6 Artists Associated With Magic Realism You Should Know

The term magic realism was coined by Franz Roh in the 1920s. He believed people could explore the complexities of their inner selves through art.

Apr 20, 2024By Mihaela Gutu, MA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and Literature

magic realism artists–know


Nowadays, when people hear the words magic realism, they automatically think of literature and, most probably, of Gabriel García Márquez, thought to be the father of the genre. However, the term magic realism was not originally used in literature. It was coined in the 1920s by the historian, photographer, and art critic Franz Roh in a book called Post-Expressionism: Magic Realism: Problems of the Newest European Painting, published in 1925. As such, we can trace the roots of magic realism to the Weimar Republic.


Origins of the Term Magic Realism

der wasserturm in bremen franz radziwill
Der Wasserturm in Bremen by Franz Radziwill, 1932. Source: Kunsthalle Bremen


The original word for magic realism is magischer Realismus. Roh used it to describe a new form of Post-Expressionist art. As opposed to the already dead Expressionist art, magic realist paintings focused on aspects such as photograph-like clarity, accurate details, and the lack of emphasis on a particular object. Roh mentioned that this new art was born on the ruins of World War I. The art critic first observed a new art trend in 1921. He noticed that artists changed their perspectives and leaned toward outlining “a new definition of the object that coldly accentuated [their] inner law.” Therefore, the artists aimed to find the magic behind the real.


still life alexander kanoldt
Still Life I by Alexander Kanoldt, 1926. Source: Wikipedia


When he published his work, Roh had mixed feelings about using this term. He did not even attempt to provide a clear definition for it. Nonetheless, he did mention some characteristics throughout the book, which pointed to the fact that, contrary to the contemporary definition of magic realism, this new art depicted objects incredibly realistically, which was exactly what revealed their magic. In short, he was not referring to normal objects taking on extraordinary characteristics. By drawing inspiration from the philosophical realm, Roh argued that it was through this magic realist art that people could explore the complexities of their inner selves. It was through close observation of realistically depicted objects that one could discover magic.


Hartlaub’s New Objectivity

Portrait of the Dancer Tamara Danischewski by Otto Dix, 1933. Source: Kunstmuseum Stuttgart

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter


Roh, however, was not the first to notice this new trend in art. Two years before he published his book, Gustav Friedrich Hartlaub, a German art historian, curator, and critic, had expressed his desire to organize an art exhibition in collaboration with artists who were part of a movement he called Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. In his own words, he was looking for artists “who have remained true or have returned to a positive, palpable reality.” The painters showcased in the exhibition were the same ones whom Roh called magic realists.


Hartlaub described two branches of the New Objectivity movement: the left wing (verists) and the right wing (classicists). Although the works of both verists and classicists retained characteristics of what Roh called magic realism, classicists were closer to his concept. Take Otto Dix, for instance, a renowned verist. While his works are indeed smooth and extremely detailed portrayals of the rough reality and the unpleasantness of the mundane, they also have a touch of excess, grotesque, and caricature.


Magic Realism vs. New Objectivity

War Veterans’ Association by Georg Scholz, 1922. Source: Kunsthalle Karlsruhe


Over the years, the term New Objectivity gained more recognition and influence, so Roh himself decided to drop both magic realism and post-expressionism when he published another book called German Art in the Twentieth Century. Nonetheless, Hartlaub’s term was used only to describe German artists, whereas Roh’s descriptions were more extensive and aimed at European painting.


It is through Massimo Bontempelli’s influence that the term magic realism gained European recognition. Two years after Roh had published his work, Bontempelli used the words realismo magico when discussing both visual and literary arts. Considering that his journal 900 was published in French and Italian, the concept of the newly formed art trend quickly spread throughout Europe. The worldwide recognition of magic realism was primarily brought by the Latin American Revista de Occidente, which published the translated version of Roh’s statements and inspired artists to adopt the tendency.


Characteristics of Magic Realism

Boys at the Window by Antonio Donghi, 1947. Source: Tutt Art


Although Roh did not offer a comprehensive definition of magic realism, he did outline certain characteristics in his book. The most important ones include themes inspired by day-to-day life, image sharpness, no visible brushstrokes, lack of handicraft signs, equal focus on all objects added to the composition, depicting the unpleasant, preference for the static instead of the dynamic, and lack of sentimental visions of objects. As per Roh, magic realist painting should have both close and far views and reveal the miniature.


Jeffrey Wechsler stated that the vagueness of magic realist paintings often frustrates viewers who do not understand where their feelings come from. An attempt to describe these pieces of artwork implies adding emotions that were not there in the first place. At first, magic realism did not include any actual magical/fantastical elements. Only later did visual arts incorporate fantastical elements upon being inspired by the way authors incorporated them in their literary works. Artists like Bettina Shaw-Lawrence, Ivan Albright, and Andrew Wyeth adopted the newly transformed magic realism which somehow separated itself from Roh’s perspective. By then, paintings pertained to the magic realist tendency if they included exact details used in highly uncanny ways and portrayed extraordinary things as if they were real. Here are some examples of magic realism in art.


