Visual Images: Magical Realism & The New World Baroque

Swords and Silver Rings:
Objects and Expression in Magical Realism and the New World Baroque

Lois Parkinson Zamora
University of Houston

Intro | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Notes

In order for a thing to become interesting, one has only to look at it for a long time.
Gustav Flaubert

As is well known, the term "magical realism" was first uttered in a discussion of painting, when the German art critic Franz Roh, in his 1925 essay, described a group of painters whom we now categorize generally as Post-Expressionists. Roh coined the term "magical realism" to emphasize (and celebrate) these painters' return to realism after a decade or more of abstraction in art. In the introduction to the expanded Spanish-language version of Roh's essay published two years later, in 1927, by José Ortega y Gasset in his Revista de Occidente, Roh again emphasized these painters' realistic engagement of the "everyday," the "commonplace." I quote Roh: "With the word 'magic' as opposed to 'mystic,' I wish to indicate that the mystery does not descend to the represented world, but rather hides and palpitates behind it . . . . " An alternative label for this style in German painting was the New Objectivity, a term that has outlived Magical Realism as an art historical label, in part because Roh eventually disavowed his own designation. In his 1958 survey of twentieth-century German art, he explicitly retired the term magical realism, tying its demise to the status of the object itself. He writes: "In our day and age [1958], questions about the character of the object . . . have become irrelevant . . . I believe that we can demonstrate that in abstract art the greatest [achievements] are again possible." In this retrospective survey, then, Roh revises his opposition to abstraction and relegates the "countermovement" that he had labeled magical realism to ". . . one of those retardations which history likes to throw in as a breathing spell when we have experienced too many innovations" (112).

Franz Roh's 1958 shrug of dismissal has been accepted by literary critics, who have largely preferred to ignore the origins of magical realism in the visual arts. Timing has something to do with it, of course, for just as Roh was performing the last rites, literary critics were beginning to resuscitate the term for use in Latin America. And from the very outset, literary critics chose to reverse Roh's emphasis, focusing on the magic rather than the real of the texts in question. This transatlantic appropriation of magical realism took three decades to occur, and we would do well, five decades later still, to review the itinerary of the term, and reconsider its visual lineage. I say this because it seems to me that texts accurately referred to as "magical realist" do indeed raise questions about the nature of representation, and the nature of the objects represented, as realistic texts do not. While all works of fiction require that we visualize objects, realism requires of objects that they represent only themselves. They may, of course, have symbolic or psychological or metaphysical content, but their signifying function is nonetheless different from the objects in magical realist texts, which must represent not only themselves but also the potential for some kind of alternative reality, some kind of "magic": think of Clara's table in The House of the Spirits, Melquíades' magnets in One Hundred Years of Solitude, Saleem's nose in Midnight's Children. The "magic" may inhere in the object, as in the examples I've just cited, or it may precede objects and generate them: think of Mackandal's spirit force in The Kingdom of this World, Borges' idealism in "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," a story we will consider further in a moment. But whether the magic inheres in the real, or pre-exists it, objects in magical realist texts operate with symbolic energies that are distinct from those in realistic texts. Put another way, magical realist texts often conflate sight and insight, thus collapsing the literal and figurative meanings of "vision" by making what is seen the very source of insight. So I propose this generalization at the outset: magical realism is characterized by its visualizing capacity, that is, its capacity to create (magical) meanings by envisioning ordinary things in extraordinary ways.

My talk today unfolds in three parts; my first section, entitled "Franz Roh's Magical Objects," will highlight the German critic's understanding of the magic inherent in the painted objects of Post-Expressionist art. In section two, which I call "Borges' Poetic Objects," I will trace Borges' participation in the Argentine avant garde in ways related to Franz Roh participation in the German avant garde; the two were contemporaries--Roh was born in 1890, nine years before Borges--but we will find that Borges reverses Roh's understanding of the object in ways that are better labeled magical idealism than magical realism. Section three, called "García Márquez's Baroque Objects," will locate García Márquez's visualizing procedures in terms of Baroque aesthetics. So then: three parts: "Franz Roh's Magical Objects," "Borges' Ideal Objects," and "García Márquez's Baroque Objects." I have selected Borges and García Márquez because I can be fairly sure that you will have read both writers, and also because they seem to me to be at opposite ends of the spectrum among Latin American magical realists, both in style and substance. For that reason, their work will allow me to range far and wide, from 20th century Post-Expressionism to 17th century Baroque art and back again. I will be showing slides as a means of aiding us to visualize the symbolic seeing in the work of Borges and García Márquez; my analogies between painting and prose will, I hope, illuminate their very different approaches to magical realist representation. So, let's begin.

Intro | Section 1 | Section 2 | Section 3 | Notes