Design Trend Report: Magical Realism

By on Dec 13, 2019 in Inspiration
Design Trend Report: Magical Realism

The term magical realism is packed with numerous connotations. On one hand, it’s a design trend referring to the incorporation of magical, supernatural, or just fantastical elements in ordinary settings and compositions. In another context, it’s a reference to a style of literary fiction with many subcategories. In yet another, it’s a genre of motion pictures that combines the surreal with the believable.

For our purposes, we’re going to try to stick largely to magical realism in the visual arts and design, though you’ll notice that the other categories overlap into the design world, too. That's the notable thing with this style: it has influenced numerous artistic disciplines in the almost 100 years of its existence.

It’s all too tempting to categorize magical realism as just a work of fiction. But the way this design trend weaves in and out of reality and fantasy in the same artworks means it’s too complex to limit to just that definition.

The History of Magical Realism

Any good treatise on the origins of this trend has to include when the phrase was first used. In this case, it was used in English for the first time in 1955, although the Germans used it as early as 1925 to refer to an aesthetic called New Objectivity or Neue Sachlichkeit. New Objectivity was diametrically opposed to Expressionism, which used painting and graphic design to show the world in a highly subjective and emotion-filled presentation.

Interestingly, though this phrase is used nowadays to also refer to literary works, its origins are squarely in the visual arts since a German art critic was the first to use it to refer to New Objectivity’s design traits. Furthermore, the term was later on utilized to refer to the realism in painting that was being produced by the likes of American artists such as:

  • Gray Foy
  • Paul Cadmus
  • Peter Blume
  • Ivan Albright

When German art critic Franz Roh coined the term in 1925, he also published his book, titled After Expressionism: Magical Realism: Problems of the Newest European Painting. By this time, it was clear that the aesthetic was a new design trend in Europe. At the same time, Gustav Hartlaub, the German ornithologist and physician, curated an exhibition on this trend at the Kunsthalle Mannheim, a museum. The title of the exhibition was Neue Sachlickheit. Together, these two, seminal events for this movement signaled that it was now a major aesthetic to be taken seriously.

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Image Credit: MoMA

We’ve established that this trend was recognized by the 1920s in Germany and even outside Europe.

Let’s now fast-forward to the 1940s and 1950s; in these two decades, the genre would be identified with specific American painters. Giving them credence in the U.S were exhibitions put on by places like New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which held a show called American Realists and Magic Realists. Here, the link between Germany’s New Objectivity and a select group of American designers was made. One of the early, key figures in this movement stateside was the French magical realist by the name of Pierre Roy, who disseminated Roh’s early ideas from 1920s Germany around the U.S.

However, by the midpoint of the 20th century, a curious, though perhaps unavoidable, development would befall magical realism.

Its “inventor,” Roh, meant that this style succeeded so well in depicting the exteriors of subjects more realistically than its predecessor, Expressionism, ever did. In doing so, the viewer is empowered to see the inner “magic” of the subject with greater ease (due to lack of exterior distractions).

However, somewhere down the line, this original interpretation of magical realism would get corrupted. As a result, visual art that featured this style started to add more and more fantasy elements into their scenes. Designers working in this genre started to take the reference to magic all too literally. What ended up happening was that magical realism in art, graphic design, and paintings consequently adopted a more fantastical slant—almost like the literary side of this design trend, which features a lot of fantasy elements in writing.

Notable examples of artists who took this trend into the more fantasy-based with their artworks are:

  • Paul Cadmus
  • Phillip Evergood
  • Andrew Wyeth
  • George Tooker
  • Bettina Shaw-Lawrence

Take the work of Cadmus: if you look at some of his paintings, they definitely give off a surreal vibe. However, this sense of surrealism is achieved not just by overtones of the fantastical in otherwise ordinary surroundings, but by outright exaggerations or distortions that aren’t realistic.

More recent contributions to this aesthetic, in general, have gotten even more outlandish in that viewers aren’t looking at just fantastical overtones anymore. What they see is more of a magical reality than anything else, with fewer and fewer elements that can be considered normal or mundane.

In the 21st century, there are still artists who are standard-bearers for this aesthetic, notably:

  • Will Teather
  • Richard T. Scott
  • Peter Doig

Here’s a quick look at some magic-inspired digital assets from our marketplace, so you can get a better idea of this style:

The Characteristics of Magical Realism

Because of the confusion around this design trend due to shifting definitions throughout the decades, it’s important to develop a strong understanding of this trend according to its original intent. If we go by Roh’s definition all the way back in 1920s Germany, we see that this trend actually relates less to fantasy elements than its name actually suggests.

