My previous article provides an overview of Harry Houdini‘s life and career and its depiction in The Jewish Museum exhibit that opens Friday, October 29, 2010. After pushing his body to its limits in feats of strength and courage Houdini found in early aviation’s combination of coordination, skill, daring and danger an avocation (see the video in the left column). And both his existing celebrity and a willingness to do his own stunts made a film career in the silent era a natural extension of his live performances.
Despite his success Houdini was aware that he would never be as well educated as his father; there was a side of him that envied the life of a scholar, which led him to write about his craft. But in debunking fraudulent mediums who took advantage of the bereaved in phony seances Houdini not only found his topic but also a cause.
Spiritualism was a quasi-religion in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which offered survivors the hope of communicating with dead loved ones. Houdini initially approached Spiritualism with an open mind. After his mother died he attended a seance where the medium claimed that his mother was speaking through her.
“In what language is she speaking?” Houdini asked. The medium continued speaking in English, and when Houdini pointed out that his mother always spoke to him in Yiddish, the medium replied that everyone speaks English on “the other side.” When the medium, supposedly embodying his mother, started making the sign of the cross, something his Jewish mother would never do, Houdini was certain the seance was a scam.
Houdini channeled his outrage into a campaign to expose and debunk Spiritualism and the scammers who took advantage of and offered false hope to mourners. He wrote books on the subject and undertook lecture tours where he demonstrated the methods by which the mediums performed their fraudulent rituals (see posters and photographs in the slideshow).
Celebrities as subjects for artists is not new, as we see in Andy Warhol’s silk screens, and in parodies of them such as Deborah Kass’ Double Red Yentl, Split from My Elvis which I described in my September 12, 2010 article on Shifting The Gaze: Painting and Feminism,another Jewish Museum exhibit.
That Houdini, who was active in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries continues to inspire twenty-first century visual artists such as Matthew Barney, Petah Coyne, Jane Hammond, Vik Muniz, Deborah Oropallo, and Raymond Pettibon (see the slideshow in the left column) speaks to his enduring power of his multi-dimensional prowess and personality.
Houdini: Art and Magic is also the title of the exhibit’s picture book written by guest curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport with contributions by Alan Brinkley, Hasia R Diner, Gabriel de Guzman, and Kenneth Silverman. I examined a copy in the museum’s gift shop, and it is indeed a handsome volume.