Studio photograph of Harry Houdini in white trunks and chains, circa 1905. (Skirball Cultural Center )
Reporting from New York — — Ehrich Weiss, the Budapest-born son of an immigrant family, ran away from home at 12 to join the circus. Not the least bit interested in becoming a rabbi like his father, he wanted to be an entertainer.
Although Weiss was already an accomplished trapeze artist in a neighborhood circus, he soon turned around and headed back home. But it was only a matter of time before the whole world knew who he was. Reinventing himself as Harry Houdini, the rabbi's son became a celebrity as an escape artist, and, by the time of his death in 1926 — on Halloween — a legend.
Handcuffed, chained, manacled, put in a straitjacket or locked within small containers, the nimble Houdini was dropped into water, dangled in the air and even stuffed into a coffin and buried. A master of marketing, he often performed for free in front of newspaper offices to enormous crowds — and newspaper photographers — on the eve of his paid performances.
He would even hire his own cameramen to film his escapes for use in his lectures, says art curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport.
"In his day, Houdini was so famous not only because he was a master showman on stage but also because he was able to promote his work to a broad public," says Rapaport. "His significance endures because of the visual record — the posters, photographs, film and magic apparatus — that we have today."
Highlights of that documentation constitute "Houdini: Art and Magic," opening at the Skirball Cultural Center on April 28. Organized by the Jewish Museum in New York, where it closed March 27, and guest curated by Rapaport, it is the first major art museum show to explore the life and legacy of showman Houdini. Props and devices from all of Houdini's major tricks are on hand, including his straitjacket and water torture cell, plus photos, paintings, posters, pamphlets, books, travel diaries and even a family bible.
The exhibition weaves together Houdini then and now. "The photographs, posters and films of Houdini's era are extraordinary," says Rapaport, an independent art curator. "I knew that artist Matthew Barney had used Houdini as a muse and alter ego in his work, and I began to wonder if other artists working today were also inspired by Houdini. When I visited artist studios, talked to dealers and did archival research, I discovered several other artists working today who also found Houdini a very important source."
So in addition to Art Nouveau-era posters and promotional materials from Houdini's time, Rapaport has brought in Houdini-inspired contemporary art from such artists as Allen Ruppersberg, Matthew Barney, Raymond Pettibon, Christopher Wool and Whitney Bedford. Film footage made by or starring Houdini is augmented by movie clips of the icon portrayed by such stars as Tony Curtis, Guy Pearce, Paul Michael Glaser and Harvey Keitel as well as Norman Mailer.
Few lives lend themselves so well to the screen. Immigrating to the U.S. in 1878 with his family, Houdini's father fared poorly as a rabbi in Appleton, Wis., and the family moved several times as Rabbi Weiss sought work. The Weiss family landed in New York in 1887, where teenage Ehrich took on various jobs, including uniformed messenger boy and a necktie cutter. It was at the necktie factory that Ehrich, by then 17, and a fellow employee formed a magic act, calling themselves the Brothers Houdini.
Just a few years later, the partner was gone and newly named Harry Houdini went on to meet and marry fellow performer Bess Rahner. The newlyweds, now known as the Houdinis, traveled America launching, among other things, Houdini's famous metamorphosis act: Houdini would be bound and locked into a trunk, then escape to be onstage as the trunk was opened and Bess was found inside. It wasn't long until vaudeville impresario Martin Beck discovered their act, and Bess started moving into the background. Houdini, "The King of Handcuffs," was on his way.
Small and muscular, Harry Houdini created more and more demanding feats as he became the superhero familiar to readers of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime" or Michael Chabon's "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay" — and to museum-goers. Borrowed from the Hammer Museum for this exhibition, for instance, is artist Whitney Bedford"s painting "Houdini (Upside Down)," a life-size portrait of Houdini's straitjacket trick, which Bedford says is done with unstable oil and ink that will eventually disappear into the unprimed paper she used to create it.