify spectators. Posters advertising the Water Torture Cell proclaimed, “His Own Original Invention, The Greatest Sensational Mystery Ever Attempted in This or Any Other Age.” The tall, glass-paneled box, which Houdini called the “Upside Down” or the “U.S.D.,” offered viewers a literal window into his watery prison. Biographer Kenneth Silverman has described the routine, which debuted in Berlin in 1912: “In a typical performance, the curtain rose slowly on an eerily handsome setting: three assistants outfitted in gold-laced purple; four brass water buckets; the glass-and–burnished brass cell on its waterproof sheet, surrounded by a cloth-of-gold cabinet; a felling-ax stuck in a heavy woodblock, gleaming with menace.” The formally dressed Houdini would then offer $1,000 to any audience member who could “prove that it is possible to obtain air” inside the cell.
In 1912, a brass-and-silver memento, on view in this gallery (or specific directive), was presented to Houdini to commemorate the Water Torture Cell Escape, which has since inspired generations of filmmakers, magicians, and artists. The 1953 movie Houdini, starring Tony Curtis, erroneously depicted this escape as the cause of Houdini’s death. In the 1970s, magician Doug Henning escaped, manacled, from a Water Torture Cell, and most recently the team of Penn and Teller have riffed on the Water Torture Cell in their act.
Water Torture Cell

Modern replica: metal, glass, and wood

The Jewish Museum, New York
Much of Houdini’s Water Torture Cell was destroyed in a 1995 fire at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada. The cell on view here is a re-creation of the original.
Houdini, Positively for the First Time in Seattle, Orpheum Theatre, Seattle, 1915

Broadside

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
World-Famous Self Liberator, Houdini, The Supreme Ruler of Mystery, 1914

Broadside

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Houdini being lowered into the Upside Down, c. 1912

Photograph

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Houdini upside down in the Water Torture Cell, c. 1912

Photograph

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Houdini being lowered upside down into the Water Torture Chamber, c. 1913

Photograph

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus Young Collection
Der Weltberühmte, Houdini, c. 1912

Lithograph

Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
Water Torture Cell presentation piece given to Houdini, commemorating his performance at the Circus Busch, Berlin, 1912

Brass, glass, paint, cardboard, silver, and cloth

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Tim Lee (Canadian, born Korea, 1975)

Upside-Down Water Torture Chamber, Harry Houdini, 1913, 2004

Photograph

Lent by the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, Courtesy of the American Acquisitions Committee, 2006
Lee’s self-portrait conceptually combines two of Houdini’s most punishing escapes, the Water Torture Cell and the Straitjacket. Lee was photographed upside down in a performance; to confound the viewer, he displays the image right side up. The artist has said that this photograph is about “destabilizing your own perspective,” much as Houdini had done by literally turning his world upside down in two of his most famous feats.
Conjuring Houdini
Houdini has left a remarkable and wide-ranging legacy in literature, film, and fine art. He has inspired fictional characters in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin (1960), E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975), and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000). And, naturally, the magician’s astounding career has made him a frequent subject of Hollywood films and television programs. Significantly, painters, photographers, performance artists, and cutting-edge filmmakers have also been profoundly inspired by Houdini. They are fascinated with his daring use of the body as a prop, the boldness of his stage and outdoor presentations, his invocation of the deep-seated fear of confinement, and his savvy marketing to a mass audience.
Houdini’s reputation has continued to evolve since his death on October 31, 1926. Today, magic collectors clamor for Houdiniana at auction, biographers scrutinize the Houdini archive in the Library of Congress, and Broadway looks to Houdini for his crowd appeal. Alongside this hoopla, contemporary artists are mindful of the significance of Houdini’s contribution to history and culture. By conjuring this iconic figure, artists have interpreted and sustained his fundamental ambition—endowing the everyday with illusion and mystery.
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)

No Title (I shall be), 1992

Pen and ink on paper

Collection of Matthew Barney
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)

No Title (The Desire to), 2009

Pen, ink, and gouache on paper

Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)



