Thursday, July 24, 2014

Magic Realism

Magic realism is a genre of art which endows otherworldly significance to ordinary things. The suggestion of death, the hint of history invading the present, or the sense of inanimate objects coming to life is woven into mundane reality.

Robert Vickrey 1926-2011

The movement goes back at least to the 1920s and originated in literature, with a special vitality in Spanish speaking countries. In painting, the movement was defined by the “Magic Realism” show of 1943 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The curators describe artists using "sharp focus and precise representation" to "make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike and fantastic visions."
George Tooker, "Government Bureau," 1956
One of the ground rules to magic realism is that the dreamlike effect has to happen without any overtly fantastical elements, such as dragons, space ships, unicorns, or trolls—or even fantastical effects, such as glowing rays, levitation, or morphing.

"Spring" by Andrew Wyeth, 1978
Andrew Wyeth often combined familiar things from his world in strange ways, such as showing the aging Karl Kuerner lying in one of the last bits of snow on the field opposite his house to suggest the death and rebirth of spring.

Gary Ruddell, born 1951
Among contemporary artists, not everyone fits the description of "sharp focus and precise representation." Sometimes motion blurs and simple backgrounds convey the magic, as with the science-fiction-cover-artist turned gallery painter Gary Ruddell,  whose paintings often deal with points of decision, rites of passage, and the inability to communicate.

Among contemporary photographers, Gregory Crewdson stages off-kilter scenarios of ordinary people in everyday surroundings, but often in states of undress or with weird lighting that he carefully sets up in Hollywood-style shoots. It looks almost plausible, but strangely otherworldly.

In film, magic realism (or the more recent term "magical realism") might include Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amélie, Jan Jakub Kolski's Venice,  and Alfonso Arau's Like Water for Chocolate.


Luca said...

There's always something interesting to learn and discover on your blog!thanks!

The Tooker painting made me think a bit of Magritte!

Ray Cullins said...

I had forgotten my affinity for the magic realists (and tempera painting). This post covers most of my painting inspirations from college. Thanks for sharing.

Jim Douglas said...

This post made me think of Chris Van Allsburg's eerie black & white illustrations for Jumanji.

runninghead said...

Love the post James!
My Fine Art degree thesis was on Magic Realism, specifically the parallels between it's literary and visual forms. I found the German Neue Sachlichkeit movement a productive area of research, though I prefer the imagery provided by the hispanic threads myself.
We each inhabit worlds so different they're effectively unique. In our pursuit of art we expand & enhance our world it to such an extent that it really is a thing of magic.

Unknown said...

Pretty much where Spectrum seems to be headed.

Ray Cullins said...

I think it gives it much more breadth than the well-worn patterns of the classic fantasy genre. Some might think it's too broad, I'm sure.

krystal said...

I LOVE Crewdson's work! We actually used to call the two types of lighting in theatre Presentational and Representational; one is driven by the reality of the scene (is it daytime, night time, colour of moonlight, etc) and the other was driven by mood or story. I LOVE (Rodrigo)Prieto's work for this reason, too! He does a lot of this in his film, Biutiful, and Frida (with Julie Taymor), two amazingly visual movies!

CC said...

My, my James! You do know how to make a girl swoon! LOL! I LOVE magical realism in books and films. Who knew it was in art too! ;) BTW, loved Como Agua Para Chocolate, both the book and the film! Thanks for the luscious reminder!

Dan said...

I immediately thought of Chris Van Allsburg too, but I was thinking of "The Mysteries of Harris Burdick." According to the definition James gives, those drawings don't qualify because there are actual elements of fantasy, such as levitation, glowing, etc.

There seems to be an element of Magic Realism in Wes Anderson's films. Moonrise Kingdom, for example. Consider, for example, that the protagonists end up on the verge of jumping to their deaths from a church bell tower into a flooded graveyard below, during a real flood, on the roof of a church where they met a year ago at a performance of Britten's opera "Noye's Fludde." There they are struck by lightning--for the second time in the same day. Yet all the time the story maintains its sense of real people in real circumstances.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this and will be following your blog. This was an informative find re ties between lit, visual arts, and magical realism. I'm interested in Canadian, so am looking at painters like Alex Colville, and writers like Jane Urquart and Joan Clark.