NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932–1960 poignantly portrays life in Italy through the lens of photography before, during, and after World War II. While neorealism is associated primarily with cinematic and literary depictions of dire postwar conditions, this is the first major museum exhibition to highlight key photographers active at the time. Featuring approximately 175 photographs by over 60 Italian artists, NeoRealismo pairs them with the original publications in which they circulated—illustrated magazines, photobooks, and exhibition catalogues. On view at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery until December 8, 2018, the show also includes film excerpts by such notable directors as Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, and Luchino Visconti, alongside related movie posters.
Neorealism—as both a formal approach and a mindset— reached the height of its popularity in the 1950s. Organized by Admira and curated Viganò, NeoRealismo is making its American debut at the Grey after traveling in Europe to wide acclaim. A selection of the photographs will also be on view at NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò. As Viganò observes, “NeoRealismo takes a unique approach to the period between 1932 and 1960 in bringing together various media and materials that have never before been grouped together in the same context.” Grey Art Gallery director Lynn Gumpert adds, “NeoRealismo explores how Italian photographers conveyed daily political realities during these three decades, a subject that is particularly resonant today. We are very pleased to bring this important exhibition to the Grey, which, as a university art museum, consistently draws attention to underrepresented but culturally relevant bodies of work.”
Neorealism inspired diverse approaches to photography. While neorealist prints are most often considered within the postwar period, their impact spans decades. The installation’s first section, Realism in the Fascist Era, takes the year 1932—which saw the opening of the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution—as its point of departure. On display for two years at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni in Rome, this propagandistic show presented photography as an instrument of mass communication, one that mined its educational and informational potential. Photographic images carried the “proof” of Mussolini’s declarations and testified to the truth of his words. Though it often veiled the differences between information and propaganda, photography provided a language that was accessible to all in the face of widespread illiteracy, regional dialects, and social inequality.
By the end of the war, Italy was in ruins. Despite its material devastation, however, the country experienced a widespread sense of euphoria and rebirth. This feeling of moral redemption underlies what historians have termed “the Italian miracle” of the 1950s and ’60s, and the newfound freedom to reveal the realities of a wounded country re-creating itself gave rise to neorealism. Poverty and Reconstruction examines dramatically contradictory depictions of Italy during this period. Photographers such as Tullio Farabola and Stefano Robino captured daily life under these difficult conditions, which nevertheless vibrated with hope and vitality.
With the fall of Fascism, neorealism became the dominant form of expression. Artistic freedom and the need to rebuild a new Italian identity fueled a nationwide fervor for documentation—the testimony of quotidian reality. Ethnographic Investigation demonstrates how photography played an essential role in attempts to establish a collective identity in postwar Italy. Now the educational function that had been exploited during the Fascist period was placed at the service of democratization.
After the war, Italian regions remained fragmented, each affected by different economic and social conditions. Figures such as Mario Cattaneo, Franco Pinna, and Arturo Zavattini helped Italy establish a new national identity by photographing the country’s many faces, reaching a high point in the neorealist era. In this heyday of social photojournalism, ambitious reportage projects portrayed many parts of Italy, documenting life as it was lived. Motivated by a desire to convey the realities of Italian experience, photographers with varying degrees of social awareness and political engagement traveled to every corner of the country.
An increase in printed media outlets spurred a variety of photographic approaches and transformed the photographer’s role. Newspapers, which previously had hired freelance photographers, began to incorporate them into editorial teams, promoting their work and viewing it as part of their distinct branding. Photojournalism and the Illustrated Press focuses on this golden age, when photographic narratives came to resemble cinematography, with spreads covering numerous pages and major reportage released in episodes, special inserts, and supplements. Despite their dramatically different perspectives, these print-media photographers—including Carlo Cisventi, Tino Petrelli, Marisa Rastellini—are linked by their interest in realism and their rejection of the artificial.
The exhibition’s final section, From Art to Document, features works by photographers such as Pietro Donzelli and Giuseppe Bruno, who were engaged in heated discussions about neorealism’s legacy. Between 1943 and 1960, photo clubs provided meeting places where artists debated the creative value of photography and its future. Two opposing schools of thought arose. For some, neorealism represented a rigid restriction of expression that stifled the photographer’s creative potential. Others felt that unless photography retained a strong connection with real life and was informed by a sense of civic engagement, it risked becoming a formal exercise. These two camps became entrenched over time, resulting in extended arguments and hardened divisions. Nevertheless, their debates laid the foundations for the future of photographic criticism in Italy.