AMAZING POSTER ART
An exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario shows how magicians enticed audiences with advertisements of levitations, decapitations and other deceptions
At the turn of the 20th century, magician Harry Kellar commissioned a poster to advertise one of his most famous tricks, “The Levitation of Princess Karnac,” in which he appeared to make a hypnotized woman—whom he claimed was a Hindu princess—hover in mid-air. The illustrated poster depicts Kellar dressed in a stiff tuxedo with his hands held above a floating, raven-haired woman. Two rows of little red devils bow at the magician’s feet, as though supplicating a supreme figure of dark and mysterious powers.
Though his name has been all but forgotten, Kellar was once a pioneering showman and global star. He staged big, lavish shows, during which fans might see him make live canaries disappear, or even decapitate himself. Posters were key to enticing audiences to his productions; they often show the magician conversing with devilish figures, as if in league with them—a promotional ploy that proved irresistible to Victorian audiences.
A selection of Kellar’s ads are among 58 historic magic posters on display at “Illusions: The Art of Magic,” a new exhibition at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. The show explores the fantastic feats and sensational showmanship of performers during magic’s “Golden Age”—a period that spanned roughly from the 1880s to the 1930s and saw magicians soar to unprecedented heights of international celebrity. Colorful and alluring, the posters are rife with headless figures, floating cards, crystal balls and big promises. “The greatest sensational mystery ever attempted in this or any other age!” declares an ad for Houdini’s Chinese water torture cell act. “The wonder show of the universe!” cries a poster flaunting a performance by Howard Thurston, who could seemingly make a car vanish into thin air.
Strobridge Lithographing Company, Houdini Presents His Own Original Invention, 1916. Purchase, funds graciously donated by La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso. (© McCord Museum)
Strobridge Lithographing Company, Thurston the Great Magician – Do the Spirits Come Back?, 1915. Purchase, funds graciously donated by La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso. (© McCord Museum)
The Otis Lithograph Company, Thurston’s Greatest Mystery – The Vanishing Whippet Willys- Overland Car, 1929. Purchase, funds graciously donated by La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso. (© McCord Museum)
“Imagine [seeing] these on billboards when you’re walking in your town,” says David Ben, guest curator of the exhibition and a magician who performs on both stage and screen. Ben first became enthralled with magic when he was 12 years old, after his father gave him a magic handbook. He began studying the lives and careers of the performers who came before him, and today publishes a magic history journal. Looking around at the posters that line the AGO exhibition space, Ben admires his predecessors’ boldness.
“These guys were broad,” he says, puffing out his chest. “They played the room.”
A number of factors fueled the rise of superstar magicians in the late 19th century, including the burgeoning popularity of vaudeville in the late 1800s. Consisting of 10 to 15 short acts, these variety shows offered opportunities for “even a guy with a card act to become a star if he was skillful enough,” explains Houdini expert John Cox, author of the blog Wild About Harry.
“Houdini was a star of vaudeville,” Cox notes. “It wasn’t until the end of his career that he even did a full evening magic show like we assume that he did…. Magicians played vaudeville, but a lot of them found it was more profitable to actually go out and tour on their own.”
With the growth of railway networks in America, along with the advent of steamships as a mode of international travel, intrepid performers took their acts across the country and beyond. For instance, Charles Joseph Carter, an American magician known by the stage name “Carter the Great,” embarked on eight world tours between 1900 and 1936, traveling largely in the Eastern Hemisphere—and taking 22 tons of equipment along with him. Carter’s time abroad inspired his persona; in one poster on view at the AGO, he 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.
“I love it,” Ben says of the poster. “That sense of puffery is show biz.”
The rise of chromolithography—a color printing technique that involved transferring sketches onto stone printing slabs and adding colors in layers, each color typically needing its own stone—bolstered magicians’ self-promotional flair. Chromolithography became increasingly popular in the wake of the American Civil War, in large part because it was cheap; by the 1880s, the process was widely used in advertising. A range of theater performers relied on chromolithograph posters to flaunt their talents, but magicians “really, really took advantage” of the technology, according to Cox. “They could absolutely grip you with their posters. They would plaster cities with these things.”
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