Resting Somnambulist IV by Pyke Koch


What is Magic Realism Art

         To define Magic Realism as it applies to art is both a challenging and elusive task. Those who embark on an exploration of this topic soon experience feelings of disorientation, confusion or even delirium. A veritable jungle of references exist for Magic Realism, but most of those roadmaps charted in its formative period are now outdated. Some pathways remain unexplored, while many others have long ago become overgrown. Fortunately there has been considerable rethinking about this subject in the past few decades, and a reevaluation of its importance as an artistic movement is warranted.

         If Magic Realism does exist between the two poles of realism (north) and pure fantasy (south), we will need a metaphysical compass to assist our exploration. Its components would include artistic sensibilities, acute powers of observation and a knowledge of the traditions of art history. We are searching for paintings that are sharply rendered, cool and detached, and often pregnant with metaphoric or hidden meanings, and which were created in the four decades following World War I.

      The term "Magic Realism" was coined by German art critic Franz Roh in an essay written in 1924. Roh observed that during the early 1920s many German artists were reintroducing real objects as the center of attention in their paintings. He established that there was a strong countermovement to Expressionism in progress in German arts. In 1925 Gustav Hartlaub organized an important exhibition of contemporary German art under the title of Die Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity). This became the name that most art historians have used when referring to the predominant styles of German art during the Weimar years.

       Although Magic Realism and Neue Sachlichkeit seemed to encompass the same art at the time, art critic Emilio Bertonati commented several decades later that Magic Realism should refer to a more restricted concept, one in which subject matter and content are considered in addition to style. The concepts of Magic Realism became more clearly defined in the second half of the 1920s, as artists interacted with each other and due to publications in other languages. During the 1930s and 40s the movement spread outside Germany, both within Europe and also throughout the Western Hemisphere.

       The subject matter of Magic Realism paintings include commonplace objects from everyday life mixed with elements of the fantastic, drawing from the artist's imagination, interwoven into a magical fabric. Many early works of Magic Realism were inspired by the naive paintings of Henri Rousseau or by the Metaphysical art of Giorgio de Chirico, particularly those produced before 1915. Other influences came from a number of Italian contemporary artists, including Felix Casorati and Gino Severini. In France a few artists, notably Felix Vallotton and Andre Derain, moved decidedly away from styles of abstraction that had developed just prior to World War I, employing a hard-edged and reinvented approach to Realism. The influence of these Italian and French contemporaries was part of the Return to Order current within Post War art, a renewal of interest in classicism and realistic painting.

        The art of Neue Sachlichkeit has been characterized as a photographically sharp style, yet early in the Weimar era paintings exhibits selective use of finished details. Many paintings prior to 1925 exhibited a flatness or limited modeling of objects. Many of the aspiring artists of the day were self taught. As the aesthetics of Neue Sachlichkeit became more established, a number of artists found inspiration in the art of the Northern Renaissance as well as that of the Nazarenes and the German Romanticists. By the late 1920s, many works exhibited an increasing mature style and a compelling realism.

        Magic Realism often occurred when Das Unheimliche (roughly, the uncanny) combined with a hard-edged realism of Neue Sachlichkeit. Uncanny, strange or weird elements were frequently added to the art during the Neue Sachlichket era. According to Sigmund Freud's 1919 interpretation, Das Unheimliche could have a dual connotation. It could refer to the familiar experienced in an unusual place (defamiliarization). But it could also refer to concealed yet undesirable things being revealed. The uncanny is prevalent in the art of Carl Grossberg and also found in some of Otto Dix's diverse output.

        Influences of Symbolism and German Romanticism can be seen in many of the paintings of the Weimar era. In works by Franz Radziwill the atmosphere itself is magically strange, calm (airless) and creating a feeling of unnaturalness. Christian Schad frequently packed his paintings with metaphors. Although much of the magic in German art disappeared in the 1930s with the rise of the Nazis, many artists outside Germany recognized these trends and began adding "magical" elements to their art. The movement soon spread to other European countries and subsequently to the Americas. It continued as a significant undercurrent in representational art during the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

        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 twist, the illusions of reality. But they did not stray completely away from the real world. In the words of Dutch artist Pyke Koch: "Magic Realism is based on the representation of what is possible, but not probable".

       A second challenge is to define Magic Realism's place in historical context. First, it is important to clarify a distinction between the broad grouping Neue Sachlichkeit and Magic Realism. Initially, it seems evident that Franz Roh and Gustav Hartlaub were surveying similar art. Neue Sachlichkeit covered a wide range of styles from the socially critical verism of Otto Dix to rustic classicalism of Georg Schrimpf. In the years following Hartlaub's exhibition, however, Magic Realism's potential became more evident. Roh initially referred to this art as Post-Expressionism, but he later added Magic Realism as a byname. He spoke of a "renewed delight in real objects", and added that this new art seemed to offer "a calm admiration of the magic of being; a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world". Roh's writings were specific about the stylistic characteristics of Magic Realism but somewhat open-ended about its content.

        The term Magic Realism was a little used in Germany. It was, however, soon recognized by writers and artists outside of Germany, particularly after 1930. Most notably American promoter Lincoln Kirstein brought currency to the term when referring to the work of the American Magic Realists of the 1930s and 40s.A small core of artists carried the torch of Realism through the 1940s and 50s, during the heyday of the Abstract Expressionism movement. Prominent among them were Jared French, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker, Andrew Wyeth, Alex Colville, and Robert Vickrey. All of these artists were connected to varying degrees with Magic Realism.

      Magic Realism in literature is related but quite distinct from the movement in art. The artists of the 1920s moved away from manifestations of the subjective toward a revitalized Realism. The momentum in the literary movement which also adopted the name Magic Realism moved in an opposite direction, away from Realism toward alternative consciousness and frequently embracing the fantastic.

      Once the concepts of Magic Realism are understood, it becomes somewhat easier to identify and survey this type of art. We have compiled a "Time Capsule" of Magic Realism, which includes related works that preceded the movement beginning with  the Renaissance. We invite you to tour the Time Capsule and hope that you enjoy your travels.

Enter the Magic Realism Time Capsule


By Georg Kremer  -  Email: