Visual Images: Magical Realism & The New World Baroque

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

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

Section One: Franz Roh's Magical Objects

It is the hyperrealistic paintings of the German Post-Expressionists that Roh originally dubbed "magical realist". Consider these images, which will recall their characteristic style:

Franz Radziwill, "The Object and Morning," 1929

Otto Dix, "Portrait of the writer Syliva von Harden," 1926

George Grosz, "Gray Day (State Functionary for the War Wounded)," 1921

Christian Schad, "Maria and Annunziata in front of the Harbor," 1923

Christian Schad, "Portrait of an English Lady," 1926

Roh also discussed painters besides Germans, of course, among them the Italian Giorgio de Chirico,

de Chirico, "Delights of the Poet," 1913

and the French painter Henri Rousseau.

Rousseau, "Horse Attacked by Jaguar,” 1910

So we see why Roh called these paintings "enigmas of quietude in the midst of general becoming" (22). The exaggerated clarity of line and color, the flattened texture and perspective, the return to human figures and furnishings make them something like the opposite of the Expressionism, with its abstract forms and kinetic surfaces, that preceded these painters in Germany. All of the "magical realist" painters also did cityscapes, and since we'll be seeing an Argentine avant garde painter in a moment who also does cityscapes, I'll show you another few examples.

Di Chirico, "Plaza de Italia"

Carl Grossberg, "Bridge of Schwarzbachstreet," 1927

Franz Radziwill, "Houses (back-views) in Dresden," 1931

Franz Radziwill "Strike," 1931

As I have suggested, Roh structures his argument about these "magical realist" paintings by contrasting them to the Expressionism that preceded them: ". . . we are offered a new style that is thoroughly of this world, that celebrates the mundane." For Roh, in magical realist paintings, objects take on new significance after the "fantastic dreamscape" (17) of abstraction: Quote: "It seems to us that this fantastic dreamscape has completely vanished and that our real world re-emerges before our eyes--bathed in the clarity of a new day. We recognize this world . . . we look at it with new eyes" (17, my emphasis).

Because objects had, according to Roh, been lost to abstraction and were now being recuperated by the magical realists, the world was being made newly available to the senses of the beholder, a formulation that echoes the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky's famous definition of defamiliarization in his essay "Art as Technique," written eight years before Roh's essay, in 1917. You'll recall that Shklovsky had argued that art exists to make the stone "stonier", that is, to revivify the everyday world by means of a variety of artistic techniques. The renewed apprehension of the familiar world was, for Shklovsky, as it was for Franz Roh in 1925, not only the function of art but its very definition. In fact, this aesthetic agenda of defamiliarization was characteristic of most avant garde movements at the time--conjure mental images, if you will, of the art and literature associated not only Post-Expressionism but with also English and American Imagism, Italian Futurism, Russian Constructivism, American Precisionism and Argentine "ultraism," the movement in which Jorge Luis Borges participated in Buenos Aires in the twenties.

Franz Roh was obviously responding to (and at the same time defining) European avant garde aesthetics. The image was to be crystalline in structure, a dynamic pattern of intellectual and emotional energies, a sharply focused object whose referent is both in the world and beyond it. His analogue in English literary criticism was T.E. Hulme, who argued that poetry should be "all dry and hard," and his analogues in American literature are Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams. Pound's Imagist emphasis on metaphor and Eliot's reclamation of the "metaphysical" conceits of the 17th century English poets John Donne and George Herbert parallel Roh's and Ortega's aesthetic treatment of the object, and they predict the young poet Jorge Luis Borges, who also called for the renovation of figurative language in poetry in an early essay entitled "Metaphor," in which he urges the creation of images that are ". . . verbal objects, pure and independent like a crystal or a silver ring." The ultraists in Argentina aimed to practice the same objectivity that Roh celebrated in the visual arts, emphasizing the capacity of the poetic image to communicate sensory material in objective, crystalline forms. By the end of the 20s, Borges had moved away from his avant garde involvement, and whether he had read Franz Roh or not--I feel quite certain that he would have read the 1927 Revista de Occidente publication--he had by then himself published in the Revista--whether or not he had read Roh, Borges' poetic objects can be fruitfully approached by means of Roh's discussion of Post-Expressionist painting.

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