Weekend links 640

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Aquarius (1910–1914) by Ilna Ewers-Wunderwald.

• “…they created a unique Afro-Caribbean soundscape—Battiste’s exceptional skills saw him use the studio as an instrument, voices flutter in and out, instruments shiver and shriek, over which Rebennack mutters and chants, a shaman of sorts.” Garth Cartwright on the life and works of Mac Rebennack, better known to the world as Dr John.

• Issue 3 of Man Is The Animal: A Coil Zine is now available for pre-order. I contributed to this one with a piece entitled “Singularities of Art and Nature”, an examination of the Coil discography via the Wunderkammer concept and the Musaeum Clausum of Thomas Browne.

• Among the recent arrivals at Standard Ebooks, the home of free, high-quality, public-domain texts, is Arthur Machen’s episodic and influential horror novel The Three Imposters (1895).

Media History Digital Library: “A free online resource, featuring millions of pages of books and magazines from the histories of film, broadcasting, and recorded sound.”

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Shall I, Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin, conjurer, introduce myself to you, viewer? And why not?

• At Public Domain Review: The Blood Collages of John Bingley Garland (ca. 1850–60).

• Mix of the week: Endymion, an autumnal ambient mix by The Ephemeral Man.

• “New Webb image captures clearest view of Neptune’s rings in decades.”

• New music: Of Endless Light by Cleared.

• RIP jazz giant Pharoah Sanders.

Conjuration (1977) by Tangerine Dream | Necronomicon—Conjurations (2004) by John Zorn | A Boy Called Conjuror (2020) by Teleplasmiste

Georges Méliès, Mage

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Georges Méliès: magician. Yes, indeed. I was watching Martin Scorsese’s Hugo again recently, a film I found more enjoyable the second time around mostly for the Méliès side of the story. The flashback to the Star Films studio offers in miniature a history that this book delivers in detail. Georges Méliès, Mage (1945) by Maurice Bessy and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca is a copiously illustrated guide to Méliès’ entire career, beginning with his early years as a conjuror and a creator of the kinds of theatrical fantasies that formed the basis for his first films. The text is in French throughout but there’s a wealth of pictorial material, with many production sketches and drawings that show how some of his more complex effects were achieved.

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One of the things I’ve always found attractive about Méliès’ films is the way they resemble 19th-century illustrations brought to life. The same can be said about some of the later Hollywood productions, especially the Douglas Fairbanks Thief of Bagdad, but they lack the overt theatricality of Méliès. For a taste of those hand-tinted marvels, go here.

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Martinka & Co. catalogue, 1899

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More conjuring. The Internet Archive has a number of catalogues published by suppliers to stage magicians but I’ve yet to see one as large or as heavily illustrated as this. Martinka and Co. was a magic supplier whose premises in New York distributed tricks and illusions manufactured in Germany. To judge by the size of their catalogue they must have been one of the largest (maybe the largest) distributors of conjuring props in the entire USA. If you’re interested in stage magic then reading these pages is like being shown the menu of a feast you never got to attend. I’d love to see some of their hand-made items, which range from pocket-size tricks to a life-size chess-playing automaton. The catalogue runs to over 200 pages, and is illustrated on almost every page with vignettes of just the type that Ricky Jay liked to use in his books. According to the uploader, the scans were originally intended for a crowd-funded reprint but the present owners of the Martinka name objected. Browse a world of magic here.

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Learned Pigs and other moveables of wonder

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All moveables of wonder, from all parts,
Are here—Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,
The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,
The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,
Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,
The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,
The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft
Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,
All out-o’-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,
All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts
Of man, his dullness, madness, and their feats
All jumbled up together, to compose
A Parliament of Monsters.

