Brain Pickings

A Visual History of Magic

What the art of levitation has to do with creative debt and the legacy of vintage graphic design.

Whether in the rites of religion, the science of reality, or the folklore of love, or the transcendence of art, or even the allure of early image manipulation, the hunger for magic has always underpinned the human experience.

Originally published in 2009 as one of Taschen’s notoriously expensive hardcover masterpieces, Magic. 1400s-1950s (public library) is now released as a drastically more affordable and no less magnificent tome of 544 pages exploring the mesmerizing visual culture of history’s greatest magicians from the Middle Ages to the 1950s. With 1,000 rare vintage posters, photographs, handbills, and engravings, it’s at once a fascinating journey into the history of performative sorcery and a priceless time-capsule of vintage graphic design and visual culture.

Accompanying the treasure trove of visual ephemera are fascinating micro-essays and historical notes contextualizing their role in the craft by magic historian Jim Steinmeyer and author, collector, and professional magician Mike Caveney.

Among the curious patterns that emerge is a chronicle of creative debt, a kind of circles of influence within the canon as we begin to see how different magicians influenced each other.

Pair Magic. 1400s-1950s with Taschen’s previous gems: the world’s best infographics, the best illustrations from 130 years of Brothers Grimm, Harry Benson’s luminous photos of The Beatles, the history of menu design, and New York’s illustrated jazz scene in the roaring twenties.

Images courtesy Taschen

Published July 2, 2013




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