In 1917, 80,000 people pressed into the street in Providence, R.I., to watch Harry Houdini dangle upside down from the roof of a newspaper office building and wriggle out of a straitjacket. A master of self-promotion, the fabled escape artist performed the spectacular feat for free, as he did around the country, fueling his legend and drumming up business for his paid performances.
A photographic mural of that Providence spectacle stretches across an entire wall at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, where the exhibition “Houdini: Art and Magic” explores the life, times and lasting cultural impact of the mesmerizing magician and performance artist known around the world as the Handcuff King.
Organized by the Jewish Museum, New York, it’s a marvelous show that brings together a vast range of material documenting the world of Houdini – archival films, photographs, diaries, vaudeville posters, and the actual handcuffs, steamer trunk, milk can and other everyday objects he used in his acts of transformation. Those objects and ephemera are integrated with works by two dozen contemporary visual artists inspired by him.
They include such well-known artists as Matthew Barney, whose strange “Cremaster 2″ video features Norman Mailer as Houdini. It plays on a monitor in a space featuring two movies: a 1920 archival film of the real Houdini doing his straitjacket escape for a mob of spectators in Boston, and a clip from the glamorized 1953 Hollywood film “Houdini” starring Tony Curtis (Janet Leigh played Houdini’s wife and partner, Bess).
Around the corner, in a section of the show called “Escape, Metamorphosis and Transformation,” you find a vertical display case filled with the master’s various handcuffs – at first glance, it looks like an art installation – and wonderful historical photographs of Houdini manacled, shackled and chained to chairs. they share space with a big mysterious painting by Bay Area artist Deborah Oropallo called “Escape Artist,” which superimposes handcuffs and hands floating on and dissipating beneath a cloudy white field.
“There’s an analogy between artists and magicians,” says Contemporary Jewish Museum curator Dara Solomon. “They’re both creating illusions.”
Or, as Oropallo puts it in the text accompanying her painting: “It’s basically an artist’s job to make people look – to look at what you know and to question what you know. And Houdini operated in the same arena.”
But as much as Houdini relied on illusion for some of his tricks, it was his bodily strength, stamina, dexterity and daring that made his most audacious feats possible. Who else would jump off a bridge handcuffed into an icy river? Or hang upside down in the famous Water Torture Cell with his feet bound, or fold himself into a big milk can that was filled to overflowing with water then padlocked?
Houdini first performed the Milk can Escape in St. Louis in 1908, when advertisements warned that “failure means a drowning death.” the fear of drowning terrified and fascinated Houdini’s audiences. “What attracted people was the closeness of death, the danger,” says Solomon, standing next to a replica of the wood, glass and metal Water Torture Cell (the original was destroyed in a 1995 fire at the Houdini Magical Hall of Fame in Niagara Falls, Canada).
The show traces Houdini’s transformation from a poor Hungarian Jewish immigrant named Ehrich Weiss – his father was a rabbi who moved the family from Budapest to Appleton, Wis., in 1878 to lead a Reform synagogue – to an international celebrity who socialized with Charlie Chaplin and Teddy Roosevelt.
After the family moved to New York City in the 1880s, Weiss, a skilled acrobat with a knack for magic, changed his name to Houdini in homage to the great French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin (he chose the first name Harry because it sounded like his nickname, Ehrie). He joined the Orpheum vaudeville circuit in 1899, touring the United States before he became famous in Europe in the early 1900s.
Houdini’s success “was a source of enormous pride for the Jewish community,” writes exhibition curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport. “He achieved mainstream acceptance despite anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant attitudes, and his escape from the confinement of handcuffs, chains, packing crates, trunks and boxes had particular resonance for those who sought liberation from political, ethnic, or religious oppression.”
Among other fascinating things in this show – which includes an amusing video by the Los Angeles conceptual artist Allen Ruppersberg reading from his biography of Houdini while struggling in vain to get out of a straitjacket and comics Penn & Teller’s homage to the Water Torture Cell – is a section on Houdini’s campaign to debunk spiritualists who claimed to contact the dead. in his 1924 book, “A Magician Among the Spirits,” and in public demonstrations, he revealed the seance tricks of slate writing and the ghostly appearance of hands.
“It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter that year.
And yet Houdini held out hope that perhaps it was possible to communicate from the grave. For 10 years after his death from a ruptured appendix at the age of 52 on Halloween 1926, his wife held an annual seance hoping to hear Houdini speak the word that he and Bess had agreed upon before he died. she heard nothing.
Houdini: Art and Magic: Through Jan. 16. Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. $10-$12. (415) 655-7800. thecjm.org.
This article appeared on page F – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle