The Oldest Poster of a Magician in Argentina
On this occasion, I open the trunk to tell you about the Oldest Poster of a Magician in Argentina. Although this statement is correct today, time and research may bring new surprises and surely we will be there to enjoy them.
The history of magic in Argentina dates back to the early years of the 19th century. I don't want to go into minute details about those years but, for those wishing to do so, there is an excellent book by Mauro Fernández[i] that focuses on that time.
I will only mention that the very first illusionist who toured these lands was Mr. Stanislas[ii]. Thanks to the English traveler George Thomas Love [iii] and his book [iv], we have evidence of the first travel of a magician through the Río de la Plata. Notices of his performances also appear in the newspaper La Gaceta Mercantil [v]. It is the only graphic record I have managed to find so far of Mr. Stanislas.
In the controversial era of Juan Manuel de Rosas[vi], some more magicians began to appear in these lands. During that government, an advertising novelty appeared: it was the inclusion of slogans in favor of the current government in advertisements not related to public activities.
Death to the nasty unitarian savages!
In another piece of my collection, an early advertisement for the German magician Herr Alexander [vii], this political slogan can also be seen inserted on top of the poster announcing his show.
For a long time I had thought that this was the oldest street advertisement ever issued for a magician in Argentina. With the appearance of the poster of Robert and his wife, I discovered that it was not the case.
The First News
In 2005 I received the book Extraordinary Exhibitions[viii], written by Ricky Jay[ix]. The book is a luxurious catalog of the San Francisco exhibition of advertisements for eccentric artists that Ricky kept in his collection. The book covers an extensive period —from 1618 to 1898—. In it you can see announcements of various artists: circus performers, ventriloquists, magicians and armless artists who presented magic tricks, as well as painters who executed their art with their feet because of his lack of hands. There also were stone eaters, incombustible characters, strongmen, giants and dwarfs, and many more artists, so common in the shows of those years.
These types of artists, today considered eccentric, were the heart of Ricky Jay's collection, who wrote lenghtly about them and for which we owe him eternal gratitude.
My surprise was enormous when, upon opening the book, I found that the dust jacket had printed several advertisements, among which appears a very prominent one of the Argentine Theater.
Inside the book there is a photo and a description of the advertising of Mr. Robert and his wife, who first visited Argentina in 1842.
That first encounter caused me quite different feelings: as a scholar of the history of magic, I realized that I was in the presence of new information, that is, of a new thread to pull. It also gave me that feeling peculiar of those of us who collect something with passion: I wanted to own it, since it is a magnificent piece of very early of magic in Argentina. This last feeling led me to send an email to Ricky Jay, in which I asked him if there was any possibility of purchasing the poster. The answer was plain and brief: It is not for sale.
That poster caught much attention from Ricky Jay, so much so that he included the motto “Death to savage Unitarians,” translated into English from the Rosista proclamation “Mueran los Salvajes Unitarios,” in the title page of his book. And not only that: in the first issue of his magazine Jay's Journal of Anomalies[x], he used as vignettes two images taken from the poster.
In the book Ricky Jay makes a study of the poster and seems very impressed by the language used during the government of Rosas, whom he calls a dictator. He also makes a first historical valuation of the poster, making a description of the three acts of the show of Mr. Robert and his wife.
Jay was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest geniuses of modern card magic, as well as a complete magician, a scholar in the history of magic and a passionate collector. He passed away in 2018, and three years later his family announced the auction of his immense collection. In addition, at the same time, a book was published about it[xi]. The poster of Mr. Robert and his wife appeared not only in the book, but was also in the auction catalogue. It was a great opportunity for the cartel to come back to Argentina. Those were weeks of anxiety. I really wanted to have that piece in my collection. Finally the day of the auction arrived, and the auctioneer's hammer put the cartel in the Trunk of Don Cayetano. From that day on, I have the duty to guard this piece of history until someone else takes over its care.
Something about Robert and his wife
I did a thorough research trying to find out who the magician of the poster was, but unfortunately there is not much more information than his French origin. There are mentions of his tours of Chile, Uruguay and Mexico. We know that he visited our country three times (1842, 1849 and 1858), which reveals that he was an important artist who traveled the world with his show. That couple of Robert and his wife are among the many artists who still remain anonymous, awaiting future information that could reveal their identity or complete this page in the history of magic.
What the Poster Says
The poster has historical relevance, seen from different angles, since it is the first one that we know of a magician performing in Argentina and, to this day, I am unaware of the existence of another.
This announcement was for a show of 1842, at the height of the Rosas government, and leaves testimony using the mottos and political slogans of the time. There is a reddish vignette framing the poster. Surely the choice of color was also influenced by politics. The punzó motto [xii], used compulsorily during the Rosas government, is red.
The existence of advertising pieces from those years is very scarce or practically non-existent. This poster is possibly one of the very few that still exist, and not only related to the specific topic we are dealing with, but in general. Its large size (47.5 cm x 61.5 cm) is unusual for the period, and it has three different woodcuts printed on it. Let's imagine for a few seconds the streets of Buenos Aires in 1842, with large advertisements describing the spectacle of Mr. Robert and his wife.
In the second part of the program are announced sleight of hand tricks, transformations, magic, a great variety of acts of dexterity, appearances and disappearances.
Later, the wife enters the scene, presenting some juggling and circus feats. There are also mentions of the trick done with eight bronze rings, which, I suspect, refer to the well-known Chinese rings.
The show ends with the suspension of five bayonet rifles being balanced over the teeth of a member of the troupe. It is not clear who performs this test: whether it was Robert himself, his wife or a third party. Ricky Jay mentions that this last act had a precedent in an American circus in the year 1832[xiii].
