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Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age

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Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age - Introduction
Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age

Oprè, Mephistopheles, Holland, ca. 1880. Mixed media.

Collection of John Gaughan.
In conjunction with the traveling exhibition “Houdini: Art and Magic,” the Skirball Cultural Center developed a companion exhibition, “Masters of Illusion: Jewish Magicians of the Golden Age.” This is a must see exhibit for fans of magic history. The pair will be on view through September 4, 2011.

Showcasing magic's “Golden Age,” which spanned 1875 to 1948, “Golden Age” presents the contributions of Jewish magicians to the development of modern magic through a range of objects and media that includes: advertising lithographs, playbills, broadsides, costumes, stage props, automata and film and radio clips. For magic fans, the collection is downright dazzling.

The exhibit proceeds in chronological order by general era and the items are displayed in a gallery designed to recall environments where magic was often performed, such as Victorian magic parlors and vaudeville stages.

During my walkthrough of the exhibit, I was not allowed to take pictures, so unfortunately, I am not able to present pictures of the items that were of most interest to me. However, I’ll list them here.

The exhibit features a 1584 first edition of the “Discoverie of Witchcraft” by Reginald Scot, which is thought to be the first English language book to distinguish magic as a performance requiring skill and illusion rather than a practice of witchcraft.

A highlight of the museum for me was Robert-Houdin’s “Antonio Diavolo,” the sophisticated mechanized figure or automata that mimics an acrobat on trapeze. Watching Antonio Diavolo in action is an absolute treat. While the figure isn’t in motion in the display, it’s fascinating to examine this bit of magic history. You can see Antonio Diavolo in action at the three minute mark here.

I was also ecstatic to view Robert-Houdin’s “Orange Tree,” and not only from the front, but to look at the back to view its intricate mechanism. You can see the Orange Tree in action at the 1.5 minute mark here, as well as a presentation by Paul Daniels here. For me, the trip was well worth it just to see these three items. And this doesn’t include the wonders over at the nearby Houdini: Art and Magic exhibit.

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