NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960 @Grey Art Gallery NYU and Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò NYU

JTF (just the facts): A total of 174 black-and-white photographs by 75 photographers, along with related historical materials in two locations. (Installation shots from both locations below.)

The objects exhibited at the Grey Art Gallery have been organized by curator Enrica Viganó into five thematic categories. On the main floor: Realism in the Fascist Period; Poverty and Reconstruction; and Ethnographic Investigation; in the basement: Photojournalism and the Illustrated Press and From Art to Document. Supplementing the photographs on the walls are vintage movie posters and video clips by Italian neorealist directors. Eight vitrines on both floors contain books, catalogs, journals, and illustrated magazines from the period.

The photographers in the Grey Art gallery installation (with the number of prints on view in parentheses) include:

  • Istituto Luce (3)
  • Fedele Toscani (1)
  • Pasquale De Antonis (4)
  • Luciano Morpurgo (2)
  • Giacomo Pozzi-Bellini (2)
  • Alberto Lattuada (1)
  • Federico Patellani (1)
  • Tazio Secchiaroli (3)
  • Roberto Spampinato (1)
  • Tullio Farabola (3)
  • Enrico Pasquali (6)
  • Gianni Borghesan (3)
  • Giuseppe Bruno (2)
  • Chiara Samugheo (2)
  • Caio Garrubba (4)
  • Giuseppe Leone (1)
  • Sante Vittorio Malli (1)
  • Aldo Beltrame (1)
  • Carlo Bevilacqua (1)
  • Stefano Robino (2)
  • Franco Pinna (8)
  • Cesare Barzacchi (4)
  • Ando Gilardi (1 set of 4)
  • Arturo Zavattini (4)
  • Tranquilo Casiraghi (4)
  • Mario Ingrosso (1, 1 set of 7)
  • Renzo Chini (3)
  • Ugo Mulas (3)
  • Alfa Castaldi (3)
  • Alfredo Camisa (3)
  • Enzo Sellerio (4)
  • Fulvio Roiter (4)
  • Enrico Cattaneo (2 sets of 3)
  • Nino Migliori (5, 1 set of 4)
  • Mario Giacomelli (5)
  • Mario Cattaneo (5)
  • Mario De Biasi (6)
  • Piergiorgio Franzi (3)
  • Pietro Donzelli (4)
  • Vittorio Contino (1)
  • Gianni Berengo Gardin (4)
  • Carlo Gosulich (2)
  • Carlo Dalla Mura (1)
  • Nicola Sansone (2)
  • Cesare Colombo (2)
  • Ugo Zovetti (4)
  • Cecilia Mangini (2)
  • Fosco Maraini (1)
  • Tino Petrelli (5)
  • Federico Patellani (3)
  • Tullio Farabola (2)
  • Mario Carbone (2)
  • Pablo Volta (2)
  • Mario Dondero (2)
  • Plinio De Martiis (1)
  • Carlo Cisventi (4)
  • Chiara Samugheo (3)
  • Marisa Rastellini (2)
  • Lamberti Sorrentino (5)
  • Stanislao Farri (1)
  • Roberto Spampinate (1)
  • Ernesto Fantozzi (1)
  • Ferruccio Ferroni (1)
  • Nino De Pietro (1)
  • Paolo Monti (1)

The arrangement at the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo is non-thematic and the assortment of objects—black-and white-photographs along one wall, a handful of movie posters and movie cards on another, and a vitrine of movie magazines—are found in three small rooms.

Of the prints: 85 are vintage, 24 early, and 65 modern; 166 are gelatin silver, 8 are giclée carbon. The dates range from 1934-1960, with no distinction made between dates of negatives and prints. The size of the prints is not provided on the checklist but many appear to be sized roughly 8×10 inches (or reverse).

A companion catalog, published in 2017 by Admira Edizioni and DelMonico Books/Prestel (here and here), is edited by Viganó and includes essays by her, Giuseppe Pinna, Gian Piero Brunetta, and Bruno Falcetto, with a lexicon by Enrico Manfredini, a comparative chronology by Fabio Amodeo, and a foreword by Martin Scorsese. 352 pages, 271 black-and-white illustrations, 10×12 inches, $65 hardcover. (Cover shot below.)

