What is Magic Realism: definition, characteristics and featured authors

What is Magic Realism: definition, characteristics and featured authors

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Magical realism is a 20th century literary and pictorial movement that tries to show the unreal or strange as something everyday or common.

Its objective is not to awaken emotions, but express them, being in addition and above all, an attitude towards reality.

History of magical realism

The first person to use the term "magical realism" and who coined the term was the German art critic and historian Franz roh (1890 - 1965) in 1925, calling him “Magischer Realismus", To refer to a pictorial style known as"Neue Sachlichkeit” (the New Objectivity), an alternative to expressionism.

At that moment, Roh identified the precise details of magical realism: the fluid photographic clarity and the portrait of the “magical” nature of the rational world.

Roh believed that magical realism was related to surrealism, but being a different movement due to the focus of magical realism on the material object and the actual existence of things in the world.

That same year (1925), Fernando Vela, writer in "Western Magazinefounded by José Ortega y Gasset in 1923 and of whom Vela was a disciple, he translated and published Roh's essay into Spanish in that magazine, setting the stage for its appropriation by the literary movement.

Beginnings of magical realism: painting

Roth was an art critic and coined the term for that discipline in an exhibition curated by Gustav Hartlaub (who supported the proposal) and who named it precisely “Neue Sachlichkeit”.

Although the pictorial style began to evolve in the early twentieth century, it was the Italian Massimo Bontempelli who adapted and expanded the term to the communities of both Germany and Italy.

The Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico is considered the pioneer when at the end of the 1910s he produced works under the style of “metaphysical art”.

From that moment and mainly in the United States, magic realism in painting begins to develop and expand further with prominent authors between 1930 and 1950 such as Bettina Shaw-Lawrence, Paul Cadmus, Ivan Albright, Philip Evergood, George Tooker, Rico, and Andrew Wyeth.

They all clearly apply Roth's definition of magical realism:

It is anchored in everyday life, but has undertones of fantasy or wonder.

Featured painters of magical realism:

Frida Kahlo
Edward hopper
Gustav Klimt
Dick ket
Marcial gomez
Mohammad rawas
Felice Casorati
Alex Colville
John rogers cox
Antonio Donghi
Marcela donoso
Gian Paolo Dulbecco
Henry Koerner
Gayane Khachaturian
Carel Willink
Colleen browning
Eyvind Earle
Rob gonsalves
Armando Adrián-López

Magical Realism in Latin American Literature

Literary magical realism emerged in Latin America. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was very common for writers to travel frequently to European cultural centers such as Berlin, Paris or Madrid, and they were influenced by the artistic movement of the time.

The writers Alejo Carpentier or Arturo Uslar-Pietri, for example, they were strongly influenced by movements such as surrealism during their stays in Paris between 192 and 1930.

However, the publication of Roh's translation in the Revista de Occidente, headed by the literary figure of Ortega y Gasset, was the trigger of the linking of pictorial and literary magical realisms.

Jorge Luis Borges inspired and encouraged other Latin American writers in the development of this new genre,

particularly in his first publication of magical realism "Universal History of Infamy”In 1935.

Between 1940 and 1950, Latin American magical realism reached its peak with a large number of mainly Argentine writers.

Western worldview and native world

The critical perspective towards magical realism as a conflict between reality and abnormality It comes from the Western reader's dissociation from mythology, a root of magical realism that non-Western cultures more easily understand.

The confusion in the West is due to the conception of the real created in a magical realist text. Rather than explaining reality using natural or physical laws, this genre creates a reality in which the relationship between incidents, characters, and surroundings cannot be based on or justified by their status within the physical world.

To understand it, the analysis made by the Guatemalan writer can help us William spindler in his article "Magical realism: a typology”, Which although it has certain objections from critics, was an act of trying categorize magic realism.

Spindler argues that there three types of magic realism, although they are in no way incompatible with each other:

  • European "metaphysician": with its sense of strangeness and strangeness, exemplified by Kafka's fiction.
  • "Ontological": characterized by "seriousness" in relating inexplicable events
  • "Anthropological": where a native worldview joins the western rational worldview.

