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The Art Of Deception: The Affinity Between Conjuring And Art by Chuck Romano

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii June, 1997)


Chuck Romano has stepped in where few have gone before: to record a history and long overdo appreciation of the relationship between graphic art and conjuring. The author is an artist and magician from Chicago who (with the encouragement and advice of Phil Willmarth) began a long-running and eventually award-winning series of articles on this subject in the November 1994 issue of The Linking Ring. His research has now been expanded into this substantial volume.

In the first of 12 generally well-ordered chapters, Mr. Romano briefly addresses historical visual depictions of magic. Beginning with a brief debunking of the alleged hieroglyphic depiction of the Cups and Balls, the author then provides a fullpage reproduction of the earliest known portrayal of a conjuror—indeed, performing the Cups and Balls—in a drawing by Joseph from Ulm, circa 1404 A.D. He continues with early representations of the conjuror in Tarot cards, Hieronymus Bosch's famous painting L'Escamoteur, circa 1475, and concludes with the bizarre sixteenth century engravings of Bruegel the Elder. (I must regretfully if pedantically note here that the services of a competent editor might have spared the author the embarrassing title of this chapter, "From Whence They Came," given the unfortunate misuse of the word "whence," which should never appear in conjunction with "from".)

The second chapter discusses the use of the magician as an element in caricature, social satire, and especially political cartooning, with an emphasis on the Cups and Balls. One mildly surprising omission from this chapter is the frequent invocation of Houdini in such political imagery.

A sizeable chapter on lithography includes a number of reproductions of some beautiful and rare posters, notably from the collection of Jay Marshall. Unfortunately, many of the illustrations throughout the book are badly reproduced. While line drawings are done consistently well, the black-and-white half-tones and much of the color work are disappointingly poor. Considering the high quality paper, the source of the trouble may lie in the scanning and correction process. Why even include a full-page color reproduction of the famed Strobridge Kellar "Imps" poster, one of the most beautiful magic posters in history, if it is to be marred by such a washed-out representation?

The next chapter is a paean to some of magic's most visible contemporary collectors. Oddly, a number of color pages here seem to be wasted on photographs amounting to little more than snapshots. Material lacking significant detail and content could have been presented in black and white, the better to utilize precious color resources on material that cannot be otherwise appreciated.

Of course, an aspect of the graphic arts of greatest import to and influence on every magician is the illustration of instructional texts, and what manner of magician has not been dependent on the likes of Francis Rigney and Harlan Tarbell? Chapter Five, "Of Days Gone By," begins its 50-plus pages with a brief mention of late nineteenth and early twentieth century illustrations—but what of conjuring illustrations from the three preceding centuries?—and then devotes the balance of the chapter to biographical portraits and samples of the work of past luminaries Tarbell, Sid Lorraine, Nelson Hahne (with whom we will shortly meet up again), Francis B. Martineau and Rigney. The next chapter continues in similar vein, providing in-depth profiles and portfolios of contemporary masters Richard Kaufman (including some charming early samples of this influential artist's work), Joseph K. Schmidt, Earle Oakes (with brief mentions of his named influences Eric Mason and James Hodges), Ton Onosaka, Tom Gagnon and Tom Jorgenson. The passing reference to Hodges is frustratingly brief, and a sample of this distinctive artist's work would have been appreciated by those readers both familiar and unfamiliar with his work (especially his celebrated 1973 manuscript, Sexy Magic.)

A follow-up chapter explores the work of female artists, beginning with the mysterious personages of Donna Allen and Jeanne McLavy, who illustrated a handful of magic's most famous titles—including Allen's work in Expert Card Technique and Magic Without Apparatus and McLavy's efforts in Sach's Sleight-Of-Hand and Maskelyne and Devant's Our Magic —and then vanished from the scene. Detailed profiles of artists Kelly Lyles, Sandy Kort, and the distinctive Pat Patterson Lyons follow. Whether it is their relatively scant presence in the field or merely the interests of political correctness that warrant these women's segregation from the men, a question worth pondering is whether their apparent standing is enhanced or diminished by such a choice.

Many a magician's first imprinting of the image of the wonder-maker has been courtesy of the legendary Nelson Hahne, and the next chapter, appropriately entitled "The Dream Weavers," addresses the subject of catalog illustration. There is excellent historical material presented here, from the timeless iconography of Hahne, only one of the impressive cast of illustrators of Thayer catalogs discussed, to the enduring work of the late Ed Mishell.

