Jewish Museum 10/29/10-03/27/11: Houdini Art and Magic part 1 – New York NY

Posted on October 28, 2010


On Friday October 29, 2010 The Jewish Museum will present Houdini: Art and Magic, the first major art museum exhibition to examine the life, legend and enduring cultural influence of Harry Houdini. The exhibit will explore the career and lasting impact of the magician, escape artist, vaudeville entertainer, silent movie actor, author and lecturer through 163 objects including 26 recent works of art inspired by Houdini. The exhibit, which will appeal to both children and adults, will remain at The Jewish Museum through March 27, 2011, after which it will travel to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Madison, Wisconsin.

Houdini was born Ehrich Weiss in cosmopolitan Budapest, Hungary, in 1874, and emigrated with his parents in 1878 to rural Appleton, WI where his father, a rabbi, was hired by the local Reform synagogue. After several years the congregation decided they wanted a native born rabbi whose English was more fluent, and the family moved to New York where as an avid runner, swimmer and boxer Weiss developed the training regimen that would prepare him for the rigorous physical feats he would later perform as an escape artist.

Weiss began his career as a magician after his father’s death in 1892, initially performing card tricks. He chose the name Harry Houdini in honor of the French magician Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin; his family affectionately nicknamed him “Ehree” which became Harry. Houdini married Bess Rahner, a Coney Island song and dance performer who became his stage partner. One of their first acts was the “Metamorphosis” where Bess was locked in a trunk and in a matter of three seconds she and Houdini would trade places. In another trick he would apparently swallow several needles and a yard of thread and then pull the tread from his mouth with the needles threaded on it.

But his greatest fame came from his ability to free himself from handcuffs, ropes, or straightjackets sometimes dangling from a suspended rope or immersed in a tank of water. In a press conference during a press preview of the exhibit on Monday guest curatorBrooke Kamin Rapaport pointed out that Houdini was one of fourteen million Europeans who immigrated to the United States in the final four decades of the nineteenth century in search of personal, religious, political and economic freedom and who responded viscerally to his courageous acts of self-liberation. At the same press conference magician David Blaine said that he feels most alive, that his senses are most acute and colors are more vivid, when he places himself in danger as did Houdini before him. To be continued…

The Jewish Museum’s Shifting The Gaze: Painting and Feminism exhibit that I discussed inmy September 12, 2010 article continues until January 30, 2011. If you haven’t seen it take time to do so when you come for the Houdini show.

Museum hours are Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays 11:00 AM to 5:45 PM; Thursdays 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM; and Fridays 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for senior citizens, $7.50 for students, and free for children under 12 and for Jewish Museum members. Admission is free on Saturdays. The Jewish Museum is located on the northeast corner of Fifth Avenue and 92nd Street in Manhattan.

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