Sunday, May 22, 2011

Art and Magic at the Skirball Cultural Center

Art, magic, and Jewish history at the Skirball Center. Currently there is an exhibition highlighting Jewish magicians of the Golden Age, and especially Houdini.

"Masters of Illusion," Jewish magicians from 1875-1948 and the poster art that advertised their talent and enticed their audiences. Displayed among the memorabilia, the posters were revolutionary examples of the advantages of stone lithography. These color lithographs were amazingly detailed and usually poly chrome. The majority featured a common composition of a portrait of the magician, skulls, smoke, full skeletons, and women. Also popular were devils and small red or green devilish imps, crawling around the magician and whispering in his ear. These imps seemed comical, but they alluded to magics early association with witchcraft. A beautiful example of these litho posters is 'Rosini Napoleon of Mystery,' New York City, 1930. Here, the magician is the center of the composition, along with the portrait of his wife/assistant. Her head is floating above a cauldron and surrounded by smoke. At the base of the cauldron are red roses, and the entire scene is embedded in a grayed cobalt blue background. Interestingly, in all the posters, the magicians eyes do not look out at the viewer, but it is always the women as assistants who make eye contact. Unfortunately, pictures inside the exhibit were not permitted.

The jewel of the show was the artwork inside the "Houdini, Art and Magic," exhibit. This art was by artists who were inspired by the man and legend of Houdini. These artists portrayed Houdini as a symbol of strength, rebirth and innovation. Among the most famous devices Houdini used for his stunts, were paintings and drawings from various fans of the magician, educating the public of Houdini's craft of showmanship, innovative thinking in terms of technological advances and the constant renewal of his image. A lot of drawings included text. One of the most revealing was a pen, ink and gouash drawing on paper by Raymond Pettibon, 'No Title (The Desire To)' 2009. Pettibon made a dynamic composition of three male figures, possibly Houdini, falling out of a window and gradually breaking free of chains. Primarily thick and gestural lines formed the figures, and the text around them read, "The desire to seize and grasp all that was nearest, bound him to Earth, and caused his sympathies to revolve within a narrowing circle. Yet in that very power of adhesion to outward things, might be discerned the strength of a spirit destined to live beyond them." So insightful into the vision and human spirit inside Houdini.

There was one other drawing there that was significant to the connection between art making and magic. Whitney Bedford captured a life size portrait of the back of Houdini, hanging upside down and at the moment when he outstretched his arms after releasing the strait jacket he untangled himself out of. 'Houdini (Upside Down), 2007, featured a nostalgic palette reminiscent of the black and white film of historical photographs. She highlighted the span of his arms with a single pale yellow oil brush stroke, otherwise the figure is drawn in ink on unprimed paper. The medium is what parallels the tricks of artists to the tricks of magicians. Eventually the image will fade as the medium sinks into the unprimed paper. Mostly a contour drawing, this image speaks beyond what is visible. It conjures emotion and thought, that there are similarities between artists of all kinds.

The few images that were available for photographs were inside the permanent collection, featuring four thousand years of Jewish history. Always eye catching is the infamous Andy Warhol, and here he has on display pieces from a series, "Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century," New York, 1980. There were three from this series of screen prints on Lenox museum board, featuring the Marx Brothers, Golda Meir, and Albert Einstein. The first two have large blocks of color on a black and white portrait, with nervous yet confidently drawn color contour lines. Albert Einstein is in similar composition, but entirely black and white. Such an appropriate tribute to genius, art and showmanship.

Corey King

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