Harking back to the dawn of the Modern age, a new, gorgeously illustrated book traces over 500 years of magic as a performing art, with rare and never before seen posters, playbills, and other forms of visual representation of the craft. Though written accounts of magic can be traced back to ancient Egypt, it is at the end of the Middle Ages that magic as we know it starts to make its way into the popular consciousness. Magic: 1400s – 1950s contains over 1000 images from the early days of street performers, through to mind readers and illusionists, the stage magicians who influenced the development of special effects in films, as well as daredevils and media sensations of the 20th century such as Houdini.
"Houdini once employed seven men to doff their hats and bow forward, revealing the letters of his name on their bald pates."
Once considered sorcerers in collusion with the Devil, an increase in scientific understanding amongst a burgeoning educated class meant that magicians over time had to reinvent themselves and change their bag of tricks. Throughout its many permutations however, magic has always inspired artists, from painters including Caravaggio and Bosch, through to poster makers and photographers. Celebrated magician Ricky Jay writes in his introduction to Magic: “Over the centuries, illustrations of magicians have graced cigar labels, billboards, cartes de visite, admission tickets, picket mirrors, postcards, ink-blotters, fan mounts, dishes, brochures, handbills, playing cards, puzzles, lantern slides, stationery, sheet music, trade cards, and bank checks. Houdini once employed seven men to doff their hats and bow forward, revealing the letters of his name on their bald pates.”
For each image in the book, magicians and magic historians Mike Caveney and Jim Steinmeyer provide extensive captioning, giving a detailed history of the performers and their acts, and explaining how the craft has developed over the years. They also make it clear that one thing has remained the same: it is verboten for magicians to reveal the tricks of their trade, and the writers don’t give away any secrets here.
Magic: 1400s – 1950s is available now from Taschen.
Text by Ananda Pellerin
Ananda Pellerin is a London-based writer and regular contributor to anothermag.com.