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Magic realism or magical realism is a genre where magic elements are a natural part in an otherwise mundane, realistic environment. Although it is most commonly used as a literary genre, magic realism also applies to film and the visual arts.
One example of magic realism occurs when a character in the story continues to be alive beyond the normal length of life and this is subtly depicted by the character being present throughout many generations. On the surface the story has no clear magical attributes and everything is conveyed in a real setting, but such a character breaks the rules of our real world. The author may give precise details of the real world such as the date of birth of a reference character and the army recruitment age, but such facts help to define an age for the fantastic character of the story that would turn out to be an abnormal occurrence such as someone living for two hundred years.
The term is broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous: Professor Matthew Strecher defines magic realism as "what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe." Many writers are categorized as "magical realists," which confuses what the term really means and how wide its definition is.
While the term magical realism in its modern sense first appeared in 1955, the German art critic Franz Roh first used the phrase in 1925, to refer to a painterly style also known as Neue Sachlichkeit (the New Objectivity), an alternative championed by fellow German museum director Gustav Hartlaub. Roh believed magic realism is related to, but distinctive from, surrealism, due to magic realism's focus on the material object and the actual existence of things in the world, as opposed to the more cerebral, psychological and subconscious reality that the surrealists explored. Magic realism was later used to describe the uncanny realism by American painters such as Ivan Albright, Paul Cadmus, George Tooker and other artists during the 1940s and 1950s. However, in contrast with its use in literature, magical realist art does not often include overtly fantastic or magical content, but rather looks at the mundane through a hyper-realistic and often mysterious lens. The extent to which magical elements enter in visual art depends on the subcategory, discussed in detail below.
Determining who coined the term magical realism (as opposed to magic realism) is controversial among literary critics. Maggie Ann Bowers argues that it first emerged in the 1955 essay "Magical Realism in Spanish American Fiction" by critic Angel Flores. She notes that while Flores names Jorge Luis Borges as the first magical realist (some critics consider him a predecessor, not actually a magical realist), he fails to acknowledge either Alejo Carpentier or Arturo Uslar-Pietri for bringing Roh's magic realism to Latin America. However, both Luis Leal and Irene Guenther, (referencing Pietri and Jean Weisgerber texts, respectively), attest that Pietri was one of the first, if not the first, to apply the term to Latin American literature.
The extent to which the characteristics below apply to a given magic realist text varies. Every text is different and employs a smattering of the qualities listed here. However, they accurately portray what one might expect from a magic realist text.
Magical realism portrays fantastical events in an otherwise realistic tone. It brings fables, folk tales, and myths into contemporary social relevance. Fantasy traits given to characters, such as levitation, telepathy, and telekinesis, help to encompass modern political realities that can be phantasmagorical.
The existence of fantasy elements in the real world provides the basis for magical realism. Writers don't invent new worlds but reveal the magical in this world, as was done by Gabriel García Márquez who wrote the seminal work of the style, One Hundred Years of Solitude. In the binary world of magical realism, the supernatural realm blends with the natural, familiar world.
Authorial reticence is the "deliberate withholding of information and explanations about the disconcerting fictitious world." The narrator is indifferent, a characteristic enhanced by this absence of explanation of fantastic events; the story proceeds with "logical precision" as if nothing extraordinary took place. Magical events are presented as ordinary occurrences; therefore, the reader accepts the marvelous as normal and common. Explaining the supernatural world or presenting it as extraordinary would immediately reduce its legitimacy relative to the natural world. The reader would consequently disregard the supernatural as false testimony.
In his essay "The Baroque and the Marvelous Real", Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier defined the baroque by a lack of emptiness, a departure from structure or rules, and an "extraordinary" abundance (plenitude) of disorienting detail (citing Mondrian as its opposite). From this angle, Carpentier views the baroque as a layering of elements, which translates easily into the post-colonial or transcultural Latin American atmosphere that he emphasizes in The Kingdom of this World. "America, a continent of symbiosis, mutations... mestizaje, engenders the baroque," made explicit by elaborate Aztec temples and associative Nahuatl poetry. These mixing ethnicities grow together with the American baroque; the space in between is where the "marvelous real" is seen. Marvelous: not meaning beautiful and pleasant, but extraordinary, strange, and excellent. Such a complex system of layering—encompassed in the Latin American "boom" novel, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude—aims towards "translating the scope of America."