Comments/Context: Italian neorealism has been identified, even in the country where it was born, as a post-WWII movement led primarily by writers and filmmakers.

The mood of Italy after 1945 was one of dazed bewilderment as people struggled to repair their lives after more than two decades of dictatorial rule, several years of ruinous battles and bombings, followed by humiliating defeat. Lingering guilt over the nation’s complicity with Fascism, rising levels of poverty and alienation in wounded cities and villages, the cultural rift between the industrial North and the rural (and rampantly illiterate) South, the shrinking role of the Catholic Church and its tense relationship to a resurgent Communism—these were some of the themes dramatized in the novels and plays of Cesare Pavese, Elio Vittorini, Carlo Levi, Vasco Pratalini, Ennio Flaiao, and Alberto Moravia and, more prominently, in the early films of Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Alberto Lattuada, Giuseppe De Santis, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Federico Fellini.

It was this group of men—and Italian neorealism was almost exclusively male—who sensitized each other, and then the world, to the perennial artistic virtues of focusing closely on one’s own environment. To quote its most active theoretician, Cesare Zavattini, it is with “the true charity of time, of eyes and ears, bestowed on the events and people of one’s own country” that it may be reawakened.

Why photographers, who were in the vanguard of these efforts, are so unknown outside Italy (and even within it) is one of the mysteries that curator Enrica Viganó and the essayists in the catalog have sought to answer and to redress. The illuminating exhibition will be a crash course in post-war Italian cultural history for most Americans, introducing them to dozens of unfamiliar names.

The first false impression corrected here—one that was widely shared, including by me—is that the aesthetics of neorealism represented a sharp break with Fascism. The opening section of the show, with its images from the 1930s of daily life, the working class, the Catholic faithful, and of rural traditions are part of the foundation of neorealist photography but were a continuation of Mussolini’s populist program, not a departure from it.

“The themes and expressive language that we now define as neorealist were to a great extent already deployed by many photographers working during Italy’s Fascist period,” Viganó’s wall text states. As in Soviet Russia, the medium had received considerable government support during the 1920s. A landmark 1932 exhibition titled L’Italia fascita in cammino (Fascist Italy on the March)—a vitrine contains a copy of the catalog—featured more than 500 photographs.

Images here from the Istituto Luce, founded by the Fascists in 1924 to promote the regime, show Il Duce dedicating public works, addressing enthusiastic rallies, and marching in his black boots and uniform past a line of women with babies in strollers (large families were officially declared healthy for the future of the state.)

Other scenes, however, sympathetically depict the humble lives of fishermen, shepherds, seamstresses, or fruit sellers—motifs seen later in the exhibition. Several examples by Cesare Barzacchi are typical of a quiet, humanist style that thrived despite Mussolini’s triumphalism. One is a portrait from 1939 of a meditative barrel maker in an arcade near Rome’s Campo dei Fiori; another presents a shabby bookstall, where a portly customer glances disdainfully over the selection on the table, while a poorer man sits enthralled by what he’s reading.

There are glimmers of formalism in a Sardinian scene from the 1930s by Giuseppe Pagano: three open doors and three chimneys on joined dwellings compete for our attention with a looming shadow and the dirt street in front. It’s a study of patterns in architecture, not of the people who live here.

Such nationalist imagery was carefully edited by censors. The Istituto Luce did not allow the public to view indications of genuine squalor that might depress Fascism’s upbeat message.

The euphoria that swept every corner of Italy with the end of the war was tempered by the devastation it had left behind. Tullio Farabola’s 1946 photograph of four men preparing to plaster the outside walls of a gutted building in Milan hints at the enormity of the task faced by the entire country. It was OK now to be poor because almost everyone was, as Farabola suggests in a 1946 (staged?) portrait of two men—one in spattered overalls, the other in suit and tie—seated at a table in a soup kitchen.

