As used today the term is broadly descriptive rather than critically rigorous. The term was initially used by German art critic Franz Roh to describe painting which demonstrated an altered reality, but was later used by Venezuelan Arturo Uslar-Pietri to describe the work of certain Latin American writers. The Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier (a friend of Uslar-Pietri) used the term "lo real maravilloso" (roughly "marvelous reality") in the prologue to his novel The Kingdom of this World (1949). Carpentier's conception was of a kind of heightened reality in which elements of the miraculous could appear while seeming natural and unforced. Carpentier's work was a key influence on the writers of the Latin American "boom" that emerged in the 1960s.
The term was first revived and applied to the realm of fiction as a combination of the realistic and the fantastic in the 1960s by a Venezuelan essayist and critic Arturo Uslar-Pietri, who applied it to a very specific South American genre, influenced by the blend of realism and fantasy in Mário de Andrade's influential novel Macunaíma. However, the term itself came in vogue only after Nobel prize winner Miguel Ángel Asturias used the expression to define the style of his novels. The term gained popularity with the rise of the Latin American Boom, Alejo Carpentier, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Márquez, who confessed, "My most important problem was destroying the line of demarcation that separates what seems real from what seems fantastic." More recent Latin American authors in this vein include Isabel Allende.
Subsequently, the term has been retroactively applied both to earlier writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Mikhail Bulgakov and Ernst Junger and to postcolonial and other contemporary writers from Salman Rushdie and Günter Grass to Angela Carter.
In painting, magical realism is a term often used interchangeably with post-expressionism. In 1925, art critic Franz Roh used this term to describe painting which signaled a return to realism after expressionism's extravagances which sought to redesign objects to reveal the spirits of those objects. Magical realism, according to Roh, instead faithfully portrays the exterior of an object, and in doing so the spirit, or magic, of the object reveals itself.
Other important aspects of magical realist painting, according to Roh, include:
The pictorial ideals of magic realism continued to attract new generations of artists through the latter years of the 20th century and beyond. In a 1991 New York Times review, critic Vivien Raynor remarked that "John Stuart Ingle proves that Magic Realism lives" in his "virtuoso" still life watercolors. Ingle's approach, as described in his own words, reflects very much the early inspiration of the magic realism movement as described by Roh; that is, the aim is not to add magical elements to a realistic painting, but to pursue a radically faithful rendering of reality; the "magic" effect on the viewer comes from the intensity of that effort: "I don't want to make arbitrary changes in what I see to paint the picture, I want to paint what is given. The whole idea is to take something that's given and explore that reality as intensely as I can."
Artists associated with magic realism include Marcela Donoso