Magical realism plot lines characteristically employ hybrid multiple planes of reality that take place in "inharmonious arenas of such opposites as urban and rural, and Western and indigenous." For example, as seen in Julio Cortázar's "La noche boca arriba," an individual experiences two realistic situations simultaneously in the same place but during two different time periods, centuries apart.
His dreamlike state connects these two realities; this small bit of magic makes these multiple planes of reality possible. Overall, they establish "a more deep and true reality than conventional realist techniques would illustrate."
This trait centers on the reader's role in literature. With its multiple realities and specific reference to the reader’s world, it explores the impact fiction has on reality, reality on fiction and the reader’s role in between; as such, it is well suited for drawing attention to social or political criticism. Furthermore, it is the tool paramount in the execution of a related and major magic realist phenomenon: textualization. This term defines two conditions—first, where a fictitious reader enters the story within a story while reading it, making us self-conscious of our status as readers—and secondly, where the textual world enters into the reader's (our) world. Good sense would negate this process but ‘magic’ is the flexible convention that allows it.
Something that most critics agree on is this major theme. Magic realist literature tends to read at an intensified level. Taking One Hundred Years of Solitude, the reader must let go of preexisting ties to conventional exposition, plot advancement, linear time structure, scientific reason, etc., to strive for a state of heightened awareness of life's connectedness or hidden meanings. Luis Leal articulates this feeling as "to seize the mystery that breathes behind things," and supports the claim by saying a writer must heighten his senses to the point of "estado limite" (translated as "limit state" or "extreme") in order to realize all levels of reality, most importantly that of mystery.
Magic realism contains an "implicit criticism of society, particularly the elite." Especially with regard to Latin America, the style breaks from the inarguable discourse of "privileged centers of literature." This is a mode primarily about and for "ex-centrics": the geographically, socially and economically marginalized. Therefore, magic realism's ‘alternative world’ works to correct the reality of established viewpoints (like realism, naturalism, modernism). Magic realist texts, under this logic, are subversive texts, revolutionary against socially dominant forces. Alternatively, the socially dominant may implement magical realism to disassociate themselves from their "power discourse." Theo D’haen calls this change in perspective "decentering."
Literary magic realism originated in Latin America. Writers often traveled between their home country and European cultural hubs, such as Paris or Berlin, and were influenced by the art movement of the time. Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier and Venezuelan Arturo Uslar-Pietri, for example, were strongly influenced by European artistic movements, such as Surrealism, during their stays in Paris in the 1920s and 1930s. One major event that linked painterly and literary magic realisms was the translation and publication of Franz Roh's book into Spanish by Spain's Revista de Occidente in 1927, headed by major literary figure José Ortega y Gasset. "Within a year, Magic Realism was being applied to the prose of European authors in the literary circles of Buenos Aires." Jorge Luis Borges inspired and encouraged other Latin American writers in the development of magical realism - particularly with his first magical realist publication, Historia universal de la infamia in 1935. Between 1940 and 1950, magical realism in Latin America reached its peak, with prominent writers appearing mainly in Argentina.
The theoretical implications of visual art's magic realism greatly influenced European and Latin American literature. Italian Massimo Bontempelli, for instance, considered the first magic realist creative writer, sought to present the "mysterious and fantastic quality of reality." He claimed that literature could be a means to create a collective consciousness by "opening new mythical and magical perspectives on reality," and used his writings to inspire an Italian nation governed by Fascism. Pietri was closely associated with Roh's form of magic realism and knew Bontempelli in Paris. Rather than follow Carpentier's developing versions of "the (Latin) American marvelous real," Uslar-Pietri's writings emphasize "the mystery of human living amongst the reality of life." He believed magic realism was "a continuation of the vanguardia [or Avant-garde] modernist experimental writings of Latin America."
The Mexican critic Luis Leal summed up the difficulty of defining magical realism by writing, "If you can explain it, then it's not magical realism." He offers his own definition by writing, "Without thinking of the concept of magical realism, each writer gives expression to a reality he observes in the people. To me, magical realism is an attitude on the part of the characters in the novel toward the world," or toward nature.
