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The Origin and Development of Magical Realism

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The emergence of the term Magical Realism, that is inaccurately associated with Latin American literature, sometimes naively with Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, has its roots prior to its appearance in the American Continent. Bowers (2004) divides the chronological evolution of the Magical Realism into three significant periods and locations: Germany in the 1920s, Central America in the 1940s, and Latin America followed by the rest of the world starting from 1955. In order to differentiate between the three suggested periods, Bowers attributes three variants specific to each of the aforementioned periods: Magic Realism, Marvellous Realism, and Magical Realism.

It initiated in Germany with the art critic Franz Roh and his Post-expressionism, Magic Realism: Problems of the Most Recent European Painting. In fact, there is a quasi-unanimity on the coinage of the term by Franz Roh. Franz Roh’s concept is an attempt at defining the painting wave that diverged from Expressionism claiming “a return to a more realistic style after the abstraction of Expressionism”. Roh identified a magic realist/post-expressionist trend interested in photographic and detailed representation of the “ mystical non-material aspects of reality” giving birth to a “neo-realistic” wave of paintings. Imbert (1975) and Camayd-Freixas (2014) discuss the term from a Hegelian stance; Magic Realism is an outcome of Impressionist and Expressionist dialectics. The Impressionist thesis “faithful to the nature of objects” and its Expressionist antithesis that focuses on “nonexistent” or “disfigured” objects result in the systhesis brought by Roh’s Magic Realism that offers a realistic depiction of the magical or a “New Objectivity”. The magic realist painters share with their surrealist contemporaries the same psychological interest; however, while surrealists focus on the inner and abstract reality, magic realists emphasize the concrete outer reality. Therefore, the surrealist psychoanalytical influence is added to the endeavour to represent the outer object from a defamilizied angle to form magic realism or New Objectivty. The defamiliarizing aspect does not distort the object as it is the case of surrealism and expressionism, but rather offers a realistic representation with all it magical dimension. so despite their psycholonalyical influence, Magic realists capture the inner through the concrete exterior object, unlike surrealists who stress the inner more carefully against inadequate representation of the outer world that neglects the inner side.

Roh’s critical views exclusive to painting transcended visual arts to integrated literature with the Italian Writer Massimo Bontempelli. Despite being initially influenced by Surrealism, Bontempelli’s works offer “the mysterious and fantastic quality of reality”. Thus, his endeavour corresponds to Roh’s views on Magic Realism. The Dialectics of Roh’s critical views on plastic art can apply to literature as well: The thesis of literary Realism alongside the antithesis advanced by Fantastic literature result in a category that combines both which Imbert (1975) labels as the “Strange”. However, it is the Cuban author and critic, Alejo Carpentier, who is associated with the second phase in the development of the term as listed by Bowers. The 1940s offered Carpentier’s Lo Realismo Maravillioso, translated as the Marvellous Realism, that highlights the different cultural contexts between Europe and Latin America. He considers his version as different from Roh’s Magic Realism since the latter is structured upon “tiresome pretension”. The artificial juxtaposition of the extraordinary with the real in European paintings, is inherent to the Latin American context. Carpentier seems to consider that the diverse cultural heritage of the American continent, inherent to America and absent in Europe, results the extraordinary captures by his Marvellous Realism. Therefore, his version is not a creation of an alternative reality or “New Objevity”; it is rather a realistic encapsulation of the unique Latin American reality. His contribution attempts at recovering the traditional and cultural heritage of the continent through what he perceives as an accurate depiction of an already existing reality. However, Imbert (1975) opposes Carpentier’s views considering that the continent reality is not more privileged than other realities but the literary production advances it as so.

The Third stage that Bowers advocates starts with Angles Flores’s “Magical Realism is Spanish American Fiction” (1955). In his essay, Flores offers a brief compilation of literary works claiming the origins of the emerging trend to be influenced by those European works. Starting with Cervantes’s Don Quoxite up to Kafka’s Metamorphosis and European Modernists without any reference to Roh, which Imbert (1975) denounces or Carpentier giving tribute to Borgres as the father of Magical Realism. Flores’s definition of Magical Realism as “the amalgamation of realism and fantasy” might be one the first formalist definition of Magical Realism, although not fully insightful. Despite being the first critic to name Magical Realism, as the term is perceived now, the variations of this trend do not fully correspond to Flores’s manifesto. In addition, the misconception about Magical Realism being Latin American did not hinder the latter to reach global recognition with ongoing alternation in conceptualizing the term making it more challenging to define it especially with Postmodernism.

The three terms that trace the evolution of Magical Realsim suggest many instances of divergence that are shaped by contexts of their production. Roh’s Magic Realism is exclusive to pictorial criticism of Post-expressionist canvases influenced by the advent of science and pragmatic thought, Carpentier’s Marvellous Realism tends to be geographically bound to Latin American History, and Flores’s Magical Realism, although bound to the American continent and history, too, attempts to offer a critical view on literary production. Thus the magical varies in terms in form and can be Christian, Pagan, primitive, modern, etc. However, the three variants share the innovative, experimental, irrational, subversive, disruptive, and non-orthodox endeavours in the representation of reality.

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