Houdini: Art and Magic

Houdini: Art and Magic (Jewish Museum) BY Brooke Kamin Rapaport. Yale University Press. Hardcover, 280 pages. $39.

The cover of Houdini: Art and Magic (Jewish Museum)

First, swallow a handful of needles. Chase with thread. Wash down with a glass of water, then retrieve from your mouth a fully threaded line. That’s the East Indian Needle Threading Trick, and if you’re not Ehrich Weiss—this ruse was one of his staples when he first took to the stage in the 1890s—you may be in trouble. A rabbi’s son born in Budapest, he startled audiences around the world for more than three decades performing as the Great Houdini, magician and escape artist nonpareil. The catalogue for the show currently on display at New York’s Jewish Museum charts the performer’s career from the turn of the twentieth century to his untimely demise in 1926. (To prove his strength, he allowed a fan to punch him in the stomach; he died several days later from a ruptured appendix.) The curators have gathered a wide array of vintage posters and photos that not only attest to the drama of Houdini’s exploits—WATER TORTURE CELL! METAMORPHOSIS TRUNK! MILK CAN ESCAPE!—but reveal his own hand in crafting a beguiling self-image: The mystery man who could escape anything, even death. An ardent debunker of spiritualists, Houdini nevertheless instructed his wife to try contacting him beyond the grave. For ten years, she conducted séances on Halloween—the anniversary of his death—while newspapers ran headlines like “No Word Received.” His cunning blend of hokum, daredevilry, and intricate artifice has inspired artists such as Matthew Barney, Jane Hammond, Vik Muniz, Deborah Oropallo, and Raymond Pettibon, and their work is included in the show. In Hammond’s reimagining of the needle trick, instead of needles Houdini draws from his mouth silhouettes of women with palettes and brushes. Thus, art and magic intertwine in a most visceral way.