Magic Realism – What Separates Reality From Fantasy?

Magic has been a part of art for as long as we’ve known it. It came in many forms and styles, from science fiction to old wives’ tales. Today, we will be observing a particular art genre named “magic realism,” which intertwines both magic and reality together in the works that employ it. This article will introduce you to this art genre and, with it, cover several topics — from its beginnings and evolution to the most prominent examples of magic realism in art.

Origin Of The Term “Magic Realism”

Although magic realism was around for a long time, the term to describe it was invented in 1925. Its author was a German photographer, art historian, and art critic Franz Roh, who was inspired by modern realist paintings with fantasy or dreamlike subjects, which resulted in him writing a book After Expressionism: Magic Realism (Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus in German).

Magic realism was a part of a revolt against avant-garde art that gained popularity after the First World War, and it also takes inspiration from dreamlike depictions of European surrealism and neo-romanticism in France.

Evolution of Magic Realism

There are various definitions of magic realism, and they all heavily depend on the time period and the region you are observing. Keeping that in mind, we will go over its history — from Germany in the 1920s, when it was named for the first time, to what it represents today.

Let’s start from the beginning — when Franz Roh coined the term in the 1920s, he meant to describe a style of visual art that is highly realistic while depicting a mundane subject matter. With that, the artwork was revealing an “interior” mystery, rather than imposing external, overtly magical features onto the everyday reality. To quote him directly:

“We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenious things…. it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world.”

However, as time passed and this style evolved, it spread all over the world. In 1927, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus was translated to Spanish, and that spurred the growth of popularity of magic realism in South America. However, due to regional differences and different styles of creating, one man — namely, French-Russian Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier — further developed this style to fit the narrative of South American creators. This was named “marvelous realism” to create the distinction he felt could be applied to Latin America as a whole. However, even though it is tailored to the Latin artists, its core is the same as it was with magic realism — painting a realistic view of the modern world while also adding magical elements.

Then, in 1955, the term “magical realism” was born. Literary critic Angel Flores coined it to describe the works that combine both the elements of magic realism and marvelous realism, naming Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges the first magical realist. And, yet again, the core meaning stayed the same.

One of the newer definitions of this genre is by Matthew Strecher, who, in 1999, defined it as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe.”

And that’s what magic realism is, at its core — regardless of the time period or the region. It is realism but with elements of something that is not ordinary, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.

Important literature titles of the Colombian Nobel Laureate
Important literature titles of the Colombian Nobel Laureate, Gabriel García Márquez, the author of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Love in the Times of Cholera.” | Image source: rpp.pe

Most Prominent Creators and Creations Of Magic Realism

In order to better understand what magic realism is, it is best to acquire some on-hand experience. That is why, in this section, we will mention some artists and their works that fall within the genre of magical realism.

Literature

One of the first writers that were seen as a magic or, rather, a marvelous realist is Gabriel García Márquez. He is a Colombian novelist, short-story writer, screenwriter, and journalist, best known for his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, which was published in 1967, and is now known as one of the literary classics.

However, literary magic realism is not only something that is a part of the 20th century. One of the most well-known contemporary writers, Haruki Murakami, is famous for incorporating elements of fantasy in his work. One of the pieces that fall the best within the category of magical realism is his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which starts as an ordinary, realistic novel and, throughout the story, evolves into something that does not only blur the lines between fantasy and reality but dances around them.

Movies

One of Satoshi Kon, a Japanese film director and manga artist’s most famous works, Paprika, is a movie that is the poster child of what magic realism looks like in the film. The fact that it is animated, as well, helps express the nuances and changes between fantasy and realism, building up to the climax, which intertwines both realms and shows the magic realism in all its majesty.

Another example of magic realism is the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher. While the movie’s events are rather mundane, the curious case in question is anything but. 

Painting

When talking about magic realism in visual arts, especially painting, Frida Kahlo is one of the best-known representatives of the genre. She combined realism, surrealism, and fantasy with icons from her Mexican culture and, in that process, creating pieces that surpass what we see as reality. 

Nicholas Zalevsky, a Ukrainian and American figurative painter, is another good representative of painters who create magic realism in their work. The Stairway where my Brother Fractured ​a Finger is one of his works where everything is perfectly realistic but in such a way it doesn’t seem real. And that falls in line with the first definition of magical realism — a style of visual art that brings extreme realism to the depiction of a mundane subject matter.

In Central Europe, magic realism was also part of the return to order movement that came after the First World War. The most well-known magic realist artists were Giorgio de Chirico and Alberto Savinio in Italy, and Adolf Ziegler and Alexander Kanoldt in Germany. Some of the American painters in the 1940s and 1950s, such as Paul Cadmus, Philip Evergood, and Ivan Albright, were also considered magic realists. 

Nicholas Zalevsky
Nicholas Zalevsky “Crucifixion” oil on canvas (1996) | Image source: artworldbeat.com

Magic realism in the past and today

The Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibition in 1943 titled “American Realists and Magic Realists” — it was organized by curator Dorothy C. Miller along with the legendary museum director Alfred H. Barr Jr. and Lincoln Kirstein, a writer and arts impresario in New York City. This was a groundbreaking event in art history, as it introduced and displayed the (then) not well-known concept of magical realism alongside the realism which was already well-established in the USA. Moreover, this was the event that popularized the term “magic realism” as we know it today. MoMA’s publication about this exhibition, which bears the same name — “American realists and magic realists,” goes more in-depth about the similarities and differences between the two styles and how magic realism is a seamless evolution, the realism for modern American people.

Furthermore, magic realism persists to this day, as seen by the examples of contemporary work mentioned in the text above. And that is not all — even in these unprecedented times, galleries still hold magic realism exhibitions. Let’s take the Georgia Museum of Art at the University of Georgia as an example — it is currently presenting the exhibition “Extra Ordinary: Magic, Mystery and Imagination in American Realism” that started on February 27th and will be open until June 13th. 

The very goal of this exhibition is quite in the spirit of magic realism — it seeks to reexamine how it is defined and to expand the canon of artists who are working within this category. It will also include paintings by Ivan Albright, Z. Vanessa Helder, and Patsy Santo, as well as other objects that were a part of the original MoMA exhibition in 1943. Moreover, this very exhibition will ensure that it is keeping up with the situation we are living in right now. Namely, it might not be traveling but it will have a published hardcover catalog accessible to those who cannot attend. Additionally, several Zoom lectures and outdoor activities related to magic realism will accompany the exhibition while it is open.

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