"Art must recreate, in full consciousness, and by means of signs, the total life of the universe; that is to say, the soul where the varied dream we call the universe is played."
Teodor de Wyzewa, 1886 

Magic Realism (or Magical Realism) in literature has been extensively explored, but its role in visual art exists between the smile of the Mona Lisa and that of the Cheshire cat. Perhaps this is due to the nature of Magic Realism itself: It defies categorization as a formal “style” in visual art because it carries no dogma or unified voice—preferring to speak in a myriad of intermingled whispers or rumbling undertones of waves from a distant shore. It suggests unlikely or absurd possibilities, but refrains from defining them. It assumes a wide range of forms and attributes, yet adheres to no consistent visual language. Shrouded in an internal dialogue with ambivalence and mystery, it arises from the deepest heart of poetry. Above all, it avoids “common sense.” That’s the nature of magic.


We live in a world that is not as it seems. Human imagination defies gravity and physics, transcending the four-dimensional world. We awaken from a dream, but how do we know it is a dream we are awakening from, or if we are simply entering another dream disguised as reality? What if our waking reality is a dream? In a theological context, this is the illusion—the paradox that Buddha addressed—and what modern physics now recognizes: The world as we know it is neither solid, predictable, nor objective at all. In fact, it may be more of an illusion than we ever imagined. 


Michael Cook is a painter, an "old soul" who has witnessed the passing parade of a multitude of art styles, schools, and perspectives during the course of exploring and observing visual art throughout his lifetime. His own paintings, partly in a “Magic Realist” vein, are available online at: www.artinsight.com

In the same way, Magic Realist paintings present questions, but do not provide answers. They encourage us to float into nether-regions of wonder—suspending rationality, and allowing us to shift into unknown, or even unknowable realms.


Like the more formal tradition of Surrealist art, Magic Realism draws inspiration from the convoluted whimsy and distorted logic of dreams because it creates a metaphysical universe all its own. But unlike Surrealism, it cannot be contained within a precise ideology; it has never been subjected to a “manifesto” (such as Andre Breton insisted upon for Surrealist ideology, but which most Surrealists subsequently ignored, shunned, or even came to despise). Unlike Surrealism, Magic Realism knows no boundaries of time, culture, geography, or consistent appearance. Like Surrealism, however, it also questions the very nature of reality itself. 

In visual terms, the two forms of art share many similar characteristics. Some argue they are interchangeable. Despite never being recognized as a formal “school” or movement in art, Magic Realism has a long history. Steeped in the traditions of magic, one could say its heritage reaches all the way back to the prehistoric cave paintings. It is a spirit, an attitude, a way of seeing and sensing that has always been with us—a viewpoint that has been represented in art from the beginning. The awe of nature and a mystical orientation to the world has always been an integral aspect of art—and of magic. The desire to lift that veil and peer into inscrutable possibilities is a more important quest than ever. And fantasy has always been a human trait. In short, magic—and Magic Realism—has always been with us. Appropriately, it is enjoying a resurgence in modern art.


Grounded in academically precise representation, one form of Magic Realism generates its psychic power precisely because it is so disarmingly real—yet all the elements don’t quite add up in a logical or consistent way. Think of Rene Magritte’s naturalistic rendering of a boulder floating above the waves, or his ‘reverse mermaid’ with the legs of a woman and the head of a fish. (Magritte, of course, is considered a Surrealist, but follows a much older tradition of Magic Realism; he just happened to be producing his art at a time and place where the two traditions coincided).

Why shouldn’t we allow ourselves to challenge what we see, feel, and take for granted? On what basis do we trust our neural perceptions to reveal what may be nothing more than a projection of consensual reality?

Another form of Magic Realism arises from an animistic approach that holds no preconceived notions about what is “real.” This variety is more akin to the primal stirrings first felt by the Neanderthal, in an attempt to make sense of the mysterious world that he or she confronted outside the cave. This form of Magic Realism does not try to fool us into believing we are seeing something that could be, but strives to re-create the awe itself. Its visual language is more involved with shamanistic, or so-called “primitive” art. It may appear childlike or whimsical. Some current “outsider” art is involved in these explorations.

Most Magic Realism is involved at least to some degree with the depiction of the physical world as it “seems to be”—but interjecting fantastical elements, either subtly or dramatically. There is an entire spectrum in Magic Realism, from perfectly staid, representational work—to the grotesque and bizarre. Surrealism gravitates toward the latter, as in Salvador Dali’s, and some of Max Ernst’s work. Along that continuum, artists such as George Tooker investigated the subtle interactions of people with their environment—and their alienation from each other. There is an eerie, menacing undertone to Tooker’s work, despite everything existing in a plausible “realism”. A good example is his painting, The Government Bureau.

