Federico Patellani, “Miners at Carbonia” (1950), Sardinia (© Studio Patellani) (all photos courtesy Grey Art Gallery unless attributed to the author)

Italian neorealism is rooted in the bloodied soil of Fascism. When postwar life arrived for the artists, filmmakers, and photographers who had trudged through the Benito Mussolini years as propagandists, their work had to evolve from goading the nationalistic fervor that drove Italy toward war. Shaped by an era of denouement, Italian neorealism diffused the belligerence of warmongering into a romanticization of the country’s laborers and emerging middle class. Accordingly, the genre became a dynamic negotiation between the realities of postwar recovery and the impulse to render la belleza della vita, the beauty of life, no matter the material conditions of this recovery.

NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932–1960 is a comprehensive survey of how photography transitioned from a propagandistic tool to an ethnographic document of Italy’s changing sociopolitical landscape. The exhibition, on view at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery mostly lives up to the difficult task of untangling that complicated historiographic knot with approximately 175 photographs by over 60 Italian artists.

Installation view of the exhibition (photo by author)

One cannot downplay the persuasive capabilities of documentary photography and its power to direct public opinion across Europe. Begrudged populism fomented dreary Fascism in the early 20th century by playing ethnic groups against each other. (Germany validated its attacks on Jewish and other ethnic minorities by claiming Aryan supremacy; Italian did something similar with its imperial belligerence toward Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.) Photography helped manifest a presumed superiority of particular nations with “proof” that dictatorial regimes like Italy, Germany, and Japan (key members of the alliance that opposed the Allied Powers in World War II) had revived their countries from the brink of global economic collapse. An effective tool of the propaganda machine, photography disseminated the staged triumphs of these new regimes to populations who (especially in the case of Italy) were often illiterate.

And like other Axis powers, Italy smuggled its propaganda abroad through films, magazines, art catalogues, and other visual media. NeoRealismo opens with this type of fascist paraphernalia. The first vitrine holds L’Italia fascista in cammino (Fascist Italy on the March), a book featuring 516 photographs and a preface written by Mussolini himself, who says that the photographic compendium is intended to “show the world what the Blackshirts have achieved in all areas of activity.” Accordingly, the captions inside are written in Italian, French, English, German, and Spanish.

Installation view of the exhibition (photo by author)

The photographs inside L’Italia fascista are slightly jarring for modern eyes. One, for instance, resembles an inept photo collage advertising the wine country with a massive vine of grapes alongside the disembodied (but still ebullient!) head of a farm girl. Another is bathos-infused and nationalistic: It depicts a miner drilling into the ground as refinery towers rip into the sky behind him. The caption on this photo reads, “PIOMBO E ZINCO,” lead and zinc.

Detailing these fascistic images at the beginning of NeoRealismo helps contextualize how Italian propaganda formed the basis of the country’s neorealism movement in the 1950s and 1960s. That Italian neorealism coincided with the so-called “Italian miracle” was no coincidence. This was an era that saw a largely poor and rural Italy transformed into a global power; ironically, the Italian glory that Mussolini promised came only after his demise. But Italy’s quick-footed resurrection also meant that the ethos of Fascism still hung heavy over the country, and Fascism’s aesthetic impulse to glorify labor played an important role in transforming Italy into a country of nationally organized capitalist endeavor.

Consequently, neorealist photographs were produced as operatic retellings of the immediate past — dramatic, heroic, hubristic, and sometimes even farcical. They were pseudo-ethnographic studies of strife meant to ennoble a beaten country. This genre of photography casts working class people as triumphant heroes representing the might of an ascendant Italy, but it also often obscures the difficulty of their jobs and the abject poverty that many rural migrant workers experienced. The neorealist cinema that dominated Italy during that same period like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1946) and Federico Fellini‘s La Strada (1954) — also typically elide that brutal reality.

Photographers like Enrico Pasquali, Caio Garrubba, and Sante Vittorio Malli  all flirt with the staged histrionics of the style described above. Pasquali captures two children wandering alone through rubble on the outskirts of the village Comacchio (1955); Garrubba documents women picking olives at a farm in Calabria (1955); and Malli depicts six farm workers on their way to work through a winter storm (1956).