Leal and Irene Guenther both quote Arturo Uslar-Pietri, who described "man as a mystery surrounded by realistic facts. A poetic prediction or a poetic denial of reality. What for lack of another name could be called a magical realism." It is worth noting that Pietri, in presenting his term for this literary tendency, always kept its definition open by means of a language more lyrical and evocative than strictly critical, as in this 1948 statement. When academic critics attempted to define magical realism with scholarly exactitude, they discovered that it was more powerful than precise. Critics, frustrated by their inability to pin down the term's meaning, have urged its complete abandonment. Yet in Pietri's vague, ample usage, magical realism was wildly successful in summarizing for many readers their perception of much Latin American fiction; this fact suggests that the term has its uses, so long as it is not expected to function with the precision expected of technical, scholarly terminology."
The critical perspective towards magical realism as a conflict between reality and abnormality stems from the Western reader's disassociation with mythology, a root of magical realism more easily understood by non-Western cultures. Western confusion regarding magical realism is due to the "conception of the real" created in a magical realist text: rather than explain reality using natural or physical laws, as in typical Western texts, magical realist texts create a reality "in which the relation between incidents, characters, and setting could not be based upon or justified by their status within the physical world or their normal acceptance by bourgeois mentality."
Guatemalan author William Spindler's article, “Magic realism: a typology,” suggests that there are three kinds of magic realism, which however are by no means incompatible: European ‘metaphysical’ magic realism, with its sense of estrangement and the uncanny, exemplified by Kafka’s fiction; ‘ontological’ magical realism, characterized by ‘matter-of-factness’ in relating ‘inexplicable’ events; and ‘anthropological’ magical realism, where a Native worldview is set side by side with the Western rational worldview. Spindler’s typology of magic realism has been criticized as “an act of categorization which seeks to define Magic Realism as a culturally specific project, by identifying for his readers those (non-modern) societies where myth and magic persist and where Magic Realism might be expected to occur. There are objections to this analysis. Western rationalism models may not actually describe Western modes of thinking and it is possible to conceive of instances where both orders of knowledge are simultaneously possible.”
Alejo Carpentier originated the term lo real maravilloso (roughly the "marvelous reality") in the prologue to his novel The Kingdom of this World (1949); however, some debate whether he is truly a magical realist writer, or simply a precursor and source of inspiration. Maggie Bowers claims he is widely acknowledged as the originator of Latin American magical realism (as both a novelist and critic); she describes Carpentier's conception as a kind of heightened reality where elements of the miraculous can appear while seeming natural and unforced. She suggests that by disassociating himself and his writings from Roh's painterly magic realism, Carpentier aimed to show how—by virtue of Latin America's varied history, geography, demography, politics, myths, and beliefs—improbable and marvelous things are made possible. Furthermore, Carpentier's meaning is that Latin America is a land filled with marvels, and that "writing about this land automatically produces a literature of marvelous reality."
"The marvelous" may be easily confused with magical realism, as both modes introduce supernatural events without surprising the implied author. In both, these magical events are expected and accepted as everyday occurrences. However, the marvelous world is a unidimensional world. The implied author believes that anything can happen here, as the entire world is filled with supernatural beings and situations to begin with. Fairy tales are a good example of marvelous literature. The important idea in defining the marvelous is that readers understand that this fictional world is different from the world where they live. The "marvelous" one-dimensional world differs from the bidimensional world of magical realism, as in the latter, the supernatural realm blends with the natural, familiar world (arriving at the combination of two layers of reality: bidimensional). While some use the terms magical realism and lo real maravilloso interchangeably, the key difference lies in the focus.
Critic Luis Leal attests that Carpentier was an originating pillar of the magical realist style by implicitly referring to the latter's critical works, writing that "The existence of the marvelous real is what started magical realist literature, which some critics claim is the truly American literature." It can consequently be drawn that Carpentier's "lo real maravilloso" is especially distinct from magical realism by the fact that the former applies specifically to America. On that note, Lee A. Daniel categorizes critics of Carpentier into three groups: those that don't consider him a magical realist whatsoever (Ángel Flores), those that call him "a mágicorealista writer with no mention of his "lo real maravilloso" (Gómez Gil, Jean Franco, Carlos Fuentes)," and those that use the two terms interchangeably (Fernando Alegria, Luis Leal, Emir Rodriguez Monegal).