No Title (Houdini let your), 1990

Black and colored inks on paper

The Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the Friends of Contemporary Drawing, 1996
Pettibon’s drawings are episodic tales told in one-panel cliffhangers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, his work was associated with the Los Angeles punk rock scene, where he created album covers for bands like Black Flag. His approach to drawing, initially likened to comic books, has transformed into a rich dialogue between image and text. Pettibon incorporates a wide range of figures from mass culture into his art. He has mentioned Houdini, John Dillinger, Jimmy Piersall, Babe Ruth, and Lee Harvey Oswald as famous and infamous Americans who resonated in his youth. “They are archetypes, figures that I grew up with at a distance. Somehow [Houdini] resonated with me. . . . He’s definitely in the Charles Lindbergh category of figures who still resonate because everything dwindles somewhere. To me, he’s still vibrant.”
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)

No Title (All agreed that), 2009

Pen, ink, gouache, and acrylic on paper

Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)

No Title (One arm freed), 2001

Pen and ink on paper

Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Raymond Pettibon (American, born 1957)

No Title (With each fading), 1991

Pen and ink on paper

Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles
Christopher Wool (American, born 1955)

Untitled (Houdini), 1985

Enamel on plywood

Private collection, Seattle
Wool’s Untitled (Houdini) deploys illusion and abstraction to confront the mysteries of magic. Black and silver gestures push the viewer to locate an unrecognizable image behind a façade of all-over paint.
Ikuo Nakamura (Japanese, born 1960)

Materialization, 2009

Hologram and metal

Collection of the artist, Brooklyn; milk can courtesy of Cannon’s Great Escapes
Nakamura, a holographer and photographer living in Brooklyn, uses holography to imbue Materialization with a magical quality. Holograms are made of a photographic material that evokes three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional piece of film. Materialization is based on Houdini’s well-known Milk Can Escape. As fingers reach up from inside the milk can, they emphasize the illusion of materializing form. The pair of hands is caught between liberation from constraints and the oppression of confinement.
Carol Yeh (American, 1938–1994)

Houdini/Etchings, 1971

Etchings


Collection of Mr. and Mrs. E. L. Doctorow, New York
The etching was included in a special edition of E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime published by Bantam Books in 1976. Houdini plays a central role in Ragtime, which brings the magician to life as a man of astounding achievements and inner doubts. In the book’s teeming portrayal of turn-of-the-century New York, Houdini embodies the rise of the enterprising immigrant and the perils of show-business success.
Spiritualism
Posters from the 1920s chronicled Houdini’s public debunking of Spiritualism, the quasi-religion that was born in 1848 when the Fox sisters of Hydesville, New York, claimed to have heard mysterious spirit rappings in their home. The Fox sisters and other mediums—including Ira and William Davenport, William Fay, and Boston-based Mina Crandon (known as Margery)—held private and public séances. Mysterious lights, moving objects, noises, or writings emanating from the medium were considered successful signs of communication with the spirit world. Following the Civil War, when Americans mourned the loss of the war dead, Spiritualism promised contact with deceased family members. Similarly, Spiritualism’s popularity surged after World War I.
According to Bess Houdini, after the death of Houdini’s mother, Cecilia Weiss, in 1913, “Houdini’s interest in so-called spirit phenomena increased.” But the magician was skeptical about séances and the afterlife. His prowess as an illusionist and his 1890s stint performing as a psychic medium enabled Houdini to see through Spiritualist hokum. As he told the Los Angeles Times in 1924, “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer.” Houdini wrote of attending a 1922 séance at an Atlantic City hotel hosted by his friend Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the character Sherlock Holmes, and Lady Doyle, who served as the medium. During the ceremony, Lady Doyle produced a letter from Houdini’s mother written in English, a language that Mrs. Weiss did not speak. In her trance state, Lady Doyle also drew a cross at the top of one page, purportedly a message from the Jewish Mrs. Weiss to her Jewish son. Houdini was outraged by the obviously fraudulent séance.
Unlike the Spiritualists, Houdini never claimed that his amazing feats were based on supernatural powers. He unmasked fake practices in a series of lectures folded into his performances. His crusade continued in newspapers, in posters such as those on view here, in issues of Scientific American magazine in 1924 (when he sat on a committee to investigate Spiritualism), and in his 1926 testimony against Spiritualists before Congress.
Houdini with spirits, c. 1924

Photograph

Collection Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
Spiritualist image of Houdini, 1920s

Photo collage

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Houdini with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, n.d.

