Visu­al Arts

Hou­di­ni: Art and Magic

Brooke Kamin Rapa­port; Alan Brink­ley et​.al., contributors
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
When Har­ry Hou­di­ni died on Octo­ber 31, 1926, he was a world renowned magician/​escape artist whose per­for­mances drew thou­sands of spec­ta­tors. There is a pletho­ra of mate­r­i­al about this leg­endary fig­ure along with his own writ­ings. Hou­di­ni: Art and Mag­ic has been pub­lished in con­junc­tion with the exhi­bi­tion at the Jew­ish Muse­um in New York, which runs through March, 2011 and will then trav­el to three oth­er venues through May 2012. The book con­tains repro­duc­tions of Houdini’s appa­ra­tus, includ­ing the water tor­ture cell, the famous milk can (filled with water in which Hou­di­ni waslocked, then sub­merged and from which he escaped in under three min­utes) straight­jack­ets, and man­a­cles. Also repro­duced are archival news­pa­per clip­pings and pages from his own note­books. Rapaport’s fas­ci­nat­ing essay on the poster art pro­duced by Hou­di­ni and his agents adver­tis­ing per­for­mances, them­selves play­ing a sig­nif­i­cant role in bring­ing a small time magi­cian to cen­ter stage. Pho­tographs from the Library of Con­gress as well as from the many pri­vate col­lec­tions of Hou­dini­ana illus­trate the bio­graph­i­cal essays which con­tex­tu­al­ize Hou­di­ni in Amer­i­can social his­to­ry and chal­lenge some con­ven­tion­al facts” about Hou­di­ni.

Born Erich Weiss, the son of immi­grants from Hun­gary, he fash­ioned his name based on the famous French magi­cian Sean Eugene Robert-Houdin. Hou­di­ni was mul­ti­fac­eted, which the essays amply demon­strate: in addi­tion to cre­at­ing his own per­for­mances with his wife as his assis­tant, he was an avid book col­lec­tor and inter­est­ed in fur­ther­ing the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the the­ater. He exposed Spir­i­tu­al­ists, he wrote a book on Robert-Houdin, he was a friend of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Will Rogers, and of the poet Carl Sand­burg. Best of all he kept a diary, pages of which greet the read­er upon open­ing the book. An inter­view with E.L. Doc­torow, who incor­po­rates Hou­di­ni in his nov­el Rag­time; an inter­view with the magi­cian Teller (of Penn and Teller); an inter­view with a con­tem­po­rary artist who along with oth­er artists have been inspired by Hou­di­ni to cre­ate works of art (repro­duced in the book) make this vol­ume a first-rate con­tri­bu­tion to the Hou­di­ni canon. Exten­sive notes and index.
Esther Nuss­baum, the head librar­i­an of Ramaz Upper School for 30 years, is now edu­ca­tion and spe­cial projects coor­di­na­tor of the Halachic Organ Donor Soci­ety. A past edi­tor of Jew­ish Book World, she con­tin­ues to review for this and oth­er publications.

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