Criticism that Latin America is the birthplace and cornerstone of all things magic realist is quite common. Ángel Flores does not deny that magical realism is an international commodity but articulates that it has a Hispanic birthplace, writing that, "Magical realism is a continuation of the romantic realist tradition of Spanish language literature and its European counterparts." Flores is not alone on this front; there is argument between those who see magical realism as a Latin American invention and those who see it as the global product of a postmodern world. Irene Guenther concludes, "Conjecture aside, it is in Latin America that [magical realism] was primarily seized by literary criticism and was, through translation and literary appropriation, transformed." Magic realism has taken on an internationalization: dozens of non-Hispanic writers are categorized as such, and many believe that it truly is an international commodity.
Taking into account that, theoretically, magical realism was born in the 20th century, some have argued that connecting it to postmodernism is a logical next step. To further connect the two concepts, there are descriptive commonalities between the two that Belgian critic Theo D'haen addresses in his essay, "Magical Realism and Postmodernism." While authors such as Günter Grass, Thomas Bernhard, Peter Handke, Italo Calvino, John Fowles, Angela Carter, John Banville, Michel Tournier, Giannina Braschi, Willem Brakman and Louis Ferron might be widely considered postmodernist, they can "just as easily be categorized...magic realist." A list has been compiled of characteristics one might typically attribute to postmodernism, but which also could describe literary magic realism: "self-reflexiveness, metafiction, eclecticism, redundancy, multiplicity, discontinuity, intertextuality, parody, the dissolution of character and narrative instance, the erasure of boundaries, and the destabilization of the reader." To further connect the two, magical realism and postmodernism share the themes of post-colonial discourse, in which jumps in time and focus cannot really be explained with scientific but rather with magical reasoning; textualization (of the reader); and metafiction [more detail: under Themes and Qualities].
Concerning attitude toward audience, the two have, some argue, a lot in common. Magical realist works do not seek to primarily satisfy a popular audience, but instead, a sophisticated audience that must be attuned to noticing textual "subtleties." While the postmodern writer condemns escapist literature (like fantasy, crime, ghost fiction), he/she is inextricably related to it concerning readership. There are two modes in postmodern literature: one, commercially successful pop fiction, and the other, philosophy, better suited to intellectuals. A singular reading of the first mode will render a distorted or reductive understanding of the text. The fictitious reader—such as Aureliano from 100 Years of Solitude—is the hostage used to express the writer’s anxiety on this issue of who is reading the work and to what ends, and of how the writer is forever reliant upon the needs and desires of readers (the market). The magic realist writer with difficulty must reach a balance between saleability and intellectual integrity. Wendy Faris, talking about magic realism as a contemporary phenomenon that leaves modernism for postmodernism, says, "Magic realist fictions do seem more youthful and popular than their modernist predecessors, in that they often (though not always) cater with unidirectional story lines to our basic desire to hear what happens next. Thus they may be more clearly designed for the entertainment of readers."
When attempting to define what something is, it is often helpful to define what something is not. It is also important to note that many literary critics attempt to classify novels and literary works in only one genre, such as "romantic" or "naturalist," not always taking into account that many works fall into multiple categories. Much discussion is cited from Maggie Ann Bowers' book Magic(al) Realism, wherein she attempts to delimit the terms magic and magical realism by examining the relationships with other genres such as realism, surrealism, fantastic literature, science fiction and its African version, the Animist Realism.
Realism is an attempt to create a depiction of actual life; a novel does not simply rely on what it presents but how it presents it. In this way, a realist narrative acts as framework by which the reader constructs a world using the raw materials of life. Understanding both realism and magical realism within the realm of a narrative mode is key to understanding both terms. Magical realism "relies upon the presentation of real, imagined or magical elements as if they were real. It relies upon realism, but only so that it can stretch what is acceptable as real to its limits."
As a simple point of comparison, Roh's differentiation between expressionism and post-expressionism as described in German Art in the 20th Century, may be applied to magic realism and realism. Realism pertains to the terms "history," "mimetic," "familiarization," "empiricism/logic," "narration," "closure-ridden/reductive naturalism," and "rationalization/cause and effect." On the other hand, magic realism encompasses the terms "myth/legend," "fantastic/supplementation," "defamiliarization," "mysticism/magic," "meta-narration," "open-ended/expansive romanticism," and "imagination/negative capability."
Surrealism is often confused with magical realism as they both explore illogical or non-realist aspects of humanity and existence. There is a strong historical connection between Franz Roh's concept of magic realism and surrealism, as well as the resulting influence on Carpentier's marvelous reality; however, important differences remain. Surrealism "is most distanced from magical realism [in that] the aspects that it explores are associated not with material reality but with the imagination and the mind, and in particular it attempts to express the 'inner life' and psychology of humans through art." It seeks to express the sub-conscious, unconscious, the repressed and inexpressible. Magical realism, on the other hand, rarely presents the extraordinary in the form of a dream or a psychological experience. "To do so," Bowers writes, "takes the magic of recognizable material reality and places it into the little understood world of the imagination. The ordinariness of magical realism's magic relies on its accepted and unquestioned position in tangible and material reality."
Prominent English-language fantasy writers have said that "magic realism" is only another name for fantasy fiction. Gene Wolfe said, "magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish," and Terry Pratchett said magic realism "is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy."
However, Amaryll Beatrice Chanady distinguishes magical realist literature from fantasy literature ("the fantastic") based on differences between three shared dimensions: the use of antinomy (the simultaneous presence of two conflicting codes), the inclusion of events that cannot be integrated into a logical framework, and the use of authorial reticence. In fantasy, the presence of the supernatural code is perceived as problematic, something that draws special attention—where in magical realism, the presence of the supernatural is accepted. In fantasy, while authorial reticence creates a disturbing effect on the reader, it works to integrate the supernatural into the natural framework in magical realism. This integration is made possible in magical realism as the author presents the supernatural as being equally valid to the natural. There is no hierarchy between the two codes. The ghost of Melquíades in Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude or the baby ghost in Toni Morrison's Beloved who visit or haunt the inhabitants of their previous residence are both presented by the narrator as ordinary occurrences; the reader, therefore, accepts the marvelous as normal and common.
To Dr. Clark Zlotchew, the differentiating factor between the fantastic and magical realism is that in fantastic literature, such as Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," there is a hesitation experienced by the protagonist, implied author or reader in deciding whether to attribute natural or supernatural causes to an unsettling event, or between rational or irrational explanations. Fantastic literature has also been defined as a piece of narrative in which there is a constant faltering between belief and non-belief in the supernatural or extraordinary event.
In Leal's view, writers of fantasy literature, such as Borges, can create "new worlds, perhaps new planets. By contrast, writers like García Márquez, who use magical realism, don't create new worlds, but suggest the magical in our world." In magical realism, the supernatural realm blends with the natural, familiar world. This twofold world of magical realism differs from the onefold world that can be found in fairy-tale and fantasy literature.
The Animist Realism is a new term for conceptualize the African literature that has been written based on the strong presence of the imaginary ancestor, the traditional religion and especially the animism of African cultures.
While science fiction and magical realism both bend the notion of what is real, toy with human imagination, and are forms of (often fantastical) fiction, they differ greatly. Bower's cites Aldous Huxley's Brave New World as a novel that exemplifies the science fiction novel's requirement of a "rational, physical explanation for any unusual occurrences." Huxley portrays a world where the population is highly controlled with mood enhancing drugs, which are controlled by the government. In this world, there is no link between copulation and reproduction. Humans are produced in giant test tubes, where chemical alterations during gestation determine their fates. Bowers argues that, "The science fiction narrative's distinct difference from magical realism is that it is set in a world different from any known reality and its realism resides in the fact that we can recognize it as a possibility for our future. Unlike magical realism, it does not have a realistic setting that is recognizable in relation to any past or present reality."
Although critics and writers debate which authors or works fall within the magical realism genre, the following authors represent the narrative mode. Within the Latin American world, the most iconic of magical realist writers are Jorge Luis Borges and Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez, whose novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was an instant worldwide success.
García Márquez confessed: "my most important problem was destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic." Isabel Allende was the first Latin American woman writer recognized outside the continent. Her most well-known novel, The House of the Spirits, is arguably similar to García Márquez's style of magical realist writing. Another notable novelist is Laura Esquivel, whose Like Water for Chocolate tells the story of the domestic life of women living on the margins of their families and society. The novel's protagonist, Tita, is kept from happiness and marriage by her mother. "Her unrequited love and ostracism from the family lead her to harness her extraordinary powers of imbuing her emotions to the food she makes. In turn, people who eat her food enact her emotions for her. For example, after eating a wedding cake Tita made while suffering from a forbidden love, the guests all suffer from a wave of longing. The Mexican Juan Rulfo pioneered the exposition through a non-linear structure with his short novel Pedro Páramo that tells the story of Comala both as a lively town in times of the eponymous Pedro Páramo and as a ghost town through the eyes of his son Juan Preciado who returns to Comala to fulfil a promise to her dead mother..
