The prestige


Dear Artist,

I recently spent an evening at a comedy club in North Melbourne. Headlining was a grey-haired, plaid-shirted guy who jokes about local conveniences, including the technological prompts that pepper modern life — the talking grocery store bagging station, the talking crosswalk, the talking commuter-tram ticket box. It was regional stuff that resonated universally, and the audience howled with approval.

The Studio oil on canvas 1969 51 x 42 inches by Philip Guston

“The Studio” 1969
oil on canvas, 51 x 42 inches
by Philip Guston

In between the comedian’s stories he was giving brief descriptions of what he was doing, such as how he had just made up an elaborate back-story in order to give us a punch line — a detailed build-up and preparation for a final, impressive zinger. It was as if he were pulling back a curtain to reveal a tiny portion of the magic-making. This sharing of the craft endeared us to him even more.

Magicians have a word for the final part of a magic trick — the part that makes you clap. It’s called The Prestige. In order to successfully pull off a prestige, you must first create an extended period of anticipation and inclusion. If you’ve ever watched a street performer take 30 minutes to set up, just to do a back flip over a line of exhilarated volunteers, you know what I’m talking about.


Philip Guston (1913-1980)
working on his final prints
Photo by Sidney B. Felsentold

What about art? “The painting is not on a surface, but on a plane which is imagined,” said Philip Guston. “It moves in a mind. It is not there physically at all. It is an illusion, a piece of magic, so that what you see is not what you see.” In art, the exchange between the artist and audience is an unspoken pact — a promise in which we attempt to create an illusion that engages the senses by way of the eyes and ultimately nestles into the soul — a rekindling of the familiar, now magically altered. Tricksters walk among journeymen and master craftsmen, sharing themselves with varying degrees of back-story, fiction and fact.

“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket, I have things up my sleeve,” wrote Tennessee Williams in The Glass Managerie. “But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”


“Mother and Child” 1930
oil on canvas, 40 x 30 inches
by Philip Guston



PS: “Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called The Pledge. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course, it probably isn’t. The second act is called The Turn. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now, you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.” (Christopher Priest)

“Illusion is the first of all pleasures.” (Oscar Wilde)

Esoterica: Brothers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan have recently released their latest magic trick — a feature film called Interstellar. In it they describe a foodless, airless future on Earth, illustrate a wormhole, explain Einstein’s relativity equations while slowing time and discuss love as an equal and quantifiable universal force. “Painting is the most magical of mediums,” said Chuck Close. “The transcendence is truly amazing to me every time I go to a museum and I see how somebody figured another way to rub colored dirt on a flat surface and make space where there is no space or make you think of a life experience.” To the critics of Interstellar, the Nolans need only reply, “You go, try and make this art.”


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Giclée 24 x 24 inches
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