Modern photograph from original glass slide

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., Prints and Photographs Division, McManus Young Collection
Houdini with escape artist Ira Davenport, c. 1910

Photograph

Collection of Kenneth Silverman

Butler Photography, Chicago

Houdini holding a spirit trumpet with reformed medium Mrs. Benninghofen, c. 1926

Photograph

Collection Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
Hear Houdini, The World-Famed Mystifier, “Can the Dead Speak to the Living?,” 1920s

Lithograph

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Houdini Séance Fails Again, 1946

Photograph

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection
Spirit Exposé: Houdini and wife Bess demonstrating switch of blank slates for slates with prewritten messages, c. 1926
Photograph
Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin
Spirit Exposé: Houdini demonstrating fake hands, c. 1926

Photographs

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

 

Houdini’s 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits charted the history of Spiritualism and served as an exposé of the “manifestations” and practices of spirit mediums. In this volume and in subsequent lectures and interviews, Houdini revealed the secrets behind tricks of the séance: slate writing, rapping sounds, instrument noise, flashing lights, and the apparition of hands. “One of the most startling swindles I ever heard of a medium working was called ‘finger-printing a Spirit’ where a medium shows a sitter finger prints of their dear departed,” wrote Houdini. The apparition was achieved using a plaster-of-Paris mold of a dead individual’s hand. In this series of photographs, Houdini demonstrates how “spirit hands” used at a Spiritualist séance were crafted.


Straitjacket Escape
In the late 1890s, Houdini accompanied a doctor to a Canadian psychiatric hospital, where they witnessed a patient struggling desperately to free himself from a straitjacket. It was a transformative moment for Houdini, who grew even more fascinated with obstacles to liberation. He practiced the Straitjacket Escape until its outdoor public debut in 1915, in front of the Minneapolis Evening Tribune building. These outdoor escapes were Houdini’s most documented achievements. He regularly performed them outside the offices of America’s great newspapers in New York, Boston, Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Saint Paul, and San Francisco. Reporters and photographers exploited the events just outside their windows for newspaper sales, and Houdini often arranged for films of these feats to be shot from multiple angles. Throngs of spectators witnessed the free outdoor shows, and his later indoor theater appearances regularly sold out.
The unusual image of a man freeing himself from a straitjacket powerfully evoked the escape from adversity experienced or wished for by many immigrants. Disquieting imagery of a constrained and struggling Houdini also appeals to contemporary artists, several of whom have been inspired by his straitjacket performances.
Straitjacket, c. 1915

Canvas, leather, and copper

Collection of Arthur Moses, Fort Worth, Texas

Whitney Bedford (American, born 1976)



Houdini (Upside Down), 2007

Ink and oil on unprimed paper

Hammer Museum, Los Angeles, Purchased with funds provided by Susan and Larry Marx
Bedford, a California painter, created a series of life-size portraits of the escape artist. Here, she captures the climactic moment in the Straitjacket Escape when the suspended Houdini extends his arms, releasing the straitjacket. This work is a faithful rendering of a period image, and Bedford’s palette even mimics the black-and-white of historic photographs. The work itself is a disappearing act: the image, which is painted on an unprimed surface, will eventually fade away as the ink and oil sink into the paper. Bedford has cited parallels between “how an artist uses tricks and how a magician uses tricks.” She said recently that she is “much more indebted to this kind of pageantry of show performance” than to the work of some great painters.
Houdini hanging in midair over Shulte’s Cigar Store, n.d.

Gelatin silver print

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Hinson
Houdini performing a Straitjacket Escape, Washington, DC, January 12, 1922

Photograph

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, McManus Young Collection
Houdini at the London Palladium, c. 1920

Gelatin silver print

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John Hinson

Houdini secured into straitjacket, c. 1915

Photograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland


Crowd scene with Houdini before Straitjacket Escape, c. 1915

Photograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Crowd scene with trolley cars stopped while Houdini performs the Straitjacket Escape, c. 1915

Photograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Allen Ruppersberg (American, born 1944)

A Lecture on Houdini (for Terry Allen), 1972–73

Video, 45 min.