In the English-speaking world, major authors include British Indian writer Salman Rushdie, African American novelists Toni Morrison and Gloria Naylor, Latinos, as Ana Castillo, Rudolfo Anaya, and Helena Maria Viramontes, Native American authors Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie; English author Louis de Bernières and English feminist writer Angela Carter. Perhaps the best known is Rushdie, whose "language form of magical realism straddles both the surrealist tradition of magic realism as it developed in Europe and the mythic tradition of magical realism as it developed in Latin America." Morrison's most notable work, Beloved, tells the story of a mother who, haunted by the ghost of her child, learns to cope with memories of her traumatic childhood as an abused slave and the burden of nurturing children into a harsh and brutal society.
In Norway, the writers Erik Fosnes Hansen, Jan Kjærstad as well as the young novelist, Rune Salvesen, have marked themselves as premier writers of magical realism, something which has been seen as very un-Norwegian.
For a detailed list of authors and works considered magical realist please see Magic realism novels.
The painterly style began evolving as early as the first decade of the 20th century, but 1925 was when magischer realismus and neue sachlichkeit were officially recognized as major trends. This was the year that Franz Roh published his book on the subject, Nach Expressionismus: Magischer Realismus: Probleme der neuesten europäischen Malerei (translated as After Expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the Newest European Painting) and Gustav Hartlaub curated the seminal exhibition on the theme, entitled simply Neue Sachlichkeit (translated as New Objectivity), at the Kunsthalle Mannheim in Mannheim, Germany. Irene Guenthe refers most frequently to the New Objectivity, rather than magical realism; which is attributed to that New objectivity is practical based, referential (to real practicing artists), while the magical realism is theoretical or critic's rhetoric. Eventually under Massimo Bontempelli guidance, the term magic realism was fully embraced by the German as well as in Italian practicing communities.
New Objectivity saw an utter rejection of the preceding impressionist and expressionist movements, and Hartlaub curated his exhibition under the guideline: only those, "who have remained true or have returned to a positive, palpable reality," in order to reveal the truth of the times," would be included. The style was roughly divided into two subcategories: conservative, (neo-)classicist painting, and generally left-wing, politically motivated Verists. The following quote by Hartlaub distinguishes the two, though mostly with reference to Germany; however, one might apply the logic to all relevant European countries. "In the new art, he saw"
a right, a left wing. One, conservative towards Classicism, taking roots in timelessness, wanting to sanctify again the healthy, physically plastic in pure drawing after nature...after so much eccentricity and chaos [a reference to the repercussions of World War I]... The other, the left, glaringly contemporary, far less artistically faithful, rather born of the negation of art, seeking to expose the chaos, the true face of our time, with an addiction to primitive fact-finding and nervous baring of the self... There is nothing left but to affirm it [the new art], especially since it seems strong enough to raise new artistic willpower.
Both sides were seen all over Europe during the 1920s and 1930s, ranging from the Netherlands to Austria, France to Russia, with Germany and Italy as centers of growth. Indeed, Italian Giorgio de Chirico, producing works in the late 1910s under the style arte metafisica (translated as Metaphysical art), is seen as a precursor and as having an "influence...greater than any other painter on the artists of New Objectivity."
Further afield, American painters were later (in the 1940s and 1950s, mostly) coined magical realists; a link between these artists and the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s was explicitly made in the New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition, tellingly titled "American Realists and Magic Realists." French magical realist Pierre Roy, who worked and showed successfully in the US, is cited as having "helped spread Franz Roh's formulations" to the United States.
When art critic Franz Roh applied the term magic realism to visual art in 1925, he was designating a style of visual art that brings extreme realism to the depiction of mundane subject matter, revealing an "interior" mystery, rather than imposing external, overtly magical features onto this everyday reality. Roh explains,
We are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world that celebrates the mundane. This new world of objects is still alien to the current idea of Realism. It employs various techniques that endow all things with a deeper meaning and reveal mysteries that always threaten the secure tranquility of simple and ingenuous things.... it is a question of representing before our eyes, in an intuitive way, the fact, the interior figure, of the exterior world.
