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Houdini: Art and Magic

Oct 2, 2011–Jan 16, 2012

Handcuffs, shackles, straitjackets, milk cans, packing trunks—nothing could hold Harry Houdini (1874–1926), the renowned magician and escape artist who became one of the twentieth century’s most legendary performers. With a talent for self-promotion and provocation, this immigrant son of a poor Hungarian rabbi rocketed to international fame and grabbed front page headlines with his gripping theatrical presentations and heart-stopping outdoor spectacles—often dangling high above huge crowds or being lowered dramatically into an icy river locked inside a crate. The Contemporary Jewish Museum presents the first major exhibition to examine Houdini’s life, legend, and enduring cultural influence. 

gallery tour

A tour of the exhibition with renowned magician Joshua Jay offers a performer's insight into the life, technique, and legacy of Houdini.

about the exhibition

Houdini: Art and Magic includes more than 160 objects including magic apparatus, a recreation of the famous Water Torture Cell, historic photographs, dramatic art nouveau-era posters, theater ephemera, and archival and silent films that allow visitors to fully explore the career and legacy of the celebrated entertainer. The exhibition also features the work of 26 contemporary artists who have been inspired by his physical audacity and celebrity, his props and illusionist effects, and the themes of metamorphosis and escape. Artists include Matthew Barney, Whitney Bedford, Joe Coleman, Petah Coyne, Bruce Cratsley, Jane Hammond, Tim Lee, Vik Muniz, Ikuo Nakamura, Deborah Oropallo, Raymond Pettibon, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Allen Ruppersberg, Christopher Wool, and Carol Yeh.

The objects and art works featured in Houdini: Art and Magic are drawn from many private and public collections, including The Museum of Modern Art; the Museum of the City of New York; the Library of Congress; the Harvard Theatre Collection; The New York Public Library; The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin; The National Portrait Gallery; the Whitney Museum of American Art; the Harry Ransom Humanities Center, University of Texas at Austin; and Tate, London. 

image gallery
about harry houdini

Harry Houdini (1874–1926) was born Ehrich Weiss in Budapest, Hungary. Houdini was the son of a rabbi who immigrated with his family to Appleton, Wisconsin four years after his birth. From the beginning, Weiss was drawn to illusion, performance, and spectacle. When he was 12, he ran away from home with the intention of joining the circus. Instead, he spent his teenage years doing odd jobs to help support his impoverished family, now living in New York City. Passionate about athletics—he trained as a runner, swimmer, and boxer. These early workouts paved the way for Houdini’s rigorous training routine as a magician and illusionist.

Weiss’ career as a professional magician began after his father’s death in 1892. He changed his name to Harry Houdini as a tribute to the French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin. Early on he performed card tricks and the Needle Threading Trick in which needles and thread are swallowed and then pulled from the mouth in a long threaded chain. But it was after he married Bess Rahner, a Catholic Coney Island song and dance performer, that his acclaim grew. She became his onstage partner for a short time, and together they performed the Metamorphosis illusion in which magician and assistant quickly switch places bagged and sealed in a trunk.

Over the next decade, Houdini rose to international fame through increasingly daring feats that involved seemingly superhuman physical strength and stamina.

An advocate for the magic profession, he served as president of the Society of American Magicians from 1917 until his death, and used his fame to debunk the widespread popularity of the quasi-religion Spiritualism.

Houdini’s death, which occurred on Halloween in 1926, has inspired many myths: that he was poisoned, that he died in the Water Torture Cell, and that he faked his death and escaped. It is more likely that he had been suffering from appendicitis and died of peritonitis after suffering a blow to the stomach by a student visiting his backstage dressing room (the student had persuaded Houdini to allow him to punch the magician to test his strength). He is buried in the Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, New York, in a bronze casket fabricated for his buried-alive stunt.


Houdini: Art and Magic is organized by The Jewish Museum, New York, and made possible by Jane and James Stern, the Skirball Fund for American Jewish Life Exhibitions, and other generous donors. The San Francisco presentation has been made possible by the generous support of Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and US Trust/Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

Koret and Taube Foundations are the lead sponsors of The Contemporary Jewish Museum's 2011–12 exhibition season.

Image Credit

Header image: Handcuffs, late 19th or early 20th century metal. Courtesy of the Sidney H. Radner Collection at The History Museum at the Castle, Appleton, Wisconsin, 1999.25.1, 1996.184.5, 1999.25.3, 1999.25.4, 1999.25.5, 1999.25.6, 1996.184.7a,b, 1996.184.8a,b, 1996.184.9a,b Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kevin A. Connolly Collection.