Chapter Nine contains more than 60 pages on the theme of illustration in periodicals and journals. Feature profiles are included of such notables as Tom Lawless, Mickey O'Malley, Paul Butler, Eugene Poinc, Tony Dunn, Ed Harris and Alan Wassilak.

The next chapter takes a brief look at the interesting connection between magic and comic books. Most magicians are familiar with Mandrake the Magician, but how many know that Harry Blackstone was featured in comics during the 1940s, courtesy of the literary efforts of Walter Gibson? A number of other oddities appear here, including the recent presence of an Al Flosso characterization in the 1993 graphic novel Jar of Fools. Also included in this chapter is a discussion of the seminal magician and comic artist Jim Steranko. Not mentioned here, however, is Steranko's most recent work (since 1991) as publisher, editor and designer of Prevue magazine. While Mr. Romano mentions Steranko's unpublished second book, The Ultimate Move, the author does not recount the tragic saga of the plundering of that important work, which resulted in its absence for lo! these many years. One can only hope that in the near future, Steranko will publish this long lost volume, perhaps in a collection with his two now legendary issues of Genii , a body of work which deserves to be seen by magic students of the present and future.

"Conjurors should tip their hats to the talented, and often unknown, catalog artists who produced the illustrations of which dreams were made."—Chuck Romano, The Art of Deception

Also included is a chapter about depictions of magic in so-called "fine art"—perhaps the problematic adjective "fine" is intended here as a synonym for "expensive"—along with such works by magician-artists. A variety of interesting works of static art is presented here, including by Salvatore Salla, George Johnstone, Peter Warlock, Vic Trabucco and, perhaps most notably, Bill Tarr, whose landmark text, Now You See It, Now You Don't!, has rarely been surpassed as a beginner's instructional text for the public, but whose efforts as a sculptor of public art, including the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in New York City, have also received great acclaim.

The book concludes with a chapter about those who have achieved success both as professional performers and as artists. The distinction seems a fuzzy one, since many of the magicians portrayed in this chapter are in fact amateur magicians, and certainly some of those already profiled in preceding chapters thereby also qualify as performers. It is safe to say that the six chapters concerning past and present instructional illustrators, catalog and journal illustrators, and performer/illustrators comprise the most in-depth and interesting material of the book; hence I would have preferred seeing this chapter included either immediately before or after the chapter concerning periodical illustrators, and certainly before the author reached out to such wide-ranging subjects as comic books and "fine" art. Nevertheless, the long list of magical hybrids mentioned in this chapter includes the likes of Dr. Jaks, Jerry Andrus, Tom Palmer (née Tony Andruzzi), Jack Miller, Ted Salter, Stuart Cramer, Jay Marshall, Greg Manwaring, Amado "Sonny" Narvaez, Ali Bongo, Jim Steinmeyer and many more.

Reading this book was a thrilling and entertaining experience. The dustjacket, featuring a color painting by contemporary artist Patrick D. Milbourn, is fabulous (and makes one long for a chapter on conjuring dustjackets). The endpapers, the work of Charles Dana Gibson—creator of the famed "Gibson Girls"—are a treat (although in deference to the Genii matriarch, note that rabbits should not be held by the ears; nevertheless, we appreciate that Mr. Gibson's work remains unaltered here).

Although Mr. Romano's inexperience as a writer shows in the immaturity of his prose and the sometimes limited insights he has to offer in his commentary, he has done a great deal of useful research. I was, for example, delighted to discover such details as the fact that Joseph K. Schmidt's first published magic drawing was an illustration of the one-handed shuffle in the December 1944 issue of Hugard's Magic Monthly, or to be reminded of the fact that Richard Kaufman deserves credit for the now-standard term, "pre-illustrative photography." I would also at times have appreciated the tempering of the author's breathlessly worshipful approach by an occasional critical analysis in place of the relentlessly adulatory tone. A more detailed index, including subjects as well as names, would have been decidedly preferable. Also, explaining certain jargon and other esoterica would doubtless have been appreciated by those readers unfamiliar with the artist's craft. What exactly is a "light table" or a "technical pen"? Overall, however, the importance of the subject, the range of information, the variety of reproductions included and the enthusiasm and yeoman efforts of author Chuck Romano call for a deserved endorsement and appreciation of this enjoyable and invaluable book.

8 - 1/2" X 11" hardbound w/full color laminated dustjacket; 408 pages', over 400 photographs and illustrations (many in color); 1997; Publisher: Chuck Romano