1. Georg Schrimpf

Bavarian Landscape by Georg Schrimpf, 1933. Source: Meisterdrucke


Georg Schrimpf was a representative of the New Subjectivity movement, more precisely of the right wing, closer to Roh’s definition of magic realism. One of his works, Bavarian Landscape, is an excellent example of what Roh envisioned for the new art form. It depicts a forested landscape with both close and far views executed in an incredibly detailed technique. While the painter produced an almost photographic painting, thus anchoring his work in the mundane, real world, the viewer transcends reality and sees the magic within all those tiny details.


2. Alexander Kanoldt

Still Life II by Alexander Kanoldt, 1922. Source: Wikipedia


Alexander Kanoldt is another painter whose works fall within the New Objectivity/Magic Realism category. However, unlike Schrimpf, Kanoldt preferred working outside as much as possible. He thought that the outside world had enough spiritual content for him to avoid depicting a simple copy of reality. Many of his paintings are still-lifes that show multiple objects of equal importance.


3. Antonio Donghi

magical realism le villeggianti antonio donghi
Le villeggianti by Antonio Donghi, 1934. Source: Fondazione Chiara e Francesco Carraro


Antonio Donghi was an Italian painter who was a part of the magic realism movement. He was named a representative of the tendency by Roh himself. He became famous for depicting incredibly realistic scenes of day-to-day moments and people in both indoor and outdoor settings.


While he made sure to portray everything in the tiniest details, Donghi also took into consideration the close-far points of view. In addition, he beautifully balanced the colors by using softer, pastel shades. His paintings invite the viewers to unravel the magic of real life by observing its gravity and stillness.


4. Edward Hopper

early sunday morning edward hopper
Early Sunday Morning by Edward Hopper, 1930. Source: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York


Edward Hopper is among the most renowned American realist artists. Nowadays, however, his works are frequently classified under magic realism. Although they do show characteristics of realism, some unsettling undertones, as Michael Motoc calls them, cannot be easily explained by realism.


Take his Early Sunday Morning for example. The work depicts a building on 7th Avenue in New York City. The painting does not show where the building starts or ends and also showcases a shadow that, in reality, is never seen on that street because it runs from north to south. Hopper probably wanted to provide the painting with an otherworldly effect. These details seem to correspond with Roh’s idea that magic realist artists often try to depict objects as extending infinitely. Their ultimate goal is to make small things look infinite. Another uncanny thing to notice is how empty the shopping street is in Early Sunday Morning, which further deepens the unreal atmosphere of a realistically depicted place.


5. Alex Colville

To Prince Edward Island by Alex Colville, 1965. Source: National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


A Canadian painter and printmaker, Alex Colville is constantly mentioned in discussions about magic realist art. His works are said to be similar to those of Georg Schrimpf. More precisely, it is through their photograph-like aspect that one experiences their magic.


One of his most iconic works is To Prince Edward Island. It portrays a young woman sitting on the deck of a ship, looking through her binoculars. We do not know whether she’s looking toward where the ship is headed or where it is supposed to arrive. While the woman is the centerpiece of the painting, we cannot help but notice all the other details, which support Roh’s idea of far and near views and equal focus on all objects. Furthermore, the ambiguity and foreboding in Colville’s works are said to be the elements connecting them to the magic realist tendency, as they prompt viewers to observe the magic hidden beneath the mundane.


6. The Goddess of Magic Realism: Frida Kahlo

self portrait necklace thorns hummingbird frida kahlo
Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird by Frida Kahlo, 1940. Source: Harry Ransom Center, Austin


Although Frida Kahlo is now extensively classified as a surrealist painter, she herself stated she was a magic realist. Frida was rather interested in depicting her feelings and her reality than her dreams and the unconscious mind, as surrealists do. Her works feature a combination of European and Latin American magic realism.


One of Frida’s most famous paintings is Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird, which shows the artist wearing a thorn necklace that trails down her chest like the roots of a tree, making her bleed. A hummingbird is attached to the necklace, hanging from her throat. A monkey sits behind her, holding the necklace, and a black cat is seen on her other side, peeking up from the foliage. Behind her, we can see multiple leaves decorated with insects that, at the same time, look like flowers. We can also see two dragonflies floating above her butterfly clips. Frida looks calm while enduring her pain. The symbolism of this painting is at its finest and it confirms her statement that she anchors her works in her reality and, therefore, in magic realism.

Author Image

By Mihaela GutuMA Literary Translations, BA EN/DE Language and LiteratureMihaela is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. She’s an avid reader of classic literature with a background in literary studies and literary translations. She is obsessed with language grammar and syntax, so spending hours dissecting sentences and texts is a pleasure for her. Mihaela grew up in a family full of artists. Although she pursued a career in literary arts, she’s also passionate about performing arts (particularly dance) and visual arts. In her free time, Mihaela plays with her cat Cappuccino, binge-watches TV series, rereads her favorite books for the tenth time, and spends time online learning new stuff.