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An Introduction to Magic Realism Art Movement

Part One of Magic, Fantasy and Hyperrealism in Art & Literature Trilogy

“When people use the term magic realism, usually they only mean ‘magic’ and they don’t hear ‘realism’, whereas the way in which magic realism actually works is for the magic to be rooted in the real. It’s both things. It’s not just a fairytale moment. It’s the surrealism that arises out of the real.” - Salman Rushdie

Carel Willink, Simeon the Stylite (Simeon de Pilaarheilige). Presenting the conflict between the modern disorder in the background and Simeon who has returned to the past foundations for spiritual answers.

Magic realism or magical realism is a hybrid genre that was formed at the junction between fiction and reality. Although the technique has been used for thousands of years, the German photographer and art critic Franz Roh was the first person to name and define the genre in 1925. He used the term Magische Realismus in his book Nach Expressionismus, to describe visual fantasy presented in paintings and dream-like subjects - keeping in mind the subsequent publication of his book with the rise of surrealism.

The Return to Order

The return to order movement started out in Central Europe. It was substantially the emotional response of the artists to World War I and its turbulent consequences that precipitated a movement away from futurism and closer to classism. Besides futurism, many other genres such as cubism were abruptly discontinued, giving their place to neo-realism, surrealism, neo-romanticism and the branch of magical realism.

The latter bears a unique combination of elements that are magical and supernatural in character, placed within an accepted reality. Some artists have interpreted magic realism in their works, by simply setting the real objects in illogical composition or vice versa. This is, in fact, the major difference between magic realism and other hyper real genres, such as surrealism.

Characteristics of Magical Realism

Magic realism in visual arts and literature share common characteristics. To analyse and distinguish this style is necessary to single out these characteristics;

  • A Realistic Setting: magical realism is placed within the frame of this world, often contemporary and occasionally in the past.

  • Existence of Magical Elements: this is a must, whether for invented characters, myth-inspired personification, talking objects or notions of telepathy, each art work with magical realism encompasses fantastical components that are non-existent in our world.

  • Leaving Space for Imagination: contrary to realism, magical realism offers limited information as a deliberate space for imagining the relationships between fantasy and reality. This helps the rational mind to assimilate the information and, therefore, normalizing the magical element.

  • Criticism: as previously mentioned, this genre is a vigorous form of expression and often utilized as an artistic device to criticize the norms and political establishments.

  • Unique Structure: breaking the norms, whether it’s the narration arc in a story or use of unusual light and color contracts in visual arts to emphasise the magical sense, magical realism often presents a unique structure.

  • Purpose: as a part of the return to the order movement, the art works in this genre retains a purpose- unlike decorative and abstract arts. Magical realism aims to emphasize, exaggerate and question ideas, or characters in real life forms, to explain and criticise a moral or political point of view.

Magic Realism in Literature

“Magic Realism is not new. The label’s new, the specific Latin American form of it is new, its modern popularity is new, but it’s been around as long as literature has been around.” - Terri Windling

Magic Realism has been traced in various art forms, although was eminently introduced as a literary genre. It is defined as an amalgam of fanatics and magical motifs that is perceived as normal. Other peculiarities of this genre is that these elements are presented in a realistic plot which makes the reader comprehend the fantasy through rational thinking.

Latin American writers used this genre as a powerful tool against political regimes, similar to the use of surrealism in Latin American art. They produced impressively influential masterworks against colonially imposed culture, microcosm of the socio-political unconscious societies, and resistance against the fall of cultural identity. Some of the most notable novels of magical realism in Latin America are; One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, House of Spirits by Isabel Allende, and the more recent book Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel.

As Salman Rushdie puts it, “Realism can break a writer’s heart.” Magical realism, conversely, leaves much space for creativity and speculation. The evolution of magic realism in literature has established the genre as one of the most popular techniques of storytelling today.

While surrealism deals with subverting the accepted realities of the mind and the subconscious, magical realism has a more functional adaptability to contemporary realities. Ultimately, both genres keep fantasy as one of their core elements. Literary magic realisms can also trespass into the territory of Fabulism, where mythological personifications and folklore are reborn into a modern setting.

Magical Realism in Art

The roots of Magic Realism in art are contemporaneous with the Post-Expressionist movement in Weimar Germany. Such artworks focus on reality with an objective comprehension of life, often with political or social notions. This genre can use dream-like themes to satirical keynotes to highlight the issues of society. Here are some namely artists of the realm of magic realism;

Franz Radziwill

Radziwill’s works were placed on an axis of equivocation about contemporary reality in the 1920s. He believed that the modern ideologies were rather degenerating and the truth calling of the modern men was in a return to the past and cherishing the simple and old ways of living.

Beach of Dangast with Flying Boat. Franz Radziwill, 1929.

Albert Carel Willink

The most famous works of Albert Carel Willink is his painting the Late Visitors of Pompeii, along with dozens of other magical realism masterworks. His concerns about ancient wisdom; the lessons once cherished and now forgotten by modern society. The same notion is strongly present in his master work, Wilma, 1932.

Late Visitors to Pompeii. Carel Willink, 1931.

Giorgio de Chirico

As a Greece-born Italian artist, Chirico was drawn to the mythological themes of his natal place, bringing the ancient art in a modern scenery.

Canto d’amore. Giorgio de Chirico,1914

In essence, magic realism gives a chance to the author/artist to draw an image of an alternative reality, where a message or idea, or moral is embedded; matter-of-fact reality with a taste of fantasy that can be pleasantly dream-like, or unsettlingly macabre.

Image Sources:

Carel Willink Gallery, Ten Dreams Fine Art Galleries

Giorgio De Chirico, Volos 1888-Roma 1978, Le Gallerie Degli uffizi.

Franz Radziwill, Beach of Dangast with Flying Boat, 1929 ,WEIMAR.


Magical Realism in Literature, Nabila Naimi, Published by Hassiba Ben Bouali University, English Department, 2017.

Magic(al) Realism, Maggie Ann, published by Routledge, 2004.


Author Photo

Pourandokht Mazaheri

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