Courtesy of the artist and Christine Burgin Gallery, New York
Conceptual artist Ruppersberg first came to Houdini by comparing the transformative role of the artist in the studio with that of the magician on stage. The performative aspects of Houdini’s work have long fascinated contemporary artists like Ruppersberg. In performance art, the movement that began in the 1960s as an offshoot of conceptual art, the artist’s body was the work’s most significant prop. Fifty years after Houdini triumphed over the straitjacket, Ruppersberg created a performance and video based on the treachery of the escape. In this video, Ruppersberg sits before a table and recites his own biography of Houdini. The text is in the form of a long scroll of attached pages. The artist struggles for release from a straitjacket buckled at the neck, chest, waist, and arms. Unlike Houdini, he is never freed from bondage.
Houdini Straitjacket Escapes:

Kansas City, Missouri (outside the Post Building), 1923

Saint Paul, Minnesota (outside the Daily News Building), n.d.

Houston, Texas (outside the Chronicle Building), 1923

Archival footage, total running time 4 min.

Courtesy of Kino International


Sara Greenberger Rafferty (American, born 1978)

De/Feat, 2005

Digital video, 12 min.

Courtesy of the artist and Rachel Uffner Gallery, New York
Rafferty puts a feminist spin on Houdini’s Straitjacket Escape and his idealized male physicality. Her video performance, De/Feat, is the Straitjacket Escape gone awry: the artist strives to put herself into the straitjacket. After securing the apparatus, she throws it off and walks away—perhaps a rejection of Houdini’s masculine persona. Rafferty, who said “Houdini is with me in my studio pretty much all the time,” has noted that she identifies with his being “a tiny person, a Jewish man, and an immigrant.”
Joe Coleman (American, born 1955)

The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Harry Houdini), 1995

Acrylic on Masonite

Collection of David and Rhonda Denholtz
Coleman’s methodical painting process—he uses a jeweler’s lens, taking eight hours to complete one square inch of canvas or board—creates a complete biography in a single painting. Coleman’s placid escape artist emerges from a portrait of his mother, Cecilia Weiss. “He’s growing out of her head,” Coleman explained. “I thought of a gender switch: like Zeus giving birth to Athena. Houdini is coming out of her head or mind.” Houdini’s airplane (which he flew in Australia in 1910), the Manhattan Bridge (alluding to his famous bridge jumps), handcuff escapes, and the Water Torture Cell are all featured in this meticulously rendered composition. A pocket-size Bess stands at his right side, in cape and costume, saluting her husband.
Celebrity
As he escalated to fame, Houdini battled professional peers who were working to duplicate his signature tricks. Many feats, such as the Handcuff, Milk Can, and Water Torture Cell Escapes, were copied and publicized by other magicians over Houdini’s objections. To ward off the imitators, he published books revealing some of his methods and credited himself with originating certain performances. However, Houdini copycats, riding on his coattails, proliferated during his lifetime; Excello and Torrini, for example, both appeared in chains and handcuffs, as seen in the two posters on view here. Contemporary magicians such as David Blaine, David Copperfield, Doug Henning, The Amazing Randi, and Penn and Teller have paid homage to the master and have openly discussed their indebtedness to him. Not only were Houdini’s performances a legacy to the field, but his use of posters has inspired the promotional efforts of subsequent generations of magicians.
Film provided another outlet for his showmanship; Houdini starred in a number of melodramatic silent films from 1919 through 1923. An advocate for the magic profession, he served as president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death in 1926. And Houdini also ventured beyond the realm of conjuring. He was the first successful aviator in Australia in 1910, and fraternized with President Theodore Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, and French stage and film actress Sarah Bernhardt, all seen here in photographs with the magician.

