Magic(al) Realism
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Magic(al) Realism

Maggie Ann Bowers

  1. 164 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Magic(al) Realism

Maggie Ann Bowers

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About This Book

Bestselling novels by Angela Carter, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a multitude of others have enchanted us by blurring the lines between reality and fantasy. Their genre of writing has been variously defined as 'magic', 'magical' or 'marvellous' realism and is quickly becoming a core area of literary studies. This guide offers a first step for those wishing to consider this area in greater depth, by:

  • exploring the many definitions and terms used in relation to the genre
  • tracing the origins of the movement in painting and fiction
  • offering an historical overview of the contexts for magic(al) realism
  • providing analysis of key works of magic(al) realist fiction, film and art.

This is an essential guide for those interested in or studying one of today's most popular genres.

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1 Origins of Magic(al) Realism

DOI: 10.4324/9780203328088-2
The history of magic(al) realism, that is, of the related terms of magic realism, magical realism and marvellous realism, is a complicated story spanning eight decades with three principal turning points and many characters. The first period is set in Germany in the 1920s, the second period in Central America in the 1940s and the third period, beginning in 1955 in Latin America, continues internationally to this day. All these periods are linked by literary and artistic figures whose works spread the influence of magic(al) realism around Europe, from Europe to Latin America, and from Latin America to the rest of the world. The key figures in the development of the term are the German art critic Franz Roh best known for his work in the 1920s, the mid-twentieth-century Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli from the 1920s and 1930s, the mid-twentieth-century Latin American literary critic Angel Flores and the late twentieth-century Latin American novelist Gabriel García Márquez.
Many people have been associated with the development of magic(al) realism in its recognized forms of post-expressionist painting from 1920s Germany and modernist and postmodernist modes of writing from Europe in the early twentieth century, and Latin America and the English-speaking world in the second half of the twentieth century. Although it is now most famously associated with Latin America, many of its influences can be traced to European literature, particularly of the modernist period at the beginning of the twentieth century. Magic realist painting shares with modernism an attempt to find a new way of expressing a deeper understanding of reality witnessed by the artist and writer through experimentation with painting and narrative techniques. It, for instance, rejected previous styles to create a clarity and smoothness of the picture that was an amalgamation of the influences of photography and Renaissance art. Magic(al) realist writing, moreover, has become associated with the modernist techniques of the disruption of linear narrative time and the questioning of the notion of history.
Magic(al) realism is a contested term primarily because the majority of critics increase the confusion surrounding its history by basing their consideration of the term on one of its explanations rather than acknowledging the full complexity of its origins. For this reason the critic Roberto González Echevarría finds it difficult to validate a ‘true history’ of the concept (1977:112). The American critic Seymour Menton is one of the few who do attempt to unravel its past. The Appendix to his book Historia verdadera del realismo mágico (The True History of Magic Realism) is a chronology of the term, and its subtitle reveals the irony of the book’s title: Menton heads the Appendix with a series of queried dates that have all been claimed to be the original date of the coining of the term: ‘1925, 1924, 1923, 1922?’ (1998:209).
The consensus amongst the majority of contemporary critics, such as Amaryll Chanady, Seymour Menton, Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris, is that the German art critic Franz Roh (1890–1965) introduced the term to refer to a new form of post-expressionist painting during the Weimar Republic. In his 1925 book Nach-Expressionismus, Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neusten europäischen Malerei (Post-expressionism, Magic Realism: Problems of the Most Recent European Painting) he coined the term that is translated as ‘magic realism’ to define a form of painting that differs greatly from its predecessor (expressionist art) in its attention to accurate detail, a smooth photograph-like clarity of picture and the representation of the mystical non-material aspects of reality. Roh identified more than fifteen painters active in Germany at his time of writing to exemplify the form, including Otto Dix, Max Ernst, Alexander Kanoldt, George Grosz and Georg Schrimpf. Their paintings differ greatly from each other. Some magic realist