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Houdini: Art and Magic

Brooke Kamin Rapaport

(Yale University Press; US: Oct 2010)

Born Erik Weisz, Harry Houdini was the rabbi’s son who created American magic. After Houdini, visual illusionists could never be satisfied with parlor tricks. Nor could their audiences. Rather than pulling rabbits out of hats, Houdini ensured that the craft of magic would have to include certifiably insane acts of daredevilry that would not only amaze, but terrify audiences, as well.


Houdini quickly became a major cultural icon, a figure that has endured in the public memory.  On 29 October 2010 the exhibition Houdini: Art and Magic opened at the Jewish Museum in New York City, showcasing a wide range of Houdiniana that includes both early poster art and later artistic renderings of the master magician. Curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport has edited the elegantly designed volume of the same name, a book that serves both as an exhibition catalog and a new biography of this seminal figure in popular culture.


Rapaport writes a nearly perfect introduction to the volume. If you are not familiar with Houdini’s significance in American popular culture, Rapaport provides a wealth of examples for the Houdini novice. Her essay “Houdini’s Transformation in Visual Culture” is a history of posters, paintings and photographs of Houdini as well as of the illusionist’s successful efforts to manage that image.  Perhaps her most interesting discussion has to do with the disappearance from the visual record of Bess, Houdini’s wife and for a time his fellow performer, as he became a major success in middle class venues.


Rapaport sometimes raises interesting questions that, alas, she fails answer. A fascinating discussion of representation of Houdini in the Pop Art movement becomes a short list of artists who chose not to use Houdini as a subject. This is even true of Andy Warhol whose “Ten Jews of the 20th Century” included entertainer Sarah Bernhardt but left out Houdini. It’s worth wondering why and, unfortunately, the author does not explore this issue.

Rapaport is, however, both incisive and concise in writing about the numerous artists who have taken Houdini as a subject. Numerous abstract and conceptual artists have placed the iconography surrounding him at the center of their work.


Most significantly, Matthew Barney, in the films, sculptures, books and installations that make up the Cremaster Cycle, has made Houdini a central figure.  Barney himself has played a Houdini-like figure in the films, as has, notably, Norman Mailer.


Rapaport is at her best in describing later incarnations of Houdini, including the 1953 film starring Tony Curtis in which he is presented as middle class romantic hero or E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime where Houdini is a self-doubting master of fakery with a deeply adversarial relationship to his audience and admirers (a fascinating interview with Doctorow about Houdini is included in this book).


Aside from Rapaport’s work, this book offers up a full menu for Houdini enthusiasts. Acclaimed American historian Alan Brinkley contributes a workmanlike but highly detailed essay on how Houdini reflects, and in some ways refracts, the late-19th century immigrant experience. Kenneth Silverman, author of the most significant critical study of Houdini’s life, also explores the master escapist as representative of the immigrant experience, tying this to Houdini’s need to reinvent himself Although it feels more than a little unfocused, Silverman’s essay comes packed with insights and biographical notes about Houdini, ranging from his interest in collecting Americana to his awareness and concern over anti-Semitism in Europe and the United States.


Perhaps the most interesting essay in this collection is Hasia R. Diner’s discussion of Bess, Houdini’s wife and long-time performance partner.  Diner describes Bess’ professional and personal relationship to her famous husband as filling “roles that suited his professional vision.” Diner shows that Bess began her life with her famous husband as his on-stage equal, even in public representation and advertisement. She disappeared from view after he began playing more bourgeois venues than the working class, sawdust trail where they began their career. Disappearing into the household to serve in the role of devoted wife and hearth-keeper, she re-merges again after his death to become, in Diner’s words, the “custodian of his public memory.”


This essay is so worthwhile in part because Bess has received only limited attention from Houdini biographers. A gifted performer in her own right, she tells us much about the possibilities and limitations of public performance for women in the early-20th century. Diner explores this idea while also dishing on the Houdini’s marriage (they may have never legally married at all).


Images from the exhibition make of the bulk of this book. The materials gathered here are eye-popping promotional ephemera, family photographs and a mountain of visual representations of Houdini. Included are poster images, still shots and lobby cards from Houdini’s limited film career (like the silent adventure tale Terror Island). A beautifully designed section at the end couples historical images connected to Houdini’s infamous escapes (a late-19th century milk can, the water torture cell, a stupendously creepy Victorian straitjacket).


Any Houdini fan must own this book, though it will also have wide-crossover appeal for those interested in topics as diverse as the Jewish experience in America to the graphic arts and historical representation. Thoughtfully written and gorgeously designed, it’s the perfect introduction to the master of escapes.

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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