In painting, magical realism is a term often interchanged with post-expressionism, as Ríos also shows, for the very title of Roh's 1925 essay was "Magical Realism:Post-Expressionism." Indeed, as Dr. Lois Parkinson Zamora of the University of Houston writes, "Roh, in his 1925 essay, described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists." 
Roh used this term to describe painting that signaled a return to realism after expressionism's extravagances, which sought to redesign objects to reveal the spirits of those objects. Magical realism, according to Roh, instead faithfully portrays the exterior of an object, and in doing so the spirit, or magic, of the object reveals itself. One could relate this exterior magic all the way back to the 15th century. Flemish painter Van Eyck (1395–1441) highlights the complexity of a natural landscape by creating illusions of continuous and unseen areas that recede into the background, leaving it to the viewer's imagination to fill in those gaps in the image: for instance, in a rolling landscape with river and hills. The magic is contained in the viewer's interpretation of those mysterious unseen or hidden parts of the image.
Other important aspects of magical realist painting, according to Roh, include:
The pictorial ideals of Roh's original magic realism attracted new generations of artists through the latter years of the 20th century and beyond. In a 1991 New York Times review, critic Vivien Raynor remarked that "John Stuart Ingle proves that Magic Realism lives" in his "virtuoso" still life watercolors. Ingle's approach, as described in his own words, reflects the early inspiration of the magic realism movement as described by Roh; that is, the aim is not to add magical elements to a realistic painting, but to pursue a radically faithful rendering of reality; the "magic" effect on the viewer comes from the intensity of that effort: "I don't want to make arbitrary changes in what I see to paint the picture, I want to paint what is given. The whole idea is to take something that's given and explore that reality as intensely as I can."
While Ingle represents a "magic realism" that harks back to Roh's ideas, the term "magic realism" in mid-20th century visual art tends to refer to work that incorporates overtly fantastic elements, somewhat in the manner of its literary counterpart.
Occupying an intermediate place in this line of development, the work of several European and American painters whose most important work dates from the 1930s through to the 1950s, including Bettina Shaw-Lawrence, Paul Cadmus, Ivan Albright, Philip Evergood, George Tooker, Ricco, even Andrew Wyeth, is designated as "magic realist." This work departs sharply from Roh's definition, in that it (according to artcyclopedia.com) "is anchored in everyday reality, but has overtones of fantasy or wonder." In the work of Cadmus, for example, the surreal atmosphere is sometimes achieved via stylized distortions or exaggerations that are not realistic.
Recent "magic realism" has gone beyond mere "overtones" of the fantastic or surreal to depict a frankly magical reality, with an increasingly tenuous anchoring in "everyday reality." Artists associated with this kind of magic realism include Marcela Donoso and Gregory Gillespie.
Magical realism is not an officially recognized film category; it is a literary film genre. It is presented matter of factly and occurs without explanation. Critics have recognized magical realism features in many films by applying the magical realism characteristics. Many films have magical realist narrative and events that contrast between real and magical elements, or different modes of production. This device explores the reality of what exists. Fredrick Jameson, "On Magic Realism in Film" advances a hypothesis that magical realism in film is a formal mode that is constitutionally depended on a type of historical raw material in which disjunction is structurally present. Like Water for Chocolate begins and ends with the first person narrative to establishing the magical realism storytelling frame. Telling a story from a child point of view, the historical gaps and holes perspective, and with cinematic color heightening the presence, are magical realist tools in films. Other films that convey elements of magic realism are Amélie, The Green Mile, Undertow, The Mistress of Spices, and a number of films by Woody Allen, including Alice, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Midnight in Paris and To Rome With Love. The animated films of Hayao Miyazaki often utilize magic realism. Some of the films of Emir Kusturica also contain elements of magical realism, the most famous of which is Time of the Gypsies.
In electronic literature, early author Michael Joyce's Afternoon, a story deploys the ambiguity and dubious narrator characteristic of high modernism, along with some suspense and romance elements, in a story whose meaning could change dramatically depending on the path taken through its lexias on each reading. More recently, Pamela Sacred perpetuated the genre through La Voie de l'ange, a continuation of The Diary of Anne Frank written in French by a fictional character from her Venetian Cell hypertext saga.
With reference to literature
With reference to visual art
With reference to both