Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Tuesday Treasures

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August 2020 - Toronto ON

We attended an exhibit at the AGO Art Gallery on Ontario this week.

Click here to see some videos of the exhibit.

Illusions: The Art of Magic transports you back in time to the Golden Age of Magic when death-defying tricks, daring escapes and colourful personas turned performers like The Incomparable Albini and Harry Houdini into world-famous celebrities.


Magicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were show business pioneers. They were among the first artists to embark on international tours and to promote themselves and their magical powers through illustrated advertisements ranging in scale from postcards to wall-sized posters.

Illusions: The Art of Magic will feature more than 55 colourful and stylized posters from the Allan Slaight Collection of the McCord Museum, Montreal, alongside photographs, films, documents and ephemera.

The posters may have been relatively inexpensive, but it took a team of skilled craftspeople to make them: art directors who would come up with the concept for the design, artists who specialized in tracing lettering and other motifs onto lithographic stones, still other artists who filled in the outlines with vibrant colors. Some companies were more highly regarded than others; in America, the Strobridge Lithographing Company was considered to be one of the best, creating ads for the likes of Kellar, Thurston and Houdini.

One section of “Illusions” spotlights the little-known female magicians of the Golden Age. Women make frequent appearances in the exhibition’s posters as the passive objects of male showrunners’ tricks: they are levitated, decapitated, sawed in half, shot through with arrows. 

But some became successful headliners in their own right. Adelaide Herrmann, for instance, was married to the French performer Alexander Herrmann, one of the most popular magicians of the late 19th century. She began her magic career as Alexander’s assistant, but when he died in 1896, she took over his act. Adelaide wore pants and a white blouse on stage, levitated and decapitated female assistants, and caught bullets with her bare hands. Audiences in North America and Europe loved her, and she toured major vaudeville circuits until she was in her seventies. A poster on view at the AGO hints at her supremacy within the field. She is depicted alone, wearing a sumptuous dress of red, blue and gold. “Adelaide Herrmann,” the text reads, “Queen of Magic.”

Howard Thurston (July 20, 1869 – April 13, 1936) was a stage magician from Columbus, Ohio, United States. His childhood was unhappy, and he ran away to join the circus, where his future partner Harry Kellar also performed. Thurston was deeply impressed after he attended magician Alexander Herrmann's magic show and was determined to equal his work. He eventually became the most famous magician of his time. Thurston's traveling magic show was the biggest one of all; it was so large that it needed eight train cars to transport his road show.

The exhibition also calls attention to the appropriation and caricaturing of Eastern cultures by Golden Age magicians, an unsettling practice that is evident in many of the posters on display. Fueled in part by the advent of railroads and steamships, which opened up new lands to Western travelers, Americans and Europeans of the 19th century developed a fervent fascination with the Middle East, North Africa and Asia—a fascination that in turn inspired exoticized representations of the East in art, literature and even interior decorating trends. Magicians, ever the opportunists, freely took advantage of the craze.

My favourite: Fu Manchu, the onstage persona of David Bamberg, an eighth-generation Dutch-Jewish magician who was raised in the United States and educated in England and found fame in South America performing as a Chinese magician who spoke Spanish. (Not to be confused with the villainous Dr. Fu Manchu of Sax Rohmer’s novels and the films starring Christopher Lee.)

Charles Carter carted 31 tonnes of equipment over the course of seven world tours between 1907 and 1936. And the tricks – the effects – magicians perform today are essentially the same because, like notes on a musical scale, there are only eight basic effects. The first four are the ability to make things disappear and reappear; to transform a person or object into something else; to make a person or object pass through or penetrate something; and to suspend the law of gravity. The remaining four effects are based on purported psychic phenomena: divination, clairvoyance, telepathy and telekinesis.

In one poster on view at the AGO, Carter is depicted in white safari gear, sitting astride a camel. The bottom of the ad promises that the magician “sweeps the secrets of the sphinx and marvels of the tomb of the old King Tut to the modern world.” Carter happened to share a last name with Howard Carter, who discovered the pharaoh’s tomb in 1922—and according to Ben, the magician was more than happy to capitalize on any associations with the famed archaeologist.

A skeletal hand clutching a crystal ball stretches across an ad promoting the “seer” Alexander—an American performer (real name: Claude Alexander Conlin) who wowed audiences with his ability to read minds.

Harry Houdini born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss; March 24, 1874 – October 31, 1926) was a Hungarian-born American illusionist and stunt performer, noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice in vaudeville in the United States and then as "Harry 'Handcuff' Houdini" on a tour of Europe, where he challenged police forces to keep him locked up. Soon he extended his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to escape from and hold his breath inside a sealed milk can with water in it.

Toronto played a part in the magic of the day.

Famed Toronto magician and historian David Ben “The city was a mainstay for magicians in the Golden Age of magic. They’d come to play a week at Shea’s, or Pantages, The Elgin, the old Imperial 6 or the Royal Alexandra. Shea’s stood where City Hall is.”

Toronto also housed The Japanese Novelty Co., which began around 1912, says Ben.

“It eventually became known as the Arcade Magic Company, and it was well known among magicians. It closed around 1980, and was a real beacon for magicians in North America.”


  1. Great article on magicians and illusions

  2. That's certainly different from any museum I've seen - very interesting.
    Thanks for sharing at https://image-in-ing.blogspot.com/2020/08/oriental-lily.html

  3. ...magic has been intriguing through the ages, my grandkids love to learn and do magic tricks. Thanks Jackie for the bit of history.

  4. This would be blast to see. The town just south of us in one of the restaurant. They had someone come in and do table magic. He walked from table to table and do a few tricks for customers.

  5. That looks like a great exhibit!

  6. Gorgeous graphics and interesting history!

  7. Wow, what a fun place! The history of some of these people is really quite amazing!

    I'm so excited to see you at 'My Corner of the World' this week!! Thanks for linking.

  8. images and article are great....love it


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