Exhibitions Houdini. The laws of amazement
Exhibitions Houdini. The laws of amazement

This exhibition gives us an insight into one of the most famous illusionists of all times. It traces the history of modern magic from fairground booths to mass audience spectacles. Based on Houdini's extraordinary life story, this project looks at illusion, wonder and the earthly mechanisms behind them.

Espacio Fundación Telefónica
C/ Fuencarral, 3, Madrid
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Feb 2017
May 2017
M X J V S D:
10:00 - 20:00

This exhibition gives us an insight into one of the most famous illusionists of all times. It traces the history of modern magic from fairground booths to mass audience spectacles. Based on Houdini's extraordinary life story, this project looks at illusion, wonder and the earthly mechanisms behind them.

All wonder is the effect of novelty on ignorance”, Samuel Johnson

Since the dawn of time, humans have always sought to shock and amaze their fellows. It is in this desire that we find the origins of magic, in the taste for surprise and illusion.

Harry Houdini (Budapest, 1874-Detroit, 1926) was one of the most famous illusionists of all time. Through his extraordinary life story the exhibition Houdini.  The Laws of Wonder traces the history of modern magic and its evolution, from fairground booths to mass audience spectacles.

When theatres were still rooted in the traditional imagery of the 19th century, Houdini introduced futuristic concepts to his repertoire such as physical strength, speed, tension and challenge. Paradoxically, he devoted his career to investigating, documenting and disseminating the scientific and rational foundations behind magic to expose those who championed spiritualism and witchcraft.

Houdini used state-of-the-art communication strategies and every medium available to him, including the press, advertising, radio and film, to make himself known worldwide.

In this exhibition project, Houdini as a public figure and his fascinating life story is combined with the philosophy and thinking of an age that was fundamental to Western history, when modern values began to seep into all sectors of society and extend throughout the entire world.

Curated by Miguel A. Delgado and María Santoyo, the exhibition – which can be visited between 10 February and 28 May, on the fourth floor of the Espacio Fundación Telefónica – invites the public to be seduced by magic, the only science to be goverened by the laws of wonder.

The show is presented using six themed exhibition areas:

ROLL UP, ROLL UP! A history of magic since the 18th century. In the show’s first themed area we begin a fascinating journey through the history of magic, with fabulous treatises and books – such as Spain’s first ever text on the study of magic and sleight of hand, Trickery before Your Very Eyes, printed in 1733 – following the steps of Harry Houdini in the world of showbusiness, and finding out about the celebrities who influenced his life and professional career including the great magicians Robert-Houdin and Harry Kellar. Visitors will discover the so-called “10-cent circuses”, the lowest form of show where Houdini got his start as a magician, the freak show characters and miracle workers, who are introduced to spectators through animations, and “staged magic” and modern magic of which Houdini would end up being a leading exponent.

 Houdini-y-la-celda-de-tortura-acuatica-Library-of-CongressCITIUS, ALTIUS, FORTIUS. Faster, higher, stronger. A history of modern sport. The concept of the triumph of physical, moral and personal progress, which originated at the end of the 19th century and developed throughout the Western world during the first half of the 20th century, was rapidly assimilated by the emerging modern society.
Harry Houdini himself embodied these ideals: physical effort, a capacity for hard work and overcoming of pain and adversity forged personality he created. Taking part in sport and physical training was very important for him, in that many of his performances depended on strength and elasticity. He trained every day employing gym work, swimming and escaping from shackles, chains and handcuffs. He didn’t smoke or drink and took great pride in his body. The exhibition includes original exhibits from a gymnasium of the time: Segovia’s was the second most important one in Spain and is preserved virtually intact. This section also features contemporary popular books and posters on the magician covering a variety of sports.

ESCAPE. The heart of the exhibition. Throughout his career, Houdini experimented with different varieties of magic and illusion but, undoubtedly, the speciality in which he excelled and which brought him success was escapology; a speciality that is considered among magic circles to be one of the hardest and which requires special training. There is a specific area within the exhibition dedicated to this skill featuring objects and images related to Houdini’s work as an escapologist: such as an exact replica of the magician’s straitjacket, and an audiovisual piece on his Water Torture Cell trick which describes the feelings of terror, the adrenalin rush and the anxiety that this emblematic Houdini performance provoked in the audience.

Houdini-y-Jennie-la-elefanta-actuando-en-el-Hippodrome-de-Nueva-York-Library-of-CongressBELIEVING YOUR EYES Disappearances, transformations and amazing trickery come together in this exhibition as a taster for what would become known as one of Houdini’s astonishing marvels: making an elephant disappear before the very eyes of hundreds of onlookers.

One of the core elements of classical magic is optical illusion, those tricks and visual games that fool the public into believing the apparently impossible. This part deals more with scientific content. The section allows you to get closer to the scientific basis at the heart of many of the tricks performed by magicians throughout the ages and which, more recently, has been employed in the most cutting edge neuro-scientific research. As part of the exhibition, by means of an audiovisual installation, homage is paid to the historic Houdini trick of making an elephant disappear through an optical illusion.

Cartel-del-espectaculo-contra-los-falsos-mediums-Library-of-CongressTHE HOUDINI CODE. Throughout his life, Houdini always defended the difference between his shows that created illusions using a scientific, technical and physical approach, and those performances that claimed to be based on paranormal phenomena. In this part of the exhibition we find a special space reserved to describe the battle waged by Houdini against these practices through some of the most fascinating tales from the period.

THE GREAT ILLUSION Another topic the exhibition explores and which reveals some of the keys to Houdini’s success are the promotional strategies he employed to publicise not only his shows but also his personality and his views on illusionism. The show includes a number of posters and press cuttings featuring the illusionist as well as a fascinating map of the world tracing his tours in the form of an infograph.

Workshop programme and parallel activities

The exhibition Houdini. The Laws of Wonder is supported by a programme of workshops prepared by our education team. There are workshops suitable for all ages and registration is free. Check here for more details.