Impoverished children were frequent subjects. De Sica may have seen some of these photographs before he portrayed the plight of street urchins and their families in his films I Bambini ci guardano (The Little Ones are Watching Us), 1944; Sciusciá (Shoeshine), 1946; and Laddri di biciclette (Bicycle Thieves), 1948.

Despite the economic “miracle” that lifted many into the middle class during the 1950s, life remained precarious for many Italians, a reality seen in Sante Vittorio Malli’s rear view from 1956 of men walking down a road with shovels on their shoulders (When Snow Means Breadand in Mario De Biasi’s 1959 landscape where a man with a donkey cart picks through trash on the outskirts of Milan as a smoking locomotive speeds past.

Ethnographic investigations were in vogue during the 1950s. Amateur and professional groups of photographers teamed with writers as the country sought to document itself—projects akin to what the FSA had accomplished for the U.S. in the 1930s.

The people of Sicily, Calabria, Campania, and Apuglia became topics of fascination by those from the North—such as Mario Giacomelli, Fulvio Roiter, Tino Petrelli, and Fosco Maraini—who deemed their Southern neighbors ruggedly authentic, their rituals and beliefs in witchcraft and faith healing endangered by homogenizing modernity.

Arturo Zavattini, an assistant cameraman for De Sica and later for Fellini, made an outstanding series in 1952 on the dire livelihoods of subsistence farmers in Basilicata. Two interiors here of people living indoors with their animals are among the stand-outs in the show.

Every region and neighborhood—from the Po Valley to the back alleys of Naples—offered material for photographers who hoped to freshen their eyes in unglamorous places. Television was not yet blanketing the country. It was a period when foreign influences were happily absorbed through books and magazines, such as the Swiss publication Du. Renzo Chini’s portraits of stoic Tuscans from 1955-56 recall Paul Strand’s, while Nino Migliori’s elevated view of a café in Emilia-Romana at night in 1959, the locals lounging beneath a Coca-Cola sign, imparts William Klein’s sweet-sour flavor. Socialist or communist political commitment spurred some of this work; just as motivational was the opportunity for scripted adventures.

Supporting the photographers in the movement to document Italy’s forgotten people were intellectuals, critics, and university professors, such as the anthropologist/philosopher Ernesto De Martino. His writings inspired Arturo Zavattini and Franco Pinna to photograph with poetic license the peasants in the South. The teachings of this former student of Benedetto Croce were also behind Ando Gilardi’s systematic approach to photographic portraiture. Recording the gestures and expressions of his subjects with a camera fixed in the same position—in order to provide “accurate information for the laboratory of the ethnologist”—Gilardi sought to emulate De Martino’s method of field research. The resulting “scientific” portrait grids are one of the show’s many surprises.

Many obstacles prevented most of the figures in this show from escaping obscurity. Along with a miniscule audience for the art of photography in Italy, the culture of picture magazines was underdeveloped, at least compared to the U.S., France, and England. The weekly Il Mondo began publication in 1949 but did not credit its photographers until 1959.

The most important picture magazine in the growth of the movement was Cinema Nuovo, which published photographs the editors explicitly hoped would be turned into neorealist films. This happened in several instances, such as “Borgo di Dio” by Enzo Sellerio; “Le Invasate” by Chiara Samugheo; and “Cronache dalla Bassa” by Carlo Cisventi. Examples from all of these illustrated stories are found in the section on Photojournalism and the Illustrated Press.

In each of these successes, however, the photographs were treated chiefly as a means to a higher artistic end, namely the cinema. Not that the outcome for supremacy was always one-sided. Viganó believes that in the 1950s, as the Cold War turned to ice and artists were encouraged not to make work that might be used by Italy’s enemies as negative propaganda, photographers had advantages over some filmmakers and publishers because they didn’t rely on government subsidies and felt less pressure to conform from financial authorities.

What’s more, she writes in her catalog essay: “Consciously or not, their eyes continued to interpret neorealist poetics in its highest expression, because, as Fabio Amodeo observed, ‘after all, cinema and literature could do realism, but it still remained fiction,’ while the vision of the photographers dealt with genuine people, real landscapes, collective stories that vibrated with skin and soul.”

