Conjuring Credits

The Origins of Wonder

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Black Art

The term “black art” was originally synonymous with necromancy and mystical sorcery, and later with recreational trickery in general, centuries before the magic world adopted the term for its now-common method-based definition; see Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary, 1913, p. 150. Magicians were still using the term heavily to denote magical entertainment up through the turn of the twentieth century; for example, see the anonymous The Black Art, or Magic Made Easy, 1869; the anonymous The Black Art Fully Exposed and Laid Bare, 1874; and A. Anderson's How to Do the Black Art, 1895, none of which have anything to do with the black-on-black method of disguise.

There is evidence to suggest that some fundamental principles used in Black Art were employed in religious theatrical spectacles of the 1400s and 1500s to enhance suspensions and levitations of actors. John A. McKinven documents some of these illusions in Stage Flying, Chapter II, 1995, Meyerbooks, p. 7 ff. Darkness and the use of groups of numerous small bright lights in the foreground probably aided in concealing the ropes, chains and mechanical apparatus used to raise and lower actors to and from heights.

Black Art, in its current form as a conjuring concept, is commonly said to first have been applied to stage magic in June 28, 1885, by Bavarian actor and theatrical manager Max Auzinger (stage name Ben Ali Bey), with the opening of his “Indian & Egyptian Wonders” at Catan's Passage Panoptkon in Berlin. See MAGIC, Vol. 6 No. 9, May 1997, p. 56. Charles de Vere pushed Auzinger's performance of Black Art back to a show he witnessed in 1873 in Antwerp; see The Magic Wand, Vol. 5 No. 6, Feb. 1915, p. 97. But recently, evidence has been uncovered that documents earlier performances of Black Art by Dr. Lynn (aka Simmons). Mitsunobu Matsuyama has located newspaper ads in Japan and an article in the U.S. that show Lynn was performing a self-decapitation illusion, “Head Off”, in those countries in 1863-4; see Gibecière, Vol. 10 No. 1, Winter 2015, p. 36. Lynn performed a later illusion called “Thauma” in 1884 and possibly earlier. “Head Off” relied on Black Art to conceal Lynn's head. In “Thuama”, Black Art was used to make the lower portion of a woman's body invisible.

In the collection of Magic Christian is an 1844 newspaper article, published in Der Wanderer, that appears to describe an even earlier performance using Black Art, this by Giuseppe Pinetti while in Russia, for a special performance for Catherine II. A date for the performance is not given, but 1796 would be a likely guess, since Pinetti was in St. Petersburg in that year, and Catherine II died on Nov. 17, 1796. Pinetti is said to have performed a dismemberment illusion on the occasion, similar to one Thomas Tobin later conceived in 1872, “Palingenesia”.

It didn't take long after Auzinger's celebrated “Indian and Egyptian Wonders” show for technical details of Black Art to hit the printed page. Within two years, Hardin Burlingame began selling a manuscript on the concept, called “Original Egyptian Black Art”, 1887.

Black Art in close-up magic began appearing in print earlier than its stage counterpart. The concept was used to hide cards on a ceiling in Diego Joseph Zamorano's Thesoro Atractivo de Curiosos, 1740, p. 152 of the Pieper translation. This book was translated in Gibecière, Vol.6 No.2, Summer 2011, p. 97-171. Another early close-up application of the principle appeared as a way to hide a coin against the black bottom of a box in The Magician's Own Book, 1857, p. 44.