Dark Art: Spectacular Illusions from the Golden Age of Magic

Magicians and illusionists flourished in the period between the industrial revolution and the rise of cinema, when people flocked to live entertainment of all kinds. Many of the most famous magicians got their start in vaudeville, and when they began to do shows on their own, they employed the art of show posters that became coveted as not only historical ephemera, but works of art. These posters conjured up images of the “dark arts” with demons, devils, and terrifying flirtations with death. Collectors Weekly talked with magic poster collector Zack Coutroulis about those images.

Those are my favorite, with the imps and other creatures of the underworld. Dante put devils on posters, and Hermann actually portrayed himself as a devil on some of his posters. The skulls on the posters obviously represent spirits, or unexplained powers. In fact, Thurston has a poster that says, “Do the spirits come back?” A lot of these magicians made people believe that they could make contact with the dead.

Quite possibly the imps are whispering into the magician’s ear, and telling them how to make magic and perform these illusions. That’s one interpretation. Obviously, it’s also an association with the dark world. Anytime you start dealing with spirits and making contact with the unknown, you enter the dark world. Along with this come creatures of the underworld and things like that.

Coutroulis also tells stories of the biggest magicians of that time: how Houdini kept his audience on the edge of their seats while he escaped the water torture tank; Chung Ling Soo, who died performing the stunt of catching a bullet; and De La Mano, the magician who disappeared from the face of the earth. Read all that and more at Collectors Weekly.   

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