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Dead medium: Dead media: Robertson's Phantasmagoria; Seraphin's Ombres Chinoises; Guyot's smoke apparitions; the Magic Lantern
From: (Bruce Sterling)
Source(s): The Female Thermometer: 18th-Century Culture and the Invention of the Uncanny by Terry Castle Oxford University Press, 1995 ISBN 0-19-508097-1

page 146

"In the 1770s a showman named Francois Seraphin produced what he called Shadow Plays, or 'Ombres Chinoises,' using a magic lantern at Versailles; another inventor, Guyot, demonstrated how apparitions might be projected onto smoke."

(((footnote: "There are a number of nineteenth-century writings on the history and uses of the magic lantern. See, for example, letter 67 of Sir David Brewster's *Letters on Natural Magic* (London, 1833), or the anonymous manuals from later in the century, *The Magic Lantern: How to Buy and How to Use It. Also How to Raise a Ghost* (London, 1866) and *The Magic Lantern: Its Construction and Management (London, 1888). For a modern account of Kircher's invention and its role in the history of cinematography, see Martin Quigley, Jr., *Magic Shadows: The Story of the Origin of Motion Pictures* (New York, 1960).")))

"Robertson began experimenting in the 1780s with similar techniques for producing 'fantomes artificiels.' He soon devised several improvements for the magic lantern, including a method for increasing and decreasing the size of the projected image by setting the whole apparatus on rollers. Thus the 'ghost' could be made to grow or shrink on front of the viewer's eyes.

"Robertson recognized the uncanny illusionist potential of the new technology and exploited the magic lantern's pseudonecromantic power with characteristic flamboyance. He staged his first 'fantasmagorie' as a Gothic extravaganza, complete with fashionably Radcliffean decor. An observer described the scene at the Pavillon de l'Echiquier:

"'The members of the public having been ushered into the most lugubrious of rooms, at the moment the spectacle is to be begin, the lights are suddenly extinguished and one is plunged for an hour and a half into frightful and profound darkness; it's the nature of the thing; one should not be able to make anything out in the imaginary region of the dead. In an instant, two turnings of a key lock the door: nothing could be more natural than than one should be deprived of one's liberty while seated in the tomb, or in the hereafter of Acheron, among shadows.'

"Robertson then emerged, spectrelike, from the gloom, and addressing the audience, offered to conjure up the spirits of their dead loved ones. A long newspaper account (cited in his memoirs) recorded the somewhat comical scenes that followed on one of these early occasions:

"'A moment of silence ensued; then an Arlesian- looking man in great disorder, with bristling hair and sad wild eyes, said: 'Since I wasn't able... to reestablish the cult of Marat, I would at least like to see his face.'

"'Then Robertson poured on a lighted brazier two glasses of blood, a bottle of vitriol, twelve drops of aqua fortis, and two numbers of the journal *Hommes- Libres.* Immediately, little by little, a small livid, hideous phantom in a red bonnet raised itself up, armed with a dagger. The man with the bristling hair recognized it as Marat; he wanted to embrace it, but the phantom made a frightful grimace and disappeared.

"'A young fop asked to see the apparition of a woman he had tenderly loved, and showed her portrait in miniature to the phantasmagorian, who threw on the brazier some sparrow feathers, a few grains of phosphorus and a dozen butterflies. Soon a woman became visible, with breast uncovered and floating hair, gazing upon her young friend with a sad and melancholy smile.

"'A grave man, seated next to me, cried out, raising his hand to his brow: 'Heavens! I think that's my wife!' and ran off, not believing it a phantom anymore.' (...)

"Robertson, it should be allowed, disclaimed the accuracy of this account and accused its author, Armand Poultier, of trying to get him in trouble with the authorities. This particular exhbition, Poultier had written, concluded with an old royalist in the audience importuning Robertson to raise the shade of Louis XVI: 'To this indiscreet question, Robertson responded very wisely: I had a recipe for that, before the eighteenth of Fructidor, I have lost it since that time: it is probable I shall never find it again, and it will be impossible from now on to make kings return in France.'

"This inflammatory story was false, Robertson complained in his memoirs, but nonetheless the police temporarily closed down the phantasmagoria and forced him to decamp for Bordeaux, where he remained for over a year."