NEW YORK — A century after Harry Houdini thrilled audiences with daring escapes from handcuffs, straitjackets and watery tombs, the legendary magician has conjured a major art museum exhibition that explores his enduring legacy.
"Houdini: Art and Magic," which opened Friday at The Jewish Museum in New York, tells the story of an impoverished son of Jewish immigrants who harnessed the power of the mass media, and the emerging technologies of film and photography, to become one of the 20th century's most famous performers.RELATED:A magical holiday in Houdini’s hometownWhen does a brushstroke become a feline?
The show is beautifully installed in galleries that feature the semi-dark theatrical lighting and spotlights of the vaudeville halls where Houdini got his start as a stage magician before turning to outdoor escape spectacles.
Scattered amid the historic photographs, art nouveau-era posters and
archival films are more than two dozen recent works of art by such
well-known artists as Matthew Barney, Vik Muniz and Raymond Pettibon
that attest to Houdini's continuing influence as the consummate
illusionist. The museum also displays some of his magic props, including
handcuffs, shackles, a straitjacket, a milk can and a packing trunk
that were featured in various escape acts.
Though he eventually became an international celebrity, Houdini was from
the most modest of circumstances. He was born Erik Weisz in 1874 in
Budapest, the son of a rabbi who immigrated to Wisconsin when Erik was a
boy. When he was 12, he ran away from home to join the circus, but
eventually returned home to help support the family. Tellingly, one of
his earliest jobs was as an apprentice to a locksmith.
From an early age, he trained as a runner, swimmer and boxer, developing
the physical strength and stamina that let him perform superhuman feats
such as escaping, while handcuffed, from a padlocked crate thrown into
an icy river.
Only after his father died in 1892 did the teenager launch his career as
an entertainer, changing his name to Houdini in honor of the French
magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin and performing in freak shows and
Houdini's big break came in 1899, when he was discovered by the
vaudeville impresario Martin Beck and started touring theaters across
America and Europe.
Later in life, Houdini sought to debunk the fake spiritualists and
mediums who claimed to be able to communicate with the dead. He also
published books explaining some of the tricks of his trade, although the
exhibition does not reveal any of those secrets.
Houdini died on Halloween 1926 of peritonitis — not trying to escape
from a water-filled cell as depicted in the 1953 movie of his life
starring Tony Curtis — and was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens,
New York, where fans still make a pilgrimage on the anniversary of his
Curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport suggested that part of Houdini's appeal
lay in the fact that his working-class audiences, many of whom came to
America in search of political or religious freedom, identified with
Houdini's immigrant background. His ability to emerge unscathed from
handcuffs, chains and packing crates became an inspiring symbol of their
own quest for freedom.
Houdini — who often closed his performances by asking "Will wonders
never cease? — plays a central role in E.L. Doctorow's novel "Ragtime"
and in Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay."
The magician David Blaine reveres him, and he is mythologized by the
American artist Deborah Oropallo in her oil painting "Escape Artist."
The show closes in New York on March 27, 2011, after which it travels to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Madison, Wisconsin.
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