We have art to save ourselves from the truth. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

In stories by Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges reality and fiction blend in a world of labyrinths and libraries, mirrors and dreams. Myths, portents and legends exist side by side with history, technology and modernity in the novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Magical realism as a literary genre brings fantastical events and characters into a real world setting. It makes for compulsive, addictive reading. Visual arts have experienced a similar movement, where dream and reality, the fabulous and the factual coexist, even overlap on the canvas. The artist is striving to arrive at the truth - the human truth – by way of fantasy.

Truth versus Reality

Is the purpose of art to imitate reality? Or give form to our dreams? From the smiling kouros created by 6th century BC Greek sculptors, to realism of the 19th century France – artists have wrestled with the question of the relationship between art and everyday reality. Some decided to imitate life, other chose to interpret it – or improve it.

Early in the history of art, painters and sculptors were capable of creating images – especially human bodies – that looked very much like reality. The challenge then came from creating a new “realism” - a shocking one, like Courbet painting peasants as individual characters, unexpected scenarios, unconventional nudes. Academic art - made according to the strict rules of the art academies – was so conservative and opposed to change, that the term became synonymous with a form of art that resists innovation and modernism.

Counter-intuitively, Realism (capital R) was an act of artistic rebellion. It referred to the subject matter – portraying peasants and working-class life, popular entertainment and prostitutes. The outrage of the genteel classes was further increased by the frankness and “realism” of the human body and sexual subjects.

Gustave Courbet’s A Burial at Ornans was one such controversial painting, presented at the Salon in the winter of 1850. Until then, rural types were often represented as tilling the soil, usually on a sun-drenched field, or observing religious rituals in a humble recognition of the church’s authority. Courbet’s peasants’ faces are individualised, painted in broad layers of paint, thickly applied; the previously homogenous peasantry here portrayed as a group that threaten the bourgeois viewers with a kind of unprecedented and unwelcome social mobility.

Courbet insisted in showing things as they are, from peasant poverty to human sexuality. The daring and detail of his nudes is matched by his refined colour scheme and elegant brushstrokes. The realism of The Origin of the World or The Sleep is as shocking and disturbing today as it was in 1866.

With a lower case “r”, realism describes a way of representing things in painting – the style that has been used from Ancient Greece through Renaissance and until post-impressionism. The aim of the painter was to reproduce what he sees, to create an image of the subject as close to reality as it was possible within the limits of the canvas.

After the terrible shock of the First World War, artists followed Jean Cocteau and called for a “return to order”, rejecting the art forms that dominated the period before the war: cubism, futurism, fauvism. Painters who were at the forefront of these movements (Georges Braque, Andre Derain, Pablo Picasso) abandoned the avant-guard style in favour of various versions of realism.

Reality through a Prism

The domain of the imagination is reality

(Guillaume Apollinaire)

Beyond France, other forms of realism were emerging. In the Soviet Union, the avant-guard styles of painting such as impressionism or cubism were considered decadent and rejected: it was thought that the non-representative forms of art were not understood by the proletariat. The ideology enforced after the death of Lenin was based on the premise that art (and literature) should support and reinforce the values and ideals of socialism. The paintings of the era depict men and women happily at work in the fields or in factories, celebrating socialism, enjoying family life. It’s an optimistic view of life, conveyed in simple, realistic form.

Inspirational Isaak Izrailevich Brodsky is one of the best known painters of that time, notable for his portraits of Lenin and Stalin and the depiction of the revolution. He played an important role in art education – with some of his students (Alexander Laktionov, Yuri Neprintsev, Piotr Belousov) going on to become well-known realist painters.

Later, in 1950’s Vienna, the mood was less optimistic. The group of painters belonging to the Fantastic Realism movement (led by Arik Brauer) were still feeling the traumatic effects of the war; their oneiric images, painted in a realistic manner, were an escape into fantasy.

The Fantasy and the Reality

Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.

(Francisco Goya)

Some five hundred years before the surrealists, the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch populated his elaborate compositions with terrifying demons and ugly monsters. His most famous work, The Garden of Earthly Delights, is a spectacular image of hell; his amphibious and winged creatures are made up of disparate yet recognisable elements in disturbing combinations. In Bosch’s paintings, animal parts and everyday objects – spoons, jugs – painted in realistic detail appear alongside human figures, engaged in bizarre or familiar activities. Like the surrealists, Bosch found magic and humour in the unexpected juxtaposition, the uncanny. “Magic realism” and later, in the 1950s “fantastic realism” were terms invented to describe dreamlike images painted in a realistic manner. Dreamlike scenes from the subconscious, with creatures and objects unexpectedly brought together was the surrealist trademark, painted with the love of detail and the accuracy of old masters.

Giorgio de Chirico and his brother Alberto Savinio painted scenes defined by platforms and walls with lots of windows and niches, impossible perspective, sharp light and shade contrasts. Faceless mannequins, nudes, statues or fragments of statues, tools and toys; obscured by veils, covered in cloaks or curtains, hiding in dark corners – the suggestion of secrecy, enigma is present in many of their works.

Renee Magritte was moved to tears by The Song of Love, Giorgio de Chirico’s 1914 painting, which features the outsize head of a classic sculpture, an industrial glove and a green sphere, framed by classical arches and a factory chimney in the background. The classic theme reoccurs in The Uncertainty of the Poet, a quiet scene with arcades and a torso of Aphrodites, contrasted by a large pile of bananas and, in the background, a steam train. The eerily empty square, the elements of classic architecture and the enigmatic atmosphere characterised the short-lived Pittura Metafisica movement created by De Chirico. The painter arrives at the truth via fantasy.

This method of painting like poetry, the juxtaposition of objects apparently unrelated, inspired Surrealist painters and poets. Metaphysical art, Surrealism, Fantastic Realism have in common dreamlike images from the subconscious, painted in a realistic, often detailed manner. Marx Ernst, Dali, Chagall, Frieda Khalo, Lucien Freud belonged to one or several of these movement at one time in their career.

Magic realism has become a familiar term in contemporary culture, embracing film, television and literature as well as painting and illustration. It describes modern figurative paintings with fantasy, mysterious content. The realistic and detailed method of painting the fantastic suggests the acceptance and depiction of the unusual as a natural part of reality; it creates imaginative, disconcerting but marvellous worlds.