This is one of the cover articles in the special issue NGV magazine, Jan/Feb 2019, to coincide with the exhibition Escher X Nendo / Between Two Worlds. The exhibition runs until early April, and is well worth seeing.
Glenda Guest, author and winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize in 2010, takes a journey through the realities and misconceptions of the term ‘magic realism’, and explains why M. C. Escher’s art challenges this genre.
Magic realism (MR): academics try to contain the term; writers, sometimes erroneously, stretch it as wide as possible; reviewers use it as an escape hatch when they cannot categorise a book that has otherworldly elements.
Different places and different countries have MR literature: some is lush and overflowing with imagery, some is sharp and delineated. Some of these places were colonised (hence the association of MR with postcolonialism) and others are old European countries.
There were, and still are, vast differences of opinion as to what constitutes literary MR. The confusion is partly caused by the term itself: ‘magic’ implies trickery, something otherworldly, fairy-like, none of which the art critic Franz Roh intended when, in 1925, he coined the phrase ‘magic realism’ to describe a new style of German painting. This was also called New Realism, Ideal Realism and Verism, but Roh considered ‘magic realism’ more appropriate because he saw ‘a mystery’ under a realistic surface (this would now, perhaps, be called the sub-text). This mystery was signposted by strange juxtapositions and distorted perspectives that twisted realism and, as in George Groz’s and Otto Dix’s works, for example, indicated the stark reality of life in between-wars Germany.
At this time, there was considerable interaction between the European art and literary worlds and Roh’s two-word description of a German visual art form soon appeared in various literary journals in France and Spain, notably in Massimo Bontempelli’s journal, 900. Other European writers transposed the painterly theory into the literary mode, resulting in literature such as Johan Daisne’s The Man Who Had His Hair Cut Short(1947) and making possible Gunter Grass’s criticism of the Second World War with The Tin Drum(1959).
European MR had a different, more cerebral, approach from that of the Latin American mythology and place-centred magical realists, who applied the term to a very different literature. The term ‘magic realism’ travelled from Europe to Latin America by literary traffic between Spain, Italy, France and countries in Latin America, and with Latin American artists as they returned home from Europe during the extended political upheaval of the Spanish Civil War. There were also, as Irene Guenther pointed out in her article ‘Magic realism in the Weimar Republic’ (1995),‘dozens of cultural luminaries … along with various artists and critics [who] found refuge in Mexico … Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela … and through translation and literary appropriation transformed it’.
Then the disagreements began.
In 1949 the Cuban Alejo Carpentier posited that Latin American MR was essentially Baroque in its nature in his essay ‘On the marvellous real in America’, which tied together the landscape, psychology, history and mythology of Latin America into a literary MR.
Angel Flores (Puerto Rico) refuted Carpentier’s definition, declaring that MR originated in the works of European writer Franz Kafka and the artist Giorgio de Chirico, whichthen developed in Latin America through the work of the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Luis Leal (Mexico-USA) in 1967 denied Flores’s definition of MR, saying ‘because it seems to me that he includes authors who do not belong to the movement. [Nor was] the movement started by Borges in 1935’. And, ‘In the stories of Borges … the principal trait is the creation of infinite hierarchies. [This does not] permeate works of magical realism, where the principal thing is … the discovery of the mysterious relationship between man and his circumstances’.
Among other characteristics, MR literature of Latin America has the essential defining feature of the extended metaphor that reveals aspects of humanity; for example, in Gabriel Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude(1967) a river of blood runs across a country from the body of a dying man to his mother in her kitchen – the unseen, emotional ties of blood between mother and son are made visible. Film has it easier in some ways: for instance, in Beasts of the Southern Wild(Benh Zeitlin, 2012)the terrors of a child rampage across the screen in beastly form and disappear when the child is, in her mind, safe.
Borges’s writing is similar to European MR – probably influenced by his years in Europe between the ages of fifteen to twenty-one – rather than the Baroquesque Latin American MR. His stories take the reader into a complex and interconnected world where the human is often overwhelmed and, as with artist M. C. Escher’s work, the reader is confronted by a different view of reality.
Whether through literature or visual art, MR manipulates time and space, and challenges the reader or viewer to consider that reality is but one layer of existence.