paintings, such as those by Otto Dix and George Grosz, verge on grotesque caricature. The bodies of the subjects of their paintings are disproportionately small in comparison to their emphasized faces. In Otto Dix’s Match Seller I (1920) an amputee with a face the size of his body and words written from his mouth cartoonstyle sits on a pavement and is urinated on by a dog. George Grosz’s Gray Day (1921) shows an impossibly round-headed businessman with crossed eyes traversing an industrial landscape in the opposite direction to a hunch-backed soldier with a large head and hands. Both painters show a disregard for traditional and realistic perspective. In The Match Seller I the passers-by appear to be falling over due to the strange angle at which their legs are painted while the soldier in Gray Day appears to be walking in mid-air due to the lack of perspective of the background walls and buildings. Other magic realist paintings, such as the calm, realistic still-lifes by Alexander Kanoldt, are less obviously ‘magical’. They focus on traditional still-life subjects such as, for instance, a potted-palm tree on a side table next to a bottle and small tray in Still Life II (1926). All the objects are given equal importance in the composition. The focus of attention is drawn as much to the heavy backcloth as it is to the palm since both are depicted with similar depth of shading. The clarity of the objects in the picture and the lack of emphasis of any one object provide the distinctive ‘magical’ aspect of this painting. Yet to Roh the magical aspect of this art was not of a religious nor of the ‘witch and wizard’ kind but was the ‘magic of being’ which celebrated the ‘world’s rational organization’ (Guenther 1995:35). The art historian Irene Guenther succinctly notes: ‘The juxtaposition of “magic” and “realism” reflected…the monstrous and marvellous Unheimlichkeit [uncanniness] within human beings and inherent in their modern technological surroundings’ (1995:36). This form of magic was partly influenced by the psychoanalytical writings of Sigmund Freud and by the earlier paintings of Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) of the Italian ‘arte metafisica’ movement who shared with the German magic realists the severe representation of objects from unfamiliar angles (ibid.: 38). There are also claims by critics such as Jean Pierre Durix that the director of the Museum of Art in Mannheim in the early 1920s, G.F.Hartlaub, coined the term in relation to an exhibition of paintings by Max Beckmann that he organized in 1923 (1998:103). However, as Hartlaub abandoned the term ‘magic realism’ in preference to ‘neue Sachlichkeit’ (new objectivity) before an exhibition in 1926 of the same artists whom Roh identified as magic realists, the development of the term, if not the coining of it, appears to rest with Roh. Roh also abandoned the term several years later when he recognized that Hartlaub’s term ‘new objectivity’ had endured longer and had more currency amongst the artistic community (Crockett 1999:3). All things considered, despite the need felt by some critics to identify a specific originator of the term, the fact that the term was coined around the early 1920s in relation to a particular group of painters based in Germany, sharing a similar vision, is adequate to provide the necessary understanding of the context of its creation.
The historical context in which magic realist painting developed was that of the unstable German Weimar Republic during the period 1919–23. This era followed the German defeat in the First World War and the abdication and flight into exile of the Kaiser in 1918. It was a period of political fragility when the vacuum of power that was created following the abdication of the Kaiser was fought over by right-wing and left-wing revolutionary groups, including the National Socialist German Worker’s Party of Adolf Hitler, founded in 1920. It was an era of political violence (the Minister for Reconstruction was assassinated in 1922) and extreme economic difficulty due to the destruction of the economy of Germany by the war and the demands for reparation by their victors (Davies 1996:941–2). High inflation and separatist and revolutionary activity created national anxiety that was little tempered by the rule of a weak coalition government (Michalski 1994:7). Democratically distanced from the rest of Europe and caught between the demolition of their old world and the uncertainty of the future, a desire for ‘ Sachlichkeit’ (matter-of-factness) was the growing focus of the nation (ibid.: 8). The art historian Sergiusz Michalski summarizes the mood of the time and its influence on magic realist painting in his thorough study of art in the Weimar Republic, stating: ‘Ultimately, it was a reflection of German society at that time, torn between a desire for and simultaneous fear of unconditional modernity, between sober, objective rationality and residues of Expressionist and rationalist irrationalities’ (ibid.: 13). The premise behind Roh’s analytical and theoretical work on magic realism, with which he attempted to define the predominant art movement in the Weimar Republic, was the need to identify one characteristic different