This unhinged and provocatively erotic original illustration by the artist & illustrator Mahlon Blaine dates to the 1940s. It has two functioning doors that when opened reveal the magicians assistant engaged in coitus with a horned satyr. The gouache painting is housed inside an innocuous faux wood, paper, hardcover display folio.
Garishly colored and characteristically dark, this watercolor, gouache and marker on paper presents, initially, a sharply dressed, mustachioed magician who, with the help of his fiendish imps of assistants, performs the classic illusion, and staple of any true magic show, of sawing a woman in half.
Upon further inspection, the doors of the magician’s trick box open to reveal that the magician’s assistant was never in any danger of being sawed in half, as they are in actuality two boxes with two beautiful assistants stuffed inside, giving the illusion of one whole woman. An even closer look reveals that while two little devils were assisting the magician with his trick, two more concupiscent demons were tucked inside the boxes with the assistants. Their lustfully carnal acts of debauchery performed with a rapt audience none the wiser. This was likely created for the magician Joseph Dunninger, a close friend of the artist who supported him in his later lean years as his illustration career had faded.
It is generally accepted that the first public performance of a sawing illusion was achieved by British magician P.T. Selbit in January 1921 at the Finsbury Park Empire theatre in London. His trick, which he billed as “Sawing Through A Woman”, was significantly different from what a modern audience would expect. Selbit’s assistant was locked inside a closed wooden crate and could not be seen. The impression that she could not evade the saw was created by the confined space in the box and by ropes tied to her hands, feet, and neck, which were held throughout the illusion by spectators from the audience.
Later in 1921, Horace Goldin, a magician working in the United States, presented the first version which might look familiar to modern audiences. Goldin’s assistant lay in a box from which her feet, head and hands protruded. Goldin sawed through the middle of the box, inserting metal sheets to cover the cut ends, and then pushed the two halves a little way apart. This process was then reversed, and the assistant released unharmed.
There is a long and complex intertwining history between magic/witchcraft, sex, and the devil. It is frequently believed that witches gained their ability to do magic through participating in sexual acts with the devil. These witches would then use their own powers of sexuality to lure innocent, unsuspecting men into sinful acts which would result in their eternal damnation.
But the magician’s assistants are not witches. They are not even magicians. They are simply props used by the magician to add drama to his illusion. Did the magician sacrifice the bodies of his beautiful assistants to the devil so he could gain real magic? Or is the magician himself actually the devil? Whatever meaning one takes from this is is quintessential Blaine, dark and twisted yet clever and conceived in humor.
Mahlon Blaine’s best work walked the razor’s edge between the grotesque and beautiful. Though few facts of his life are verifiable, insomuch as anyone can gather, he lived in that no man’s land as well. A childhood accident left the artist — who was born in 1984 — blind in his left eye, an accident that contributes to the flattened perspective that marks his work. Though he alleged to have seen combat in World War I, the Army rarely drafted the half blind. A well-documented chronic injury to his left arm was unlikely to have come from a war wound. The plate in his head of which he boasted was probably fictional. Few photographs of the artist survive, but his self-portraits further the likely fake war hero persona.
Blaine’s devotion to the macabre, the bizarre, and the sexual aspects of his art put the brakes on his commercial career. Though, patrons bought his original works during his lifetime, his cult status today emerged only through his rediscovery by sci-fi collectors and underground cartoonists. Still, Blaine’s admirers during his lifetime were fierce. Along with magician Joseph Dunninger, who literally kept Blaine fed during lean times (often complaining about the artist’s prodigious appetite), Blaine gathered fans in the elite of New York City’s design world.