Sunday, 17 April 2016

Magic Realism in Art

 Copyright The Phoenix Art Museum  Shown under Low Res Fair Use. In order to give support

I put up a post over on the Magic Realism Books Facebook Group about the Group's proposed new rules. In it I write that the group welcomed to post about magic-realist art. And one person commented that they were not sure what magic-realist art was. As the subject is a large one, I decided not to answer in a comment or indeed a post on Facebook and instead to dedicate this post to the subject.

It may seem strange that a Group dedicated to books should be encouraging posts about the visual arts. I wonder whether this was the commentator was thinking this, when he responded to my post. My answer is that the two forms are linked and the student of magic realism books can find much of relevance at looking at the story of magic realism in art, so much so that a study of the latter can perhaps shed a clearer or new light on literary magic realism.

The first point to make is that term "magic realism" first appeared in the context of magic-realist art. It was coined in 1924 by German art critic Franz Roh for a new post-expressionist form of painting that represented mystical non-material aspects of reality in a realistic backdrop. He wrote that magic realism: 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.

Roh's book was published in Spanish in 1927 and some people argue that it influenced the development of South American magic-realist literature, although that claim can be disputed.

Works by a number of artists have been called magic realist. These artists include Marc Chagall, Frida Kahlo (whose painting is shown above), and Marcela Donoso. One of the most influential artists on the movement was Henri Rousseau - as Andre Breton wrote with Rousseau we can for the first time talk about Magic Realism. You will find an interesting visual timeline here: In this timeline the examples seem realistic to a greater or lesser extent, but there is something unsettling about them - something that might be termed magic.

As I am no student of the history of art, I suggest you take read the more detailed account of the history of magic-realist art found here: You will soon see there are certain similarities between visual and literary magicrealism. The most obvious being that the difficulty of definitions. As the author of that website writes:  A central challenge in identifying Magic Realism pertains to the boundaries between Realism and pure fantasy. Magic Realist artists often introduced unusual juxtapositions, eerie atmospheres and naive elements into their art. Typically the Magic Realists dealt with themes of isolation and alienation. Many of them studied the techniques of the Old Masters, and used these to establish, and also to twist, the illusions of reality. But they did not stray completely away from the real world. 

So what is relevant to writers and readers of magic realism? Here are my thoughts (I welcome others):
1) The two forms of magic realism have the same difficulty with definitions and for the same reason. 
2) Realism is at the heart of the definition, but it depends on how you define and portray it
3) The focus is as much on the background as much as the foreground. This is contrary to our modern European way of depicting the world and is of itself disturbing. This focus references earlier (medieval and Renaissance) art, as well as primitive or non-European art
4) Challenging and subverting the "normal real" is core to the form. It is a political art form.
5) Roh's strand born in the heady challenging environment of the Weimar Republic was brought to a halt with the rise of fascism and the subsequent world war. It made me wonder about the impact of the war on the development of European literary magic realism
6) The real is very real and often detailed, which is what makes the magic element so disturbing.
7) The magic is also real. Fridha Kahlo said I don't paint dreams or nightmares. I paint my own reality. It could almost be Gabriel Garcia Marcia saying that. 

Kahlo's picture above is a good example of all but point 4. It also has the added magic-realist device of conflating time.

For more food for thought and look at the work a contemporary magic-realist painter in the context of the history of the form, do watch this excellent illustrated lecture.


Stephanie Barbe Hammer said...

Thanks. This is very helpful. The German origin of the term would help explain why German Romanticism as well as German Expressionism seem to resonate so much with what MR is going. It also explains the presence of German lit in some of these books. Bolano's final novel has a whole section dedicated to beleaguered German professors! I'm curious to know more about Roh and his own background and interests. Thanks again -- much food for thought here.

Lily Iona MacKenzie said...

This a wonderful way to open this conversation, Zoe.

Georg Kremer said...

Hello. A bit of a belated response. Franz Roh exuberantly embraced a new art that emerged after WWI. It was simply a broad turn away from the abstraction of German Expressionism. However after the end of WWII he discounted the importance of the movement, stating that it wss merely a regressive reaction to earlier tendencies. Roh was an art critic and held a doctorate. However, he, like many other Germans interested in art became caught up in Abstract Expressionism after the war, which was the flavor of the day. The article "The Essence of Magic Realism" explains that MR in art was more about the dedication of many painters between 1920 and 1960 to detailed illusionism. Many were highly introverted, even obsessive, individuals who simply loved painting. Understanding the "movement" comes from studying the lifes of the painters themselves. The style(s) of Magic Realism itself is in a sense less important than its "personality", which may be its most important legacy.
Georg Kremer (editor of and writer of numerous articles on this subject)