Contemporary Magic Realism also covers a wide spectrum of imagery ranging in atmosphere from “daylight” to “night”—the darker, edgier underside of experience. From reasonably comfortable, fluid worlds of colorful, bright and airy genre scenes where everything glows in enchanted wonderment, to the extremes of anguished vision, Magic Realism revels in such contradictions and irony. That’s the nature of magic.


At the “dark” end of the spectrum is the Norwegian artist Odd Nerdrum, whose paintings exude an oppressive, almost suffocating atmosphere of malaise, disappointment, homicide, and grief. They achieve their visual power through a stark, impeccably rendered realism—a “believable” world inhabited by tortured souls, ghosts, and malevolent spirits. Viewers may shudder at his work, yet no one could deny this artist’s ability; he paints with the uncanny skill of an Old Master. The psychical power of it is almost supernatural—something that cannot be said of most contemporary art. The dreamlike quality of his paintings succeeds in placing the viewer at the very heart of emotional wounds.

The limitations of logic occur in the contradictory visual information presented in the work of M.C. Escher. While he is not noted as a Magic Realist per se (remember: there is no formal “school” espousing this), his etchings nevertheless raise questions about the validity of what we see and perceive, versus the ways we think architecture should fit together, for example. He has created in these topsy-turvy towns and interiors some interesting visual puzzles, where we cannot even discern up from down, much less how one could possibly navigate inside them. This is an enduring conundrum of Magic Realism. It exhorts you to “forget what you ‘know’ based on cultural conditioning, and trust your instincts”. That’s the nature of magic.

It’s difficult to separate the influences of Magic Realist paintings from other traditions, because at its most basic level, creating visual magic is what art is all about. The more one peers beneath the surface and beyond arbitrary art history categories, the more visual magic is revealed.

Magic Realism not only predates, but also post-dates Surrealism. As noted above, its influence occurs in art from the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, to contemporary art. In the 1400s, Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch painted wildly hallucinogenic imagery, albeit with religious overtones. Many of the 19th century ‘Symbolists’ (such as Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau) included “Magic realist” fantasy elements in their work, as did members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood in England: William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. There are aspects of it in the American Hudson River School of the 19th century as well, as in Albert Pinkham Ryder’s paintings of the same period.

We encounter Renaissance paintings that stretched realism through allegory and metaphor, bending “reality” to their own ends. Later, the Italian painter Giorgio di Chirico’s “metaphysical paintings” presaged the Surrealists’ ideas. Indeed, his work is considered by many of them as a forerunner of their movement; his preoccupation with stark, gloomy urban spaces inspired and provoked their sensibilities. The eerie, forlorn pathos he created shares characteristics common to both Surrealism and Magic Realism. The airless dream worlds of Paul Delvaux represent another Surrealist who didn’t quite ‘fit in’ with the formal group. And Max Ernst refused to be directed in any way by dogma or manifestos, preferring the muse of antiquity and the collective unconscious. Ivan Albright, who was not part of the Surrealists’ social circle, articulated the essence of time and ossification through his somber portraits. Today, artists such as Donald Roller Wilson use humor and satire as an adjunct to express surreal, Magic Realist sentiments. The list goes on and on, but there is still no solid demarcation between the two groups.


Today, Magic Realism as an art form may have come full-circle. That is, with the revelations of quantum physics informing our world-view, it’s time to re-evaluate our relationship with the cosmos, the unfolding “new spirituality,” (including investigations of the structure of the atom, gravity, and magnetism itself, as well as ‘theology’)—together with an evolving understanding of (or questions about) what exactly constitutes “reality.” (At the same time, in our quest for empirical knowledge, we must not overlook the beauty of the unreal, the world of imagination, as this is the essence of infinite probability.) While this awareness has influenced art movements from Abstract Expressionism to a ‘return’ to realism evidenced by Photorealism, et al, it is with a new understanding of the principles of contemporary physics and cosmological/spiritual insight that allows us to forge ahead into a conscious exploration of realms alluded to by extra-dimensional shifts in perception. These revelations deserve exploration by artists no less than they do by physicists. We are in ‘a new land’—subject to the vagaries of quarks, subatomic ‘entanglement’ of photons across the Universe, superstring theory, and multi-dimensional realities. What was once considered the province of metaphysics has become common knowledge. Art points the way, as it always has.

Looking around art museums and galleries today, one gets the distinct impression that all is in a state of flux, everything is subject to scrutiny. This reflects our contemporary ‘reality.’ Lines blur between the various schools, movements, and aesthetic response to any cultural era; consciousness has replaced technique and subject matter as an influence on modern art. This is as it should be. When magic is invoked, art cannot deny the resulting landscape—whether it harks back to the drawings on cave walls, or contemporary installations in high-tech spaces that have no walls. Art is not about walls at all—it is about windows. The metaphysical viewpoints representative of human culture expands our awareness into other forms of perception. Magic Realism above all asserts not what is, but what could be. That’s the nature of magic.

© 2005, Michael Cook

Read also Bjørn J. Berger's artikkel: What really is Magic Realism?


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