Written by Lindsey Ferris
Sometimes life can be mundane, and all we want is a little bit of magic to come and shake it up — a sparkle to the reality of life that makes us appreciate the everyday through a new lens. This is what magical realism does for us, whether in the realms of literature, cinema, or art. Within the genre, conflicting ideas are tied into one by magical events playing out in a realistic representation of everyday life. Sound like surrealism or fantasy to you? It’s not! Fantasy usually involves our world or a completely new reality entirely that is vaguely similar, while surrealism focuses on dreams and imaginations instead of the physical realities of the world. So where does this leave magical realism? As we can see, magical realism is of a different breed.
Magical realism was first brought to life in the early 1900s in central Europe; however, the Latin American authors of the mid-1900s authors have made it the true success it is today. Now, some would say you can’t think of magical realism without thinking of Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, a titan of Latin American literary magical realism, or Frida Kahlo, the embodiment of Latin American magical-realistic art. These creators helped define magical realism as what it is today.
The characteristics that magical realism rests on are, first, that there has to be a real world setting —whether the destination exists on a map or not. Second, magical and mythical elements must be deemed real without any justification. The rules of the world exist because the characters believe in them — no further explanation is needed. The most important and distinct quality of the genre is its ambiguity. If the setting and magical aspects were explained, then the story would lose its credibility as a ‘realistic’ story and break the image for the reader, edging into the world of fantasy. A third characteristic that defines magical realism is its vivid storytelling.
Of course, these listed characteristics extend past literary examples of the genre. They can — and should! — be applied to other mediums, as well. The brightness of storytelling can be seen in the vibrant strokes of color within paintings, the engaging storylines of a film, or even in the colorful music that urges the soul to dance.
Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter known for her self portraits inspired by nature’s beauty and Mexico’s society and culture. Her portraits are celebrated for using her pain as an inspiration and muse for her subject matter. Many of Kahlo’s artwork rests in the genre of magical realism; they portray a realistic view of herself surrounded by magical elements, different from surreal art that stresses the irrational dreamlike imagery. Self Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird is an important painting to focus on when discussing Kahlo’s magical realism because of its striking elements of animals and their unnatural behavior, all of which capture Kahlo’s own feelings of displacement in society.
Kahlo paints herself with the now-iconic joint brows and red tinted lips peeking below a faint mustache. She stands before a lush background of vibrant leaves. The magical elements include the animals closely surrounding her without fear. Butterflies nestle in her traditional Mexican hairstyle, and a monkey picks at her shoulder while a slinking black cat looms behind her. The active animals are complemented by the still hummingbird that nonchalantly rests on Kahlo’s chest like a pendant. Once a fluttering bird that moved so quickly its wings were invisible, the hummingbird is now entrapped in Kahlo’s necklace with its freedom is stripped away. This haunting feeling is echoed in the empty face of Kahlo in the self portrait. Each familiar animal is portrayed in an unfamiliar way, causing a dreamy effect for the viewer, further accentuated by Kahlo’s haunting look. The alarming necklace of thorns is another magical aspect, as it digs into her neck and causes pearls of blood to bead up without any visual discomfort from Kahlo. Frida Kahlo said, “I don’t paint my dreams. I paint my reality.” Her use of magical realism made this exploration of her reality tangible to the viewer and conveys truths and understanding that would not be possible with any other genre, surpassing the confines of realistic representation.
Tim Burton’s 1990 film, Edward Scissorhands, shares the life of a man put together by a scientist but not quite finished, as demonstrated by his scissor hands. And yet, he is still accepted into society, despite the cutting tools he has instead of hands. The nonrealistic creature is portrayed with human feelings, and is used as a critique on society’s quick judgement of people that are different. The magical elements of the film include Edward Scissorhand himself, as he functions as a modern version of the Frankenstein myth. This film is similar to many fantasy and gothic films; however, it is magical realism. The genre is used to hyperbolize the closed minded 1950s suburban neighborhood. Their sherbet colored homes with matching cars represent the characters predictably mundane lives. Edward Scissorhands is an exaggerated version of an outsider sent to challenge their conformity. The audience’s disbelief is momentarily suspended as the characters portray themselves to be living in a typical, suburban neighborhood and accepting Edward’s hands as their reality. By sharing Edward’s story through magical realism, the audience can be privy to a hyperbolized story of overcoming ostracization to become a cohesive society. If Edward was a “normal” boy and the story did not rest in magical realism, then the audience may not sympathise with his character as much as Burton would like. The genre adds to the narrative and creates a spark that grabs viewers attention.
The Columbian band, Puerto Candelaria, started in Medellin, Cloumbia, and has stated that writer Gabrielle Gárcia Márquez was the inspiration behind their sound. Their songs consist of upbeat and silly tunes that make listeners want to move their bodies and dance. Puerto Candelaria has acknowledged their sound seems young and naive, but claims that this effect is a product of Márquez’s influence. The band creates a magical realist sound through the happy horns and jovial vocals contrasting against their setting, Medellin, which was once dubbed the murder capital of the world. Within Puerto Candelaria’s music, the magical realist characteristic of vivid storytelling is heard in the cheerful tone that shines through the music and shares a tale through song. The real world setting that they are placed within is the city where their music is produced; the magical aspect is how Medellin society accepts Puerto Candelaria’s cheerful music despite the threatening city surrounding it. By using their music to create a carefree environment in a potentially dangerous city, Puerto Candelaria achieves magical realism status.
With the constant mentioning of Gabriel Gárcia Márquez, it’s safe to say he might be an important author to focus on when discussing magical realism. Published in 1968, The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World is a short story that was built on Márquez’s Columbian folklore from his hometown, Greek myths, the Bible, and Columbia’s violent history. The premise of the short tale is that a drowned man washes up on shore and the villagers decide to hold a funeral for him. They soon discover that this man is large —and I mean large. Large as in he could not fit through a normal doorway! To add to his unearthly characteristics, he is majestic enough to win the affection of the village women — despite being dead. What completes this magical realistic story is the villagers’ acceptance of the handsome drowned man without skepticism, and believe him to be a fantastic, natural occurrence in the real world. The mundane setting of the village is transformed by the drowned man’s appearance, as they rush to create a funeral appropriate for someone of his stature. Once a dry island incompatible with someone as remarkable as the drowned man, the village is reborn into a tropical oasis of overflowing flowers. After the drowned man’s funeral, the village is left with the mark of his magical presence imprinted upon the island; villagers become dedicated to building structures appropriate for such a majestic being by having beautiful homes with wider doors and vibrant gardens to pay homage. Márquez has said, “There is not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality,” and he proves that within not only The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World, but in every intriguing story he produces.
Throughout the article, we can see that magical realism is a way to make the fantastic possible in everyday life. Through these different avenues of art, film, music and literature, characteristics of the genre are shared that compliment the narration of life the creator wishes to portray. The genre of magical realism opens another door into truth for the reader to explore the mundane as something new and exciting.