Thursday, June 2, 2016

Peter Arno: The Magician's Secret

Ten years ago, Russ Cochran auctioned off an original gag cartoon by Peter Arno. The problem for buyers was that the caption wasn't reported and the date was given erroneously as circa 1950—it was published in 1928. This is why it's important to have a copy of The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker (2004) handy. The artwork was sold for $1,500, one hopes to a buyer who had done his homework.

The cartoon shows a magic act at a carnival sideshow. Signs promote the "Fattest Woman" and "La Belle Fatima," suggesting the grotesque and the exotic. Arno very skillfully has given the speaker a facial expression that shows him comically unsure of himself. The speaker is dressed in the darkest outfit deliberately set against the whitest part of the paper. The lines of the magician's box point horizontally to the speaker's head, while a line drawn through the heads of the men onstage leads diagonally to the speaker.The two men on the left have their heads turned to direct the reader's eye into the cartoon while the man on the right leans in toward and directly against the speaker.

Russ Cochran's Comic Art Auction, June 16, 2006, Lot 50

"Fake, ain't it?"
Peter Arno
The New Yorker, May 8, 1928, page 13

"Fake, ain't it?"
Peter Arno, Original art, The New Yorker, May 8, 1928, page 13

Almost ninety years on, this trick is still a staple of magic acts. It still fascinates us long after carnival sideshows have vanished. Referring to the trick as "Fake" is itself a sophisticated reaction, as it shows the speaker's awareness that he's being had, but then that telling "ain't it?" undercuts his intellect and betrays some primal uncertainty about what his eyes are telling him. It's simply remarkable the way this cartoon, in just three words, can—pardon the expression—cut both ways.

Note:  You know the drill:  Clicking on the aqua links will magically transport you to more blog posts about Peter Arno or original New Yorker cartoon art. Abracadabra!



  1. I love Magic and I love cartoons ... so a cartoon about Magic is a delight... Must admit I struggled with the gag even after reading your post , but as all the men are clean shaven , could the speaker be referring to the magician's moustache ?