Sante Vittorio Malli, “When snow means bread” (1956), Milan (© Eredi Sante Vittorio Malli)

Other photographers of this period were less enthusiastic about the country’s pivot toward capitalism. Artists like Mario Cattaneo depicted the contradictions of rapid industrialization in their work, often featuring the urban poor in slums just outside a city skyline racked with glossy new construction. Cattaneo’s 1951–1958 Alleys in Naples series, for example, considers how the quick postwar recovery did not necessarily heal all the wounds of wartime devastation. The people he photographs on the streets may look happy but their surroundings are often pockmarked by destruction. Buildings are crumbling in the background. Accordingly, Alleys in Naples builds a tension between perseverance and displacement, optimism and disadvantage.

Mario Cattaneo, from the “Alleys in Naples” series (1951–1958) (© Eredi Mario Cattaneo)

Italian neorealism also developed within the Cold War, an era when Communist rule in Europe could have meant the end of valuable American influence and money. Yet, the Italy Communist Party (PCI), formed in 1921, had played a major role in the country’s constitutional period in the late 1940s. And by 1975, PCI had already become the principle force behind most municipal councils — although it did dissolve 16 years later in 1991 amidst the collapse of other communist governments in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The question of how Communism would shape Italy during the postwar period was therefore of great interest to the populace, who transcribed their opinions about a potential socialist regime into art. Alfredo Camisa’s “The sickle” (1955) is a literal interpretation of political fear; it depicts the titular symbol of Communism as dangling just above an elderly woman’s head in a window sill.

Alfredo Camisa “The sickle” (1955), Tuscany (© Archivio fotografico Alfredo Camis)

Precursors to this type of political exhibitionism are Tino Petrelli and Pasquale De Antonis, both of whom documented the communist graffiti that covered Italy immediately following World War II’s end. De Antonis’ 1946 “Guardiagrele, the king of fools,” for example, includes hammer-and-sickle graffiti alongside a cartoon of a hangman labeled fessi, or stupid (a possible reference to Mussolini’s 1945 hanging after he was shot dead by a Communist partisan). While a little ambiguous, De Antonis’s message seems to be that Communism was the logical next step for a post-fascist Italy.

Unlike the relatively straightforward photographs described above, I find it harder to evaluate many other works in NeoRealismo, which haphazardly combines reportage with an overriding aesthetic elegance. Oftentimes, I think these images become poverty porn, transforming the toil of industrial laborers, miners, and street urchins into beauty. Work becomes beauty through bathos and cliché, which can assassinate the integrity of any documentary work.

Enrico Pasquali, “Children, outskirts of Comacchio” (1955), Emilia-Romagna (© Eredi Enrico Pasquali)

Federico Patellani’s “Miners at Carbonia” (1950) is one photograph I still struggle with a week after seeing the exhibition. Downright cinematic, the image depicts a group of men, who have presumably just emerged from a mine, covered in sweat and dirt. Sun just barely breaks through the clouds. The men gaze directly at the camera, which is positioned just below their chins to create a heroic image. The beauty of this photograph is undeniable, but it also obscures the historical reality of the laborers’ conditions. This image is from a series Patellani created documenting the lives of coal miners in Carbonia, Sardinia a place whose name derives from the Italian word for “coal.” The village itself was actually founded by Mussolini in 1938 to provide housing for local miners. None of this background comes through the photographer’s work, which, like the town itself, seems to carry on the legacy of Fascism’s glorification of labor.

Gianni Berengo Gardin, “Apulia” (1958), Apulia (© Gianni Berengo Gardin)

The foibles of Italian neorealism are pertinent lessons for today’s artists and filmmakers wishing to revisit the past. In The New Yorker, critic Troy Patterson described HBO’s recent adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s postwar-Italy novel, My Brilliant Friend, as “a Prada ad for the working-class, but with shades of humble tenderness.” I think this moniker would also apply well to the work of Italy’s neorealist photographers who perhaps sought in good faith to document “the Italian miracle” but actually tokenized the country’s most vulnerable populations.

NeoRealismo: The New Image of Italy, 1932–1960 continues through December 8 at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, East Village, Manhattan). The exhibition is organized by Admira, Milan, and curated by Enrica Viganò. 

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.

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