There is a mention in the program that is a novelty: for the first time in these lands, the mention of Mr. Robert as a 'presdijitateur' (sic) appears. A term that barely had emerged in France in those years, used by theater magicians to put aside 'escamoteur', which was used for artists in squares and fairs[xiv].
Castagnino, in his book about theater at the time of Rosas[xv], lets us know that Robert undertook his tours of Chile, Mexico and Uruguay. He then returned to Buenos Aires in 1849 and, on this second opportunity, the public was able to enjoy a much better artist, with more complex tricks and a great novelty for the theaters of River Plate: the presentation of 'the ethereal suspension'[xvi], the famous illusion created by Robert-Houdin[xvii].
In the poster we find combined the historical importance it has for magic and the value as a graphic piece of one of the most studied periods of Argentine political history. It was restored and is preserved with museological criteria. It is part of my collection and nowadays it is one of my favorite pieces.
[i] Historia de la Magia y el Ilusionismo en Argentina, desde sus orígenes hasta el siglo XIX inclusive, by Mauro Fernández. Buenos Aires, 1996.
[ii] Stanislaus Surin was a Polish magician who developed part of his career in the United States.
[ii] English traveler who toured Argentina at the beginning of the 19th century. He left a testimony of its customs and events. We owe him the first ever reference to a magician who performed in these lands.
[iv] A Five Years' Residence in Buenos Ayres, During the Years 1820 to 1825: Containing Remarks on the Country and Inhabitants; and a Visit to Colonia del Sacramento. By an Englishman, by George Thomas Love, London 1825. There are editions translated into Spanish. One of them is: Un Inglés. Cinco Años en Buenos Aires, 1820-1825. Buenos Aires, 1986.
[v] La Gaceta Mercantil: diario comercial, político y literario, was a publication that circulated in Buenos Aires between 1823 and 1852.
[vi] Juan Manuel de Rosas (Buenos Aires, March 30, 1793-Southampton, March 14, 1877), was an Argentine farmer, military man and politician who in 1829, after defeating General Juan Lavalle at the Battle of Puente de Márquez, assumed the position of governor of the province of Buenos Aires. He became, between 1835 and 1852, the main leader of the Argentine Confederation. His influence on Argentine history was so great that the period marked by his rule of national politics is known as The Rosas Era.
[vii] Johann Friedrich Alexander Heimbürger (1819-1909), known as Herr Alexander, performed as a professional magician in Germany, North America, and South America during the 19th century.
[viii] In this book was published the poster of M. Robert and his wife for the first time.
[ix] Ricky Jay (1946-2018), born Richard Jay Potash, was an American magician, actor and writer. He is considered one of the great experts in card and close-up magic.
[x] It was a 16-issue publication issued between 1994 and 2000. In this formidable work its author, Ricky Jay, gives testimony of the history of freak entertainment, including armless calligraphers, mathematical dogs, tightrope-walking fleas, as well as a wide variety of charlatans and countless freak artists.
[xi] The book The Ricky Jay Collection is the crowning of the author's extensive and wonderful collection. The book was published post-mortem.
[xii] The "punzó badge" was a showy political ensign used by the federals. It was formed by a colored stripe and its use became popular among the followers of Juan Manuel de Rosas during his second government of the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina.
[xiii] Nathan Howes Circus, Pennsylvania, 1832.
[xiv] Robert-Houdin, in his book Confidences d'un prestidigitateur, mentions that Jules de Rovere was the first one to use the word "prestidigitateur." De Rovere was an aristocrat who did not want to use the word "escamoteur" used by fairground magicians. He chose this term as a combination of the Latin words presto digiti (finger agility). The word "prestidigitation" is also due to him. Over time, the French Royal Academy accepted the use of both terms.
[xv] This is a very important book on the history of theater in the time of governor Juan Manuel de Rosas, where the author gives us information about many artists who passed through the theaters of Buenos Aires during those years. The book contains several chapters dedicated to the conjurers who visited the Río de la Plata.
[xvi] Illusion presented by Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin. It consisted of a person being suspended in mid-air as a result of being put to sleep with the fumes of ether. Robert-Houdin claimed that he was the first one to perform this type of illusion in 1849, but Harry Houdini later discredits him.
[xvii] Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin (1805 -1871) was a French illusionist. He was the creator of many magical effects. He also was a watchmaker and maker of famous automatons of his time. He is considered to be the father of modern magic.
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Seibel, Beatriz. Historia del teatro argentino: desde los rituales hasta 1930. 2002.
Love, George Thomas. Un inglés. Cinco años en Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires, 1986.
Castagnino, Raúl H. El teatro en Buenos Aires durante la época de Rosas. Buenos Aires 1944.
Jay, Ricky. Extraordinary Exhibitions. U.S.A., 2005.
Jay, Ricky. The Ricky Jay Collection. U.S.A., 2021.*
Jay, Ricky. Jay's Journal of Anomalies. U.S.A., 2001.
Jay, Ricky. The Ricky Jay Collection - Catálogo de la Subasta. U.S.A., 2021.*
Acree, Jr., William Garrett. Staging Frontiers. U.S.A., 2019.
Robert-Houdin, Jean Eugène . Confidencias de un prestidigitador. España, 1894.
The Magic of Robert Houdin. An Artist´s Life. Christian Fechner. Francia, 2002.
Vertanessiaan, Carlos. Juan Manuel de Rosas. El Retrato de lo Imposible. Buenos Aires, 2017 .
Dif, Max. Histoire et evolution technique de la prestidigitation. Francia, 1974.
Didier Moreau Morax.