Although there are many criticisms that Latin America is the cornerstone of all works of magical realism, it is undoubted that It is on this continent that it was used and expanded to the maximum, offering the world a large number of authors of the genre.

Featured Authors

Horacio Quiroga, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, Alejo Carpentier and Jorge Luis Borges they are the most prominent authors of magical realism.

The play "100 years of Solitude”By Gabriel García Márquez is the greatest exponent of this literary genre, and is also a worldwide phenomenon.

Another author who partly belonged to magical realism was Julio Cortazar, with works like “Bestiary" Y "Game over”.

In the case of Borges there is a caveat and that is that it must be included in a movement contrary to magical realism, by absolutely denying realism as a genre.

The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, in his prologue to the book "Reino de este mundo", defines Borges' writing with his own concept: "real wonderful”, Which although it has some similarities with magical realism, should not be assimilated to it.

There are also authors who have stood out within Magic Realism with some works, such as:

Carlos Fuentes ("Aura")
Jorge Amado ("Doña Flor and her two husbands")
Juan Ruffo ("Pedro Páramo")
Isabel Allende ("The house of the spirits")
José de la Cuadra ("The Sangurimas")
Arturo Uslar Pietri ("The Rain")
Demetrio Aguilera Malta ("Seven moons and seven serpents")
Manuel Mujica Lainez ("Bomarzo")
Laura Esquivel ("Like water for chocolate")
Mario Jorquera - "My flour"

English-speaking Magical Realism authors:

Salman rushide
Günter Grass
Toni Morrison ("Beloved")
Gloria Naylor
Louise erdrich
Sherman Alexie
Louis de Bernières
Angela carter

Literary characteristics of magical realism

There are a number of characteristics that provide a text the category of magic realism. However, they are not exclusive or exclusive, and their application in a work varies, being able to use one or many of them. Despite this, they more or less accurately represent what we can expect in a text of this style

Fantastic elements:

Magical realism portrays fantastic events in a realistic tone. It contributes fables, popular tales and myths to contemporary social relevance.

Real world settings:

The existence of fantastic elements in the real world, provides the basis for this movement. Writers do not invent new worlds, but rather reveal the magic in this world, as Gabriel García Márquez did in “One Hundred Years of Solitude”.

The author's reluctance:

The author's reluctance is "the deliberate withholding of information and explanations about the puzzling fictional world," as he explained. Amaryll Beatrice Chanady in his work "Magical realism and the fantastic: Antinomy results vs not resolved”.

The narrator is indifferent, the story proceeds with logical precision as if nothing extraordinary had happened, since magical events are presented as ordinary events, which makes the reader accepts the fantasy as normal and common.

Explaining the supernatural world, or presenting it as extraordinary, would immediately reduce its legitimacy in relation to the natural world.


The plot lines of magical realism texts characteristically employ multiple and sometimes opposing hybrid planes of reality, such as urban and rural or western and indigenous.


This trait focuses on the role of the reader in literature. With its multiple realities and its specific reference to the world of the reader, it explores the impact that fiction has on reality and vice versa; leaving the reader in the middle of it.

In this way, it is an ideal tool to draw attention to social or political criticism.

Increased awareness of mystery:

Who best described this concept was Luis Leal, who expresses this feeling as “take advantage of the mystery that breathes behind things”. It is a literature at an intensified level, where the reader must abandon the links they have with the conventional (advancement of the plot, linear time structure, scientific basis, etc.), to try to obtain a greater state of consciousness of connection with life or with hidden meanings, something that is present in almost all works of magical realism and is very explicit in "One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Magical realism in film

While magical realism is not a recognized film genre officially, we can find many of its characteristics in various films, which are presented in a practical way or without explanation.

Like water for Chocolate”(1992) was the first great exponent, something not strange considering that it is based on a book of this genre. However, there are other films that convey elements of this movement such as:

The Green Mile (1999)
Amélie (2001)
Pan's Labyrinth (2006)
Birdman (2014)

On the other hand, Woody Allen is a director who likes to convey elements of magical realism, which can be seen in many of his films such as:

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
Alice (1990)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
To Rome with love / From Rome with love (2012)

Gunter Grass Image:Stock Photos - fulya atalay on Shutterstock

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