Magic and Science in the Nineteenth-century Culture of Spectacle: Henri Robin in the Low CountriesThe theatre of modernity served to illuminate scientific insight and discovery in a spectacular way. Astronomy, physics, and experiments with electricity were at the heart of a popular genre that became known as ‘physiques amusantes’ (amusing physics). These shows occupied a middle ground between entertainment and science, between showing and doing. They were often staged by magicians, who presented themselves as ‘professors’ and awed audiences at local fairgrounds, world’s fairs, and popular theatres. One such figure was Henri Robin (1811–1974). Reviews and images dating from Robin’s time in Belgium and the Netherlands and his own memoirs of his time in Paris reveal that he found himself at the crossroads of a number of key developments. In particular, Robin’s theatre practices shed light on the changing nature of spectacle in the latter half of the nineteenth century. His shows succeeded in maintaining a precarious balance between spectacle-driven entertainment and scientific learning, between visually-oriented fairground amusement for the masses and educational fare for the new bourgeoisie. This article will discuss the complex relationship between aesthetic and didactic concerns in Henri Robin’s theatre shows, their remarkable blend of science and magic, and their effect on audiences. At the same time, we will demonstrate that the spectacle of modernity in the Low Countries resulted in part from the international mobility of showmen such as Robin.

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Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis

Vanhoutte, Kurt, & Wynants, Nele. (2017). Magie en wetenschap in de spektakelcultuur van de negentiende eeuw: Henri Robin in de Lage Landen. Tijdschrift voor Mediageschiedenis, 20(2), 30–53. doi:10.18146/2213-7653.2017.330