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Adolph Friedländer, Comedians de Mephisto Co. Allied with Le Roy-Talma-Bosco, 1905. 186.5 × 266.5 cm. M2014.128.318. McCord Museum

Illusions: The Art of Magic

February 22 - May 18, 2020

Admission is always FREE for AGO Members, AGO Annual Pass Holders & Visitors 25 and under. Learn more


Illusions: The Art of Magic transports you back in time to the Golden Age of Magic when death-defying tricks, daring escapes and colourful personas turned performers like The Incomparable Albini and Harry Houdini into world-famous celebrities.

Magicians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were show business pioneers. They were among the first artists to embark on international tours and to promote themselves and their magical powers through illustrated advertisements ranging in scale from postcards to wall-sized posters.

Illusions: The Art of Magic will feature more than 55 colourful and stylized posters from the Allan Slaight Collection of the McCord Museum, Montreal, alongside photographs, films, documents and ephemera.

“These posters tell us so much about that time – the public’s fascination with Asia, with spiritualism, the occult and the changing role of women in society,” says Julian Cox, the AGO’s Deputy Director and Chief Curator. “Toronto was a popular stop on the international touring circuit for magicians, and Houdini performed here numerous times over his career. These works and the stories behind them remain as captivating today as they were one hundred years ago.”

Illusions: The Art of Magic introduces visitors to leading magicians of the time, including famous escape artist Harry Houdini; Adelaide Herrmann, the only female magician of her time to perform the “bullet catch”; and William Ellsworth Robinson, an American magician who went by the stage name Chung Ling Soo. The exhibition was originally curated by Christian Vachon, Curator, Paintings, Prints and Drawings, at the McCord Museum and guest-curated by Toronto magician and historian David Ben.

A series of archival projections in the exhibit will show iconic illusions of the time, including Harry Blackstone’s dancing handkerchief trick. The exhibition also calls attention to the portrayal of women in the posters, to the rise of spiritualism, to the reoccurring use of devils, skulls and demons, and the ways performers appropriated various cultural identities in their art.

Acquired by the McCord Museum thanks to La Fondation Emmanuelle Gattuso, the Allan Slaight Collection is one of the world’s largest collections of rare magic posters comprising more than 600 posters and more 1,000 documents and rare books. The collection was named in honour of the Canadian businessman and magic enthusiast Allan Slaight.

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See Illusions: The Art of Magic for FREE

Get unlimited access to the AGO Collection and all special exhibitions (including Illusions: The Art of Magic!) with an AGO Membership or $35 Annual Pass. Visitors 25 and under are free — all year, anytime.

Image: Thurston, Do the Spirits Come Back? (detail), Strobridge Lithographing Co., 1915. 2014.128.421 © McCord Museum.




Illusions Events


Continue your experience! Visitors of all ages are invited to step right up and be amazed at a series of live talks, films, performances and events. 

Toronto Magic Company Performances
Daily at 2 pm, Wednesday and Friday at 6 pm, February 22 - May 17

Experience an Art of Magic Show in person throughout the run of Illusions: The Art of Magic as the Toronto Magic Company guest-curates the stage with magicians performing a series of short magic shows over the course of two hours. Feel free to ask questions between the sets and come back often.

Curator’s Talk - Illusions: The Art of Magic
Friday April 17, 7 pm

Join AGO Deputy Director & Chief Curator Julian Cox for an illustrated talk about the colourful and stylized posters from the Golden Age of Magic featured in Illusions: The Art of Magic.

Illusions: The Art of Magic Study Day
Friday April 24, 10 am

Magicians have long entertained us with their art. What appears as “magic” is based on fundamental aspects of human psychology: visual and auditory perception, decision making, logic, memory and verbal abilities.


Illusions: The Art of Magic

Authors: Jacques Ayroles, David Ben, Ersy Contogouris, Kevin Grace, Giusy Pisano, Katharina Rein. Editors: Christian Vachon, Suzanne Sauvage

During the Golden Age of Magic - the 1880s to the 1940s - magicians and prestidigitators fought a veritable advertising war. In the United States, Canada, and Europe, city walls were plastered with posters offering tantalizing previews of magician’s most spectacular tricks. Poster designers and printers were inspired by all variety of phantasmagoric imagery: devils and demons, skeletons and skulls, cards and rabbits, alluring assistants and symbols of exoticism. Here, 250 breathtaking posters, mostly dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, retrace the social history of this still-active phenomenon. These magnificent, large-format chromolithographs immortalize the magicians and the acts that marked the world of modern magic.

248 pages
27.9 x 3.2 x 31.1 cm


Illusions: The Art of Magic catalogue cover
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