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Art review: Magic Realism at Tate Modern

08 February 2019

Jonathan Evens looks at the religious strain in Magic Realism

© The Estate of Herbert Gurschner, courtesy Widder Fine Arts, Vienna

Herbert Gurschner (1901-75), The Annunciation (1929-30), from the George Economou Collection

Herbert Gurschner (1901-75), The Annunciation (1929-30), from the George Economou Collection

MAGIC REALISM is primarily known as a narrative strategy used by certain Latin American novelists defined by a matter-of-fact insertion of fantastic or magical elements into highly detailed, realistic settings. The phrase was originally invented, however, by the German photographer, art historian, and art critic Franz Roh in 1925, to describe modern realist paintings with fantasy or dreamlike subjects.

“Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33” uses the cold veracity and unsettling imagery of Magic Realist art to explore the complex paradoxes of the Weimar era, in which liberalisation and anti-militarism flourished in tandem with political and economic uncertainty. In the context of growing political extremism, this new realism reflected a fluid social experience as well as inner worlds of emotion and magic. There are, as a result, many parallels with our own time.

© DACS, London 2018Albert Birkle (1900-86), The Crucifixion (1921), from the George Economou Collection

As the recent “Aftermath” exhibition at Tate Britain demonstrated, artists in Europe responded to the tragedy and trauma of the First World War either by the Return to Order aesthetics of Pablo Picasso and André Derain in Paris, or the Metaphysical Art exemplified by Giorgio de Chirico and Carlo Carrà in Italy. Magic Realism in Germany was, to some extent, a combination of both impulses, meaning a focus on the interior and exterior, the visible and invisible.

This exhibition is structured in terms of the places or experiences where artists sought to find this combination of the real with the magical. They looked in abnormal situations (including the circus), pleasurable abundance (including urban technological innovation), adventures in the shadow (including the cabaret), and spiritual beliefs (including Christianity). Throughout, there is a sense of anxiety, even desperation, to the use of line, colour, and content, suggesting that this was primarily a search without resolution — an underlying awareness, perhaps, that the war to end all wars had not been what was claimed.

In relation to faith, this exhibition highlights the work of two lesser-known artists, Albert Birkle and Herbert Gurschner. Other artists shown in this exhibition, such as Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, and Lovis Corinth, utilised religious imagery in their work within this period, but are included here in relation to other themes. Otto Dix, whose work is a significant element in the exhibition, had religious influences as an underpinning inspiration to some of his work in this period, but it was not until after the Second World War that those influences became a significant focus for the content of his art.

Birkle, however, from the age of 21, was addressing explicitly Christian themes, taking inspiration, as did many other artists (including Dix), from Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, which had been exhibited in Munich, for reasons of safety, from 1918 to 1919. Birkle’s work, in common with much Magic Realist work, has a strong social-critical aspect, challenging post-war society to see salvation in Christ’s passage through the suffering of crucifixion into resurrection. This possibility is clearly imaged in Crucifixion, in which Birkle surrounds the head of the dying Christ with the halo used by Grünewald to surround his resurrected Christ. For his German audience, who would understand the reference, Birkle combines crucifixion and resurrection in one image, thereby pointing beyond suffering to new life.

Gurschner, in contrast, found his religious inspiration in the Italian Renaissance, to the extent that the then director of the Tate Gallery, J. B. Mason, claimed that his version of The Annunciation could “hold its own with distinction even among those early paintings when the subject had a spiritual significance for painters, profounder than any it can have for the artists of today”,

Gurschner and Birkle were part of an under-recognised strand of artists at this time (including, in the UK, Eric Gill, David Jones, Winifred Knights, Stanley Spencer, and others) for whom these subjects did retain spiritual significance, and who produced work that was both original and modern as a result. One of many interesting aspects to this exhibition, and the earlier linked “Aftermath” exhibition, is that the curators have recognised this and reflected it as part of the rich tapestry of modernism, instead of overlooking it on ideological grounds, as others have in the past.

The Annunciation possesses a serenity that is unusual among these works and in this period. Gurschner’s other works — Triumph of Death and Lazarus (The Workers) — included here display more of the sense of anxiety which characterises the period. His Lazarus image references Grünewald’s Resurrection, yet with subtle alterations that alter the tone from the confident faith in Christ’s resurrection which we see in Grünewald to the confusion that Lazarus and those around him felt in a new beginning that was an unforeseen unknown. Gurschner, in common with most of the artists included here, was asking “Where do we go from here?”


“Magic Realism: Art in Weimar Germany 1919-33” is at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1, until 14 July. Phone 020 7887 8888.


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