- by Bjørn J. Berger

The German photographer, art historian and art critic Franz Roh coined the term Magic Realism in 1925, when he published an essay and later the book Nach-Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus (Post Expressionism: Magic Realism). Roh used the term to describe the return to (a new) realism, which had taken place after World War I among a group of European expressionistic painters. However, nearly simultaneously with Roh, the museum director Gustav Hartlaub gave the style the name Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) at an exhibition Hartlaub was responsible for, and it was this term that became the commonly used name for this style until around 1960, when "Magic Realism" regained dominance.


Magic Realism today is often connected to literature, especially Latin-American works. One important reason is that literary critics mostly seem to have ignored the roots of Magic Realism, but the explanation of why Latin-American literature in particular is connected to this style is more complex.

Franz Roh's essay of 1927 had already been published in the Spanish Journal Revista Occidente, and his book was soon thereafter published in Spain and Latin-America. European authors in the literary circles of Buenos Aires became inspired. This trend was reinforced by a significant immigration of intellectuals, among them many artists and art critics who, during the 1930's had fled Germany, Czechoslovakia and Austria, and settled down in Latin-America.

Together with the strong, mythical traditions among South-American Indians, conditions were favorable for Magic Realism in Latin-America. It was also here that the term was first applied to literary works. The impression that this style "belongs" to the Latin-American continent has been strengthened by the success of "magical" authors, such as Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende, and the Nobel Literature Prize winners Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez; - even though Swiss writer Hermann Hesse, the German Günther Grass and the American Toni Morrison are considered to be magic realists.

Another important factor is that Franz Roh retired the term Magic Realism in 1958 when he made a survey of 20th century German art. Roh believed that in abstract art "...the greatest [achievements] are again possible". About the same time literary critics were beginning to resuscitate the term for use in Latin-America, and through Roh's dismissal of Magic Realism they were given nearly a free scope. One could say that the history of Magic Realism is written by the people of literature, but was created by visual artists.


The basis of Magic Realism was, as mentioned, developed by European Expressionistic painters who returned to a new and unusual style of realism. In the beginning, Franz Roh named this new style Post Expressionism, and not Magic Realism. However, Roh soon recognized that this name had no independent content, but only signaled a chronological relationship to Expressionism. Roh therefore changed the term to Magic Realism, and not to mystic realism, because "...the mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides and palpates behind it".

It is a misunderstanding to assume that Magic Realism is a style of primarily American painters, even though there are a lot of strong representatives for Magic Realism within American visual art, such as Ivan Albright, Philip Howard Evergood, Paul Cadmus, Peter Blume and George Tooker.

Actually, through his essay, Franz Roh was responding to the works of the German painters George Grosz, Otto Dix, Christian Schad, Carl Grossberg, Alexander Kanoldt, Max Beckmann, Georg Schrimpf, Franz Radziwill and Conrad Felixmuller, and the Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico, and the French painter Henri Rousseau (among others), who Franz Roh had observed, and was responding to, through his essay.


What really was Franz Roh's "Magic Realism"? An easy way to explain it, is to compare Magic Realism with Expressionism, as you can see in the table below:



Ecstatic subjects

Sober subjects

Suppression of the object

The object clarified




Puristically severe







Close-up view

Close and far views





Thick paint surfaces

Thin paint surfaces

Emphasis on seeing painting process

Effacement of painting process

Expressive deformation

External purification of object

Source: Oregon State University

According to this table, Magic Realism really turned away from the Expressionism. An essential aspect of this turn was, according to Franz Roh, that " seems to us that this fantastic dreamscape [the expressionism] has completely vanished, and that our real world re-emerges before our eyes - bathed in the clarity of a new day. We recognize this world, although now - not only because we have emerged from a dream - we look on it with new eyes". According to Roh, the objects had been lost in abstract Expressionism, but were now recovered, recreated by magic realists.

As the term Magic Realism indicates, the images contain an element of a magic dimension, despite a realistic description. An important characteristic of Magic Realism is to create scenes from ordinary and everyday life, making it fascinating, surprising and awesome, by radically emphasizing "...common elements of reality, elements that are often present but have become virtually invisible because of their familiarity" (Scott Simpkins).

According to Roh, Magic Realism is representational, and reveals the spiritual and magical in an object by faithfully portraying its visibility and making it more than real. In this respect, Magic Realism invites us into a dreamlike world, presented as "reality". Roh insisted on a clarification and purification of the painted object, and describes the effect as "...magic insight into an artistically produced ... clarified piece of reality". These views go way back to the romantic idea that art is the search for the essence of what's beyond the immediately perceivable surface.


Magic Realism occurred nearly simultaneously with Surrealism, and the two styles have much in common. The most significant difference is perhaps that while Surrealism presents the spectacular and completely improbable, Magic Realism contains a much more "real" poetry. What is magic and still in touch with "reality", and what is spectacular, is of course to a certain extent subject to discussion. This is also why several visual artists are considered belonging alternately to Magic Realism and Surrealism.

Magic Realism, in comparison to Surrealism, is not subject to any political ideology or "manifesto", and it is easy to find the roots of Magic Realism in art history. In this regard, Magic Realism is far more “organic” (i.e., less structured, more adaptable) than Surrealism, which also makes it much more difficult to give the style a clear and final definition. Because of that, the definition of what constitutes Magic Realism is far more "vulnerable" or open to interpretation by critics, than Surrealism.

What is interpreted as Magic Realism today has changed somewhat since Franz Roh published his essay in 1925. It has become more acceptable to focus on the magical element, so that the expression achieves a more fantastic and dreamlike glimmer. Definitions of what constitutes Magic Realism today also allow a greater degree of stronger mythical, scrap- and cartoon-like elements, and more deviation in the use of colors, compared with "reality". This is one of the reasons why it is now more common to detect Magic Realism in the refraction between Realism and Surrealism, and, for that matter, in the refraction between Realism and respectively Fantasy and so called Visionary Art.

It is ironic that perhaps the most important cause of this expansion can be found with Franz Roh himself, because after his abdication in 1958, the task of defining the fields of Magic Realism fell almost exclusively to literary critics. They have, all along, in contradiction to Roh, emphasized the magical rather than the realistic dimension of Magic Realism. With the threat of this development, the term might be torn apart and lose its content, mission and validity. Nevertheless, this development also tells us that Magic Realism is under investigation and in continuously development within visual art.

In recent years, Magic Realism has become the subject of increasing interest among visual artists, and is, interestingly enough, becoming significant in many computer games and in several feature films. The debate over what Magic Realism really is, has therefore hardly begun...

Read also Michael Cook's article: Whole schools of cod shun bicycles .


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