The rhetoric of passionate realism can sometimes be indistinguishable from that of passionate romanticism. In his foreword, Martin Scorsese admits that neorealism is an even slipperier concept. Its directors were known for their “lack of artifice—going out into the streets to shoot stories grounded in everyday life, from the situations to the locations to the use of non-actors. Of course, there was artifice in those pictures, and there was the extraordinary artistry of Rossellini and De Sica and Visconti. But it was all in the service of illuminating the here and now, and the everyday courage required to live with dignity and freedom and compassion.”

He finally settles for a definition of the movement as an “impulse”—or “an act of recovery and restoration”—rather than a set of principles for making and framing images.

Until now, Mario Giacomelli has been the most recognized post-war Italian photographer in the U.S., while the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (under emerita curator Anne Tucker) and SFMOMA (under emerita curator Sandra Phillips) have probably been the most vigilant institutions in collecting a broad range of work from the period.

Now, thanks to Viganó, New York is suddenly awash in many half-a-century old photographs that only a tiny minority of us have seen before. The Howard Greenberg Gallery (The New Beginning for Italian Photography: 1945-1965 here), the Keith De Lellis Gallery (NeoRealismo: Nueva Fotografia Italiana here), and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where new acquisitions often make their debut in the second-floor hallway by the print galleries, have independently mounted exhibitions.

Of the three, the Met’s selection from the period is the smallest but choicest. I particularly recommend Mario Cattaneo’s grimy Naples (1950s), Tazio Secchiaroli’s Altare della Patria, Rome (1956), an action shot of a priest being led away by a soldier during a demonstration against neo-Fascists; Eros Fiammetti’s Rustico, Astrio di Breno (1957) of two rabbits in the open window of a peasant’s hut; and Sante Vittorio Malli’s At the Market Hall, No. 1 (1957), an overhead shot of people shopping that splits the frame in two: it may be the most formally audacious image in any of the shows.

Whether any of these other previously neglected figures sustained their careers to become artists of the first rank is difficult to measure in a group show. But from the limited evidence here, I would venture that Malli and Cattaneo deserve more concerted exposure. The art historian Giuseppe Pinna in his catalog essay cautions that it would be foolish to rank any of these photographers as highly as their more vaunted neorealist filmmakers. “One is not able, nor indeed willing, to reinstate the memory of any photographer or any of their works so far as to be able to consider them on the same level as the masters and works of cinema mentioned above. It would be pointless and misleading.”

Pinna also claims that linking many of these photographers to the famed directors of neorealist cinema is misleading. He cites not Vittorio De Sica but the far less revered Vittorio De Seta, whose short films Lu tempu de li pisci spata and Isole di fuoco (1954), Surfarara and Parabola d’oro (1955)—as “the most pertinent cinematographic counterpart of the lyrical realism practiced by photographers Pietro Donzelli, Fulvio Roiter, Alfredo Camisa, Piergiorgio Branzi, Nino Migliori, and to a different extent by the Spilimbergo group.”

One defect of this project is the scant scholarly attention paid to the materials that Italian photographers had available at the time. None of the essayists in the catalog cite which cameras, lenses, film were used to make any of these images, or what darkroom techniques or laboratories fell in and out of favor, and why. It is also peculiar that Viganó writes nothing about the male domination of the movement and how gender bias may shape what we see. In a country where women were not allowed to vote until 1946, the topic is at least worth speculating upon.

What’s most exciting about Viganó’s project—on which she has worked for 9 years—is the many little-known figures she has researched and whose work can now be more fully measured. If neorealism was a movement that allowed a devastated country to recover its buried history, her scholarship has performed a similar healing act on the amnesia of the rest of the world.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a museum show, there are of course no posted prices, and given the broad range of artists included in this multi-venue group show, we will forego our usual discussion of individual gallery relationships and secondary market histories.


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Read more about: Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò (NYU), Grey Art Gallery (NYU), Prestel Publishing

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