Since the roots of this style were a rejection of Expressionism—which produced designs that were subjective, emotional and not necessarily a realistic reflection of the world around us—it was actually more realistic than you’d think. What Roh meant by “magical realism” was that designs in this aesthetic would capture the subject and its actual existence in our world. The “magical” part, according to Roh, was the impression or feeling the audience would get from being able to discover the so-called inner magic of artworks, precisely because they had been depicted more realistically than previous aesthetics.

With that clarification out of the way and with this true understanding of what’s meant when we say “magical realism” in the visual arts, here are telltale characteristics of this style:

  • Accurate details (especially when it comes to the exteriors of objects)
  • Depicting the so-called magical nature of the natural world
  • Photographic clarity
  • Focusing on the way things really are in the world (realism)
  • Interpreting the everyday in an either highly realistic or cryptic way
  • Concerned with ordinary subject matter instead of more fantastical and unrealistic objects
  • Contrast between a certain sense of distance and forward movement, unlike Expressionism’s knack for foreshortening (showing objects closer than they really are) subject matter
  • Use of very small details, even in artworks that feature big landscapes

As you can see, contrary to what some believe, this style is preoccupied with reality and accuracy, as a reaction to other trends that put the emphasis on the magical. To the extent that there’s anything magical involved here, it’s mostly subtle and showing only in overtones. Of course, as touched on earlier, as the 20th century progressed, and Roh’s definition of this trend became weaker and weaker, new artists added more fantasy elements to this style, nonetheless.

When we talk about this style in writing, however, all bets are off, which is what makes things even more interesting. Literary magical realism is quite the opposite of its treatment in the visual arts. In literature, these characteristics prevail:

  • The use of very fantastical elements in settings that are otherwise commonplace (in other words, the bringing in of mythical stories into cultural meaningfulness)
  • The blending of the supernatural with our natural, familiar world
  • The use of hybrid planes of reality that play up juxtaposition (urban vs. rural, etc.)
  • A more intense sense of mystery throughout the work

Here are some more of our favorite magic-based digital assets, so you can get an even better idea of the characteristics at play in this style:

Magical Realism in Graphic Design

One of the best ways to understand this somewhat complex genre even better is to look at examples of it in detail. Here are some of its great contributions to graphic design over the decades.

Paul Cadmus’ The Fleet’s In!

One of Cadmus’ most controversial paintings, The Fleet’s In! caused great outrage when it was released back in 1934. Naturally, social mores were way different almost 100 years ago; looking at the painting today, it’s actually quite tame by our societal standards.

At any rate, the painting shows carousing sailors and girls, and the magical-realism aspect of it relates to the subjects’ behaviors and their clothing that was drawn as clinging to their posteriors. The entire frame shows a drunken melee of sorts.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Navy was outraged: Then-secretary of the Navy, Claude A. Swanson, called it an affront to the Navy. As a result, the painting was taken down from its exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. The outrage over the painting actually helped Cadmus’ career because it courted controversy.

Ivan Albright’s The Picture of Dorian Grey

The Picture of Dorian Grey is a classic novel by Oscar Wilde, first published in July of 1890. Since then, it’s been adapted numerous times in various movie, literary and artistic works over the 20th century and beyond. The story tells the tale of a man whose sins are recorded in a portrait of him—aging and dilapidating his likeness in the portrait—while his physical exterior stays young and handsome.

Here, too, magical realism has left its mark.

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Image Credit: Wikipedia

Albright’s artwork is the titular painting that accompanies Albert Lewin’s 1945 movie adaption of the story. Known for his previous work of creating exaggerated and stylized depictions of decay, Albright was well-suited to illustrate this drawing. His work is a colorful and ghastly take on Roh’s initial definition of this style: While Dorian, the man, is realistically painted, the vices that he’s committed are fantastically depicted on his face and body in terms of repulsive illnesses and corporal damage.

Today, this seminal artwork of this aesthetic is still housed at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World

Christina’s World is one of the more popular paintings of the entire 20th century. The mysterious illustration is of a woman who likely had Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, a disorder characterized by a worsening loss of touch sensation and muscle tissue all over the body.

