Summary of Magic Realism
The merging of present and past, the invention of strange objects, the juxtaposition of unlike things, and the depiction of alienation are just a few of the ways in which Magic Realist painters evoke the mysteriousness and uncanniness of everyday reality. The original movement emerged in the 1920s in Germany to counter the emphasis placed on individual subjectivity by earlier avant-garde artists. Initially synonymous with Neue Sachlichkeit, Magic Realism focused less on biting social critique and more on explorations of the strangeness and incongruousness of existence. Often using exquisite detail and unusual perspective, the artists conveyed the wonder of observable reality.
Magic Realism's influence spread across media, especially in literature, to become a diffuse practice in several areas around the globe. Never a unified movement, artists in various countries developed the ideas and styles, creating unique versions, which still resonate with contemporary innovators of many media to this day.
- Magic Realism was part of the trend toward classicism in the interwar years that aimed to move away from more expressive styles. Relying on the undistorted figure, the artists emphasized observable reality. To reinforce their classical tendencies many of used materials like egg tempera, which was popular in the early Italian Renaissance.
- While Magic Realism is often described as "surreal," the artists themselves were careful to distinguish themselves from the avant-garde group of Surrealist painters and poets. Unlike the Surrealists, the Magic Realists did not wish to probe the unconscious, dreams, or interior states, but rather they emphasized the often-times strangeness of outward experiences.
- While some Magic Realists use symbols and allegory, many relied on odd juxtapositions of objects, distortions of space, or hyperrealism to convey the mysteriousness of everyday life. By focusing on such devices, instead of fantastical or made-up elements, the artists create spaces that are more universally understood and that do not rely on specialized knowledge.
- While most Magic Realists avoided stinging satire and social critique of the most strident Neue Sachlichkeit artists, many explored the state of society and culture in a more nuanced way, often making commentaries about the feelings of alienation and isolation felt in the modern era.
Overview of Magic Realism
The origins of Magic Realism are contemporaneous with Neue Sachlichkeit, the Post-Expressionist movement in Weimar Germany that emerged at the end of World War I. The term Neue Sachlichkeit, German for New Objectivity, was officially coined with an exhibition of the same name in 1924. The movement proposed a new focus on reality, portraying an objective understanding of life and art, often using political themes with satirical connotations to bring awareness to ongoing issues of society.
Important Art and Artists of Magic Realism
After spending a couple of years in Berlin, in 1923 Radziwill settled in the town of Dangast, a coastal city on a bay off of the North Sea. He was both enamored by and reticent about the encroaching technology in this small town. He often depicted this ambivalence in his paintings. Here, in this quiet, rather normal looking, beach scene, an airplane, which seems to lack a propeller and whose body resembles the hull of a ship, flies into the scene, perhaps about to land near the idyllic house. Its purpose, its passengers, its destination all remain mysterious. Additionally, the lighting of the scene and the strange rocks that punctuate the beach seem to have fallen from another world, marking the work exemplary of Franz Radziwill's Magic Realism.
German critic Franz Roh initially described Magic Realist paintings as "enigmas of quietude in the midst of general becoming." Unlike his Neue Sachlichkeit colleague and friend Otto Dix, Radziwill opted not for biting cultural satire but for rendering the strangeness of a rapidly changing world that encroached on traditional ways of life.
In this eerie scene, four men stand amidst the ruins of Pompeii, the Italian city entirely destroyed in a matter of moments in 79 CE by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. While the men's tuxedos and suits date them to the Weimar Era in which Willink was painting, the smoking volcano in the background suggests the far past just before the fateful eruption. This disjunction in time creates a mysterious subject, heightened by the fact that none of the men interact with one another, although inexplicably, the man in the brown suit looks out toward the viewer.
Willink, like many Magic Realists, was greatly influenced by the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, who used architectural and urban settings accompanied by symbols and strange figures to create uncanny and surreal scenes. The Dutch Willink was one of the movement's most prominent figures and preferred the term "imaginary realism" to describe his paintings in order to acknowledge the role of imagination in creating his compositions.
Echoing the Neue Sachlichkeit's "criticism" of society, Willink reveals contemporary society's inner desolation. Late Visitors to Pompeii offers an allegorical warning of the present, suggesting the danger of neglecting past lessons and the obliviousness of the population to world calamities. The painting depicts a "detached" modernity without the deeper metaphysical "considerations" of everyday life that he felt plagued the interwar years.
When Ivan Albright painted Ida Rogers, she was not even 20 years old. Instead of depicting the young wife and mother, Albright depicted the woman aged, misshapen, and with gangrenous flesh. Ida vainly observes her reflexion in a hand mirror, holding a powder puff to her chest with her other hand. The composition has all of the hallmarks of a vanitas image. Popularized in 18th-century Dutch painting, vanitas paintings allegorize the fleeting nature of life, the decay of age, and ultimately death.
While serving in World War I in the medical corps, Albright, having come from an artistic family, created intricate medical illustrations, which eventually influenced his own meticulous painting style; however, this highly realistic technique simultaneously gives the painting a sort of estranged and surreal mood. Additionally, the precarious angle of the rug, chair, and small bureau further disorient the viewer.
During the 1930s, many critics considered Albright one of the main American painters of Magic Realism, referring to him as "the painter of horrors," and later artist Jean Dubuffet wrote that his paintings, "upset with one blow the ramparts of our tastes, our affectivity, our aversions." Despite the horrors and the assault on bourgeois taste, Albright gives his allegorical contemplation of death a poetical air with the title Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida. The awkward phrase emphasizes the profoundly complex and, often times, difficult process of aging and our relation to it. Having spent well over a year with the young model painting her "portrait," Albright confessed in a poem that he gave Ida, "I dare not look at her for fear I portray / The emotion within me - will lead me astray."