William Wordsworth, The Prelude/Book VII

In the post this week, a book I’d missed buying in a charity shop a while ago which I spotted on eBay for a lot less than the usual asking price. Outside the USA the late Ricky Jay is probably known more for his occasional acting roles in film and TV than for his magic performances, although it was on British television that Jay established world records with his card-throwing act. Jay’s real business was stage magic, past and present, both performing it—sleight-of-hand and card tricks were his speciality—and operating as a historian of the art. His voluminous knowledge of conjuring and unusual stage acts was condensed into a self-published magazine, Jay’s Journal of Anomalies, and a number of books, not all of which concerned magic. Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women was published in 1986, being an account of favourite Jay anomalies from the theatres and circuses of the past. The US edition of the book was popular enough to inspire a related CBS TV film. I’d not seen this before but it reminded me about another TV film directed by Rex Bloomstein for the BBC’s Tx strand in 1996, Hustlers, Hoaxsters, Pranksters, Jokesters and Ricky Jay. As the title suggests, Jay himself is the subject of the latter documentary which includes contributions from friends Steve Martin (who also appears in Learned Pigs) and David Mamet. Bloomstein’s film contains two sequences that show Jay’s exceptional skill with a pack of playing cards. I have a vague idea how the trick in the second sequence might be performed but I’ve no idea at all how the wordless opening sequence is possible, where Jay unwraps a fresh pack of cards then proceeds to cut and shuffle them continually, after which all the cards are somehow still in perfect order.

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Ricky Jay is the kind of character I would have idolised when I was a magic-obsessed 13-year-old, not only for his skill as a performer but for his interest in the offbeat, the eccentric and the esoteric. We also share a taste for antique illustrations, Jay’s books and journals are littered with old playbills and engraved vignettes. In Britain in the 1970s little attention was given to conjuring on television beyond the perennial David Nixon, a decent enough magician but with a genial persona that was very English and consequently rather dull. (In Nixon’s defence, he did help finance the development of the Mellotron. Strange but true.) Jay’s character had an edge of menace and a touch of the mountebank or con artist, a quality exploited in David Mamet’s excellent directorial debut, House of Games (1987), for which Jay also acted as consultant. Jay’s most popular book after Learned Pigs is probably Cards as Weapons (1977), a typically humorous guide to the art of throwing playing cards. As with magic tricks, it’s very easy to show someone how to do the thing, but doing it well requires skill and a great deal of practice. In the Hustlers film we see Jay break a pencil in half with a thrown card.

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Cover of the 1988 reprint.

The popularity of Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women, together with Ricky Jay’s prominence as a historian of magic, has given us The Learned Pig Project, a single-volume collection of 47 books about magic and related matters by some of the celebrated magicians of the 19th and 20th centuries. This is an unwieldy document of over 5000 pages but it’s a treat if you’re interested in the history of conjuring. Stage magic has a peculiar sibling relationship with ritual magic; both are dependent on texts for the recording and transmission of their workings, and both have traditionally required that those texts be kept secret, to guard against persecution on the one hand, and unwanted revelation on the other. So too with covens, cabals and, in the case of stage performers, “Magic Circles”. Serious stage magicians are often serious book collectors, mining the past for new ways to startle the present; Ricky Jay was an exemplar in this regard, as we see in the Hustlers film which shows him browsing his personal library. I don’t know what he would have made of so much knowledge being made so easily accessible via the The Learned Pig Project—the whole purpose of Magic Circles is to keep the secrets inside the profession—but there have always been books about magic tricks, and young magicians have to start somewhere. As with card throwing, anyone can be shown the secret of a magic trick but that doesn’t mean that those who learn the secret can master the performance. Talented magicians, like sapient pigs, are rare creatures.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Magicians
Hodgson versus Houdini
A London Street Scene

Magicians

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The stage variety rather than occult practitioners. The levitating Mephistopheles above is the one I borrowed earlier this year for the Alas Vegas Tarot designs. “Kellar” was Harry Kellar (1849–1922), a popular American magician blessed with some talented poster designers who stripped away the superfluous text to concentrate on his name and the recurrent motif of a red devil. Considering their age (they date from around 1900) these posters are surprisingly elusive, with no indication on some of them that Kellar is a stage performer at all. He retired in 1908 so by this time his name alone was evidently enough of an audience draw.

Howard Thurston was Kellar’s appointed successor, hence the continuity of the red devils and type design. Devils and imps weren’t the sole property of the pair as the other examples here demonstrate. “Miss Baldwin” is a rare example of a woman achieving parity with her male colleagues, at least in the poster department. All these posters are from the collection at the Library of Congress where many more examples may be seen. A detail from the horizontal Kellar poster below appears on the cover of the recent lavish Taschen volume Magic: 1400s–1950s by Mike Caveney, Jim Steinmeyer, Ricky Jay and Noel Daniel.

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