The reason it’s considered a contribution to this genre is because it depicts, realistically, a woman named Anna Christina Olson, crawling across the field due to the crippling symptoms of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. At the same time, there’s an element of the arcane, as it’s not immediately obvious (unless you know the backstory of the painting), why she’s crawling through the field. Finally, viewers are able to discover the innate “magic” in the piece when they realize that it depicts the harsh reality of someone who has to live with a disease like this.

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Image Credit: MoMA

The painting is today a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) permanent collection, due to its status as a classic of this aesthetic.

Magical Realism in Web Design

This style has also made its way onto the web, as various sites cover and feature works that feature this theme. Here are a few standout examples.

A Monster Calls Official Website

Focus Features’ A Monster Calls is based on the novel of the same name about a child whose mother is terminally ill and who receives visits from a monster that tells him three stories to help him cope with his mother’s impending death. With a plot like this, the movie is rife for this aesthetic, and its official site doesn’t disappoint.

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Image Credit: Focus Features

The homepage uses a single-column view to showcase some of the more distinctly fantasy elements of the movie, both in video clips and stills. This includes sweeping landscapes, close ups of the monster’s face, and borderline surreal references.

The Writer's Magazine

This site for budding writers helps them up their game when it comes to this fine craft. In their how-to on how writers can incorporate this style into their literature, the site uses an attention-grabbing feature image that highlights some of the important elements of this aesthetic.

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Image Credit: The Writer's Magazine

The feature image includes the dichotomy of a realistic setting that’s infused with enough design touches to make the entire scene come alive with a suggestion of the magical. For instance, the way the sunlight filters into the scene from the side evokes associations with classical, fantasy tales involving an enchanted forest. Similarly, the way the tree limbs are depicted as exaggeratedly gnarled and contorted—almost like arms—implies that they’re almost alive and menacing.

Study.com’s Lesson on Magical Realism

For web design using this aesthetic from a completely different angle, we go to Study.com’s explainer video on magical realism. The site uses video tutorials to educate its members on all sorts of different topics, providing easy-to-understand lessons and important takeaways.

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Image Credit: Study.com

Here, the site’s explainer video features an almost cartoony style to help students understand the basics of this design trend. In the video’s thumbnail, a cartoony character looks on as a fantasy element (the multicolored, winged horse) is introduced right next to him, as the literary definition of this trend is flashed above them.

Magical Realism in Interior Design

When a trend is applied to an area in which it’s not usually applied, it makes for some interesting results that create good conversation. While rare, there have been some examples of interiors being decked out in this style.

Los Angeles’ Historic-Cultural Monument No. 404

This home in L.A.’s Cypress Park area is more than a century old and used to serve as a trolley station. These days, its interior design features design elements that prove you can incorporate this design trend into your interiors with great effectiveness.

As with all successful examples of this style, the home features a mundane setting—foyers, dining areas, etc.—that simply have been infused with a hint of the extraordinary.

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Image Credit: Houzz.com

To wit, there’s a 45-foot ceiling with an 8-foot chandelier that hangs above the dining table for the ultimate in entertaining. The huge windows and dramatic drapes allow majestic light to flood in, furthering the sense of the mythical in this interior space.

Beijing’s Spring Whispers Book Club

We head to the opposite side of the planet for another example of magical realism infused into an indoor space. At Beijing’s dramatically named Spring Whispers Book Club, minimalist design touches and the Wabi-Sabi philosophy of less is more are present in heavy doses, but there’s also something else.

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Image Credit: Yatzer

Amid this are the curious proportions of the interior, which let visitors and readers alike enjoy views of the nearby canal and its banks while devouring their favorite tomes. Here, you’ll find huge, floor-to-ceiling glazed spaces, smaller reading areas with thicker partitions, and timber-and-white-steel structures.

Reality, With a Few Exaggerations

Contrary to conventional wisdom, magical realism isn’t outright fantasy depicted in design. The art critic who coined the phrase almost 100 years ago saw this trend as a thoughtful depiction of reality that empowered viewers to home in on the real magic of objects because they weren’t filled with subjective additions and distractions.

Over the decades, that original definition has been corrupted to actually include fantasy elements and exaggerations—especially in literary works of this genre.

Now, we look at this design trend as a compromise of sorts: a seamless blend of reality mixed with just enough embellishments to put a magical spin on the underlying reality.


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