from those of the influential movements of expressionism, such as the painting of Vincent Van Gogh, and surrealism, such as the painting of Salvador Dalí. In fact, he constructed a list of twenty-two characteristics that differentiated magic realism from expressionism in his 1925 book. These included the expressionist warmth of the colours and rough, thick texture of the paint surface, the emphasis of the painting process and the spontaneous effect of the expressionists as opposed to the smooth, carefully constructed, cool photographic quality of magic realist painting. Roh considered magic realism to be related to, but distinctive from, surrealism due to magic realism’s focus on the material object and the actual existence of things in the world, as opposed to the more cerebral and psychological reality explored by the surrealists. These distinctions will be examined further in the following chapter in which magic realism is distinguished from other art movements and genres.
For Roh, the most important aspect of magic realist painting was that the mystery of the concrete object needed to be caught through painting realistically: ‘the thing, the object, must be formed anew’ (1995:113).
By doing so, Roh hoped to encourage the artist to take the psychoanalytical influences of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung from surrealism and to combine them with an endeavour to represent the object clearly with all its ‘wondrous meaning’. The surrealists had been greatly influenced by the revolutionary explorations of the human mind by Freud and Jung. Their explanations of the subconscious and unconscious mind’s influence over the actions, thoughts and particularly the dreams of people had led the surrealists to consider the inadequacy of art that attempted to realistically present the exterior and material world without expressing the influence of the inner-life on it. Freud’s work on the interpretation of dreams, published at the turn of the century, had a particularly strong influence on the surrealists. In his study of surrealism Wallace Fowlie explains that, following the influence of Freud and Jung on them, the surrealists considered that ‘conscious states of man’s being are not sufficient to explain him to himself and others’ (1960:16). For Roh, magic realist painting needed to incorporate these ideas about the interior life of humans into painting whilst expressing it through depictions of the material world. Roh considered the mystery of life and the complexities of the inner-life of humans to be perceivable through the close observation of objects. He called on artists to act upon his discovery that ‘For the new art, it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world’ (Roh 1995:24).
Much of the confusion concerning magic realism arises from the fact that it was contemporary with surrealism. Surrealist manifestos were written in 1924 and 1930, and some claim it is a branch of this art movement. There are similarities between the two movements, and it is important to note that at a later date magic(al) realist writers, particularly Alejo Carpentier, were influenced by both Roh and the surrealists. The similarities are significant, not least the surrealists’ desire to draw out the hidden psychic aspects of life into art, their desire for newness following war, and their attempts to harmonize contradictions and paradoxes. These will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter. However, the theorists of both surrealism and Roh’s magic realism emphasized the differences of their artistic movements in an attempt to define them as distinct.
This initial form of magic realist painting was not confined to Germany: its influence spread so that similar images could be seen in France, Holland and Italy. Later still, following the influence of an exhibition of art by German magic realist painters in New York in 1931, an exhibition called ‘American Realists and Magic Realists’ (1943) even identified the hyper-realist American painter Edward Hopper (1882–1967) who is famous for his smooth and photographic style and quiet, city-scapes, as an exponent of magic realist art (Menton 1998:219–220).
The influence of Roh’s term ‘magic realism’ and its theoretical implications had even greater influence than that of the painting, with two particularly notable consequences. First, the Italian writer Massimo Bontempelli (1878–1960), influenced initially by surrealism and then by German magic realism at the time of Mussolini’s fascist rule in Italy, founded the bilingual magazine 900. Novecento in 1926. It was written in French and Italian and published magic realist writing and criticism (Menton 1998:212). His idea of magic realism coincided for the most part with that of Roh; Robert Dombroski in The Cambridge History of Italian Literature notes that Bontempelli sought to present ‘the mysterious and fantastic quality of reality’ (1996:522). He differed from Roh in that he applied these thoughts to writing and not to pictorial art. Also, Bontempelli was influenced by fascism and wanted magic realist writing to provide means to inspire the Italian nation and to make Italian culture more international in outlook. As Dombroski notes, he defined the function of literature as a means to create a collective consciousness by ‘opening new mythical and magical perspectives on reality’ (1996: 522). His writing was sometimes more fantastical than magic(al) realist and was often close to the surreal, but he has been cited as the first magic realist creative writer, and the fact that his magazine was bilingual meant that its influence was Europe-wide. For instance, his work influenced the Flemish writers Johan Daisne and Hubert Lampo in post-Second World War Flanders during the 1940s and 1950s to adopt the magic realist mode (Lampo 1993:33).
