The “Golden Age” of magic coincided with the heyday of the lithographic poster, and acts involving levitation, decapitation, escapes, hypnotism, and other illusions were lavishly advertised. Illusions: The Art of Magic, out now from Abrams, features 250 examples of these illustrated posters, dating from the 19th to early 20th centuries, as well as a series of essays exploring the history and visuals of magic.
The book, edited by Suzanne Sauvage, Christian Vachon, and Marc H. Choko, is published in conjunction with an exhibition of the same name currently at the McCord Museum in Montreal. The museum holds the Allan Slaight Collection, which includes over 600 posters, along with more than 1,000 documents related to Harry Houdini. The legendary escape artist does appear in Illusions, upside down in the water-torture cell or escaping after being buried alive, but there are numerous names that are now obscure. Ersy Contogouris, assistant professor at the Université de Montréal, explores the women whose names “have largely been left out of magic histories.”
As Contogouris states, a “woman’s role in the world of magic continues to be considered overwhelmingly as that of the (male) magician’s often anonymous assistant,” and the images in Illusions have plenty of women being levitated, decapitated, and otherwise violently employed for the magician’s trick. Yet the woman’s role as assistant was not always a trope of magic, and Contogouris writes:
It was only in the late 19th century that the pairing of male conjurer and female assistant became common-place. This needs to be understood in the wider context of competing social phenomena: Victorianism, which promulgated the image of a passive and dependent woman, and the increasing presence of women in the public sphere as workers, cultural producers, and advocates for social change. In this context, we can understand the various tricks that magicians performed on women’s bodies as expressions of a generalized anxiety over women’s increasing emancipation and as part of a backlash that promoted domesticity.
One of the women to perform on her own was Adelaide Hermann, “Queen of Magic.” She began by sharing a show with her husband Alexander, and was his equal in commanding the stage, whether shot out of a cannon or being what was likely the first woman to bicycle in a theater. When Alexander died unexpectedly in 1896, Adelaide took over the company (partly as a way to get out of debt), and later caused a sensation by performing the notoriously dangerous bullet-catching trick.
Several magicians died attempting the bullet catch, which involved “catching” a bullet fired by a gun, sometimes with the magician’s teeth. Chung Ling Soo was one of them, killed by a mistaken shot in 1918. Chung Ling Soo was a persona taken on by an American magician named William Ellsworth Campbell Robinson; reportedly he dropped his Chinese yellowface at that moment, saying: “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” Chung Ling Soo was just one of many performers who adopted “exotic” stage names and identities. Posters sensationalized the “Hindoo” and “Oriental” magic learned in countries where American and European colonization was active, and the recently excavated pyramids and Sphinx were frequent backdrops.
Flipping through the posters, readers can see how themes were borrowed and repeated by the teams of artists working on these promotional posters, predominantly for American magicians. “Many magicians crowded their posters with as many symbols as they could muster: ducks, bats, witches, musical instruments, fairies, playing cards, boiling cauldrons, turbans, harem girls, cats, snakes, buzzards, lizards, Asian men, grinning idols, sphinxes, fire, the stars, and the moon,” writes Kevin Grace in Illusions. “It was a form of artistic busyness that indicated the wealth of esoterica brought to the performance.”
Devils whispering into ears, books containing knowledge in the dark arts, and cavorting skeletons all echoed the emerging American interest in the occult, something which also gave rise to movements like Spiritualism. One for Helmann the Great, the “Napoleon of Necromancy,” pictures the conjurer reading a colossal Mysteries of Magic tome held up by two demons, while tombstones in the background spell out his name. Although the Illusions posters have traces of influence from Art Nouveau and even some Constructivist style, they’re mostly separate from the art movements of the era. Since each one is a vivid story promising wonders not to be believed, it’s not surprising, as Christian Vachon notes in an essay, that these “lithography companies went on to use this graphic expertise in the film industry.” Each poster is its own magic, transforming these ordinary people into masters of reality.