Publicity sheet from Terror Island, 1920

Lobby card

Kevin A. Connolly Collection


“The Final Stand in the Hut,” scene from Terror Island, 1920

Lobby card

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Film still from The Man from Beyond, 1922

Gelatin silver print

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Hinson
Poster for the 1953 film Houdini

Lithograph

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Houdini with National Vaudeville Artists notables, 1923

Photograph

Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Gift of George B. Beal
White Studio, New York

Houdini with Jennie the Elephant at the Hippodrome, New York, 1918

Photograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland


Houdini made Jennie, a ten-thousand-pound elephant, disappear in front of a packed audience at New York City’s Hippodrome. While other magicians made doves and rabbits vanish, Houdini used a pachyderm to stunning effect.
Houdini with comedian W. C. Fields, c. 1924

Photograph

Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com
Harry and Bess Houdini with actress Sarah Bernhardt, c. 1916

Photograph

Collection of Dr. Bruce J. Averbook, Cleveland
Houdini’s silent films: [Grouped Media Label]

The Grim Game, 1919

Haldane of the Secret Service, 1923

Excerpts, total running time 2 min. 37 sec.

Courtesy of Kino International
The Great Houdini, 1976

Starring Paul Michael Glaser as Houdini

Directed by Melville Shavelson

ABC Circle

Excerpt from television program, 2 min. 7 sec.

Courtesy of ABC, Inc.


Fairy Tale: A True Story, 1997

Starring Harvey Keitel as Houdini

Directed by Charles Sturridge

Icon Entertainment International

Excerpt from film, 2 min.

© Paramount Pictures Corp., all rights reserved


Death Defying Acts, 2008

Starring Guy Pearce as Houdini

Directed by Gillian Armstrong

Excerpt from film, 3 min. 9 sec.

Courtesy of The Weinstein Company
Raymond Jacobs (American, 1923–1993)

Times Square: Houdini Movie, 1953

Gelatin silver print

Collection of Eleanor Jacobs
“How I Get Out of My Rope Ties” by Harry Houdini

The Ladies Home Journal, June 1918

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland


Harry and Bess Houdini, Married Thirty-One Years, 1925

Photograph

Kevin A. Connolly Collection
Houdini with actor and director Charlie Chaplin, Los Angeles, c. 1919

Photograph

Courtesy of Fantasma Magic Shop, New York, www.fantasmamagic.com

Society of American Magicians, Banquet in Honor of Houdini, Great Northern Hotel, Chicago, February 1922

Photograph

Collection of Kenneth Silverman


Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator, June 23, 1914

Gelatin silver print

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mr. Harold Friedlander
Houdini was introduced to President Roosevelt on board the ocean liner Imperator. Houdini was so taken with the former president that he circulated a version of this image in postcard form.
Houdini with Theodore Roosevelt’s grandchildren, c. 1914

Gelatin silver print

Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. John A. Hinson
Obituary for Harry Houdini

Jewish Daily Forward, November 1, 1926

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland

Seymour Chwast (American, born 1931)

The Sensational Houdini Water Torture Escape with Doug Henning, 1974

Lithograph

Posters Please Inc., New York
Jay Disbrow (American, born 1926)

The Amazing Randi, The Man No Jail Can Hold!, 1976

Lithograph

Posters Please Inc., New York
Houdini and Contemporary Magic

Produced by MediaCombo, Inc.

© The Jewish Museum 2010
Donaldson Litho

Excello, The Great Escape Artist, c. 1910

Lithograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
National Litho

Weird, Marvelous Torrini, the Magician, c. 1910

Lithograph

Collection of Ken Trombly, Bethesda, Maryland
Petah Coyne (American, born 1953)

Untitled #698 (Trying to Fly, Houdini’s Chandelier), 1991

Mixed media

Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the Rothfeld Family in memory of Harriet Weill Rothfeld
Coyne’s sculpture summons the suspended posture of Houdini’s Straitjacket Escape. Coyne invokes the power of magic, choosing Houdini as a subject to suggest the miraculous release of war prisoners from their constraints: “If they could all disappear from [oppression], spin around, and leave their clothing the way he left his straitjacket, what an amazing thing.”
“I was fascinated by [Houdini] and his magic,” she said. “He was such a colorful figure, so outrageous, a performance artist and a wild character. These two people who really cared about him were women, his mother and [his wife] Bess, who were in the background. He couldn’t have had his success without them. He gave them some credit, but you think of the work as his magic.”

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