The second significant influence of the term is the most widely recognized development in magic(al) realism; the influence of Roh’s work in Latin America. In 1927, the chapters specifically concerning magic realism from Franz Roh’s Nach-Expressionismus, Magischer Realismus were translated into Spanish by Fernando Vela and published in Madrid by Revista de Occidente under the title Realismo mágico. Post-expresionismo: Problemas de la pintura europea mas reciente. The publications of Revista de Occidente were widely circulated amongst writers in Latin America such as Miguel Angel Asturias and Jorge Luis Borges and have been acknowledged to have had a farreaching influence, particularly as they provided many first translations of important European texts for the Latin American readership (Menton 1998:214).
As well as Roh’s influence, another important thread in the development of magic(al) realism can be traced from post-expressionist and surrealist Europe to Latin America. Two diplomats and writers, a French-Russian Cuban, Alejo Carpentier (1904–80), and Venezuelan Arturo Uslar-Pietri (1906–2001), were strongly influenced by European artistic movements while living in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. It is Carpentier who, having immersed himself in European art and literature in the 1920s, has become most widely acknowledged as the originator of Latin American magic(al) realism. After returning from Europe to Cuba and having travelled in Haiti, he instigated a distinctly Latin American form of magic realism, coining the phrase ‘lo realismo maravilloso’ (marvellous realism) (Echevarría 1977:97). Having been witness to European surrealism, he recognized a need for art to express the non-material aspects of life but also recognized the differences between his European and his Latin American contexts. He used the term ‘marvellous realism’ to describe a concept that could represent for him the mixture of differing cultural systems and the variety of experiences that create an extraordinary atmosphere, alternative attitude and differing appreciation of reality in Latin America.
The idea of the unique and extraordinary reality of Latin America was not a new concept. The Spanish ‘conqueror’ of Mexico, Hernando Cortés, in the sixteenth century reported being unable to describe in familiar European terms what he saw on the American continents. However, Carpentier saw the unique aspects of Latin America in its racial and cultural mixture rather than in the flora and fauna. He first considered these ideas in an essay he wrote for the widely read Venezuelan publication El Nacional and more famously expanded his theory of Latin American reality in the prologue to his 1949 novel El reino de este mundo (The Kingdom of this World). In this prologue, while disassociating himself and his writing from Roh’s magic realism on the grounds of its cold artificiality and ‘tiresome pretension’ (Carpentier 1995a:84), he proposed marvellous reality to be ‘the heritage of all of America’ (ibid.: 87). In the introduction to his prologue, translated into English and reproduced in their book Magical Realism: Theory, History, Community (1995), Lois Parkinson Zamora and Wendy Faris explain that in Carpentier’s terms, as opposed to the surrealists, ‘improbable juxta-positions and marvellous mixtures exist by virtue of Latin America’s varied history, geography, demography, and politics—not by manifesto’ (75).
Arturo Uslar-Pietri, who influenced fellow Venezuelan writers with his magic realist short stories during the 1930s and 1940s, was most closely associated with Franz Roh’s form of post-expressionist ‘magic realism’ and had known Bontempelli in Paris (Guenther 1995:61). His writing emphasized the mystery of human living amongst the reality of life rather than following Carpentier’s newly developing versions of marvellous American reality. He considered magic realism to be a continuation of the ‘vanguardia’ modernist experimental writings of Latin America. Because of his close...

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Citation styles for Magic(al) Realism

APA 6 Citation

Bowers, M. A. (2004). Magic(al) Realism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2004)

Chicago Citation

Bowers, Maggie Ann. (2004) 2004. Magic(al) Realism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.

Harvard Citation

Bowers, M. A. (2004) Magic(al) Realism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Bowers, Maggie Ann. Magic(al) Realism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2004. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.