New York

Alfredo Camisa, The Sickle, 1955, gelatin silver print, 23 3⁄8 × 19 5⁄8". From “NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932–1960.”

Alfredo Camisa, The Sickle, 1955, gelatin silver print, 23 3⁄8 × 19 5⁄8". From “NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932–1960.”

“NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932–1960”

Grey Art Gallery

Alfredo Camisa, The Sickle, 1955, gelatin silver print, 23 3⁄8 × 19 5⁄8". From “NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932–1960.”

The word realism conjures the everyday, the unfussy, the small. But what’s real when the world has gone mad? It’s a question that gripped Italian photographers, directors, journalists, and writers around World War II and is surely worth asking again. This exhibition heralds artists who captured quotidian life in an era of daily shocks. With a street-level perspective on poverty and labor in the shadow of war, Neorealism became synonymous with Italian cinema’s golden age. If you’ve seen Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948), you’ll know in part what to expect from the Grey Art Gallery’s survey of more than 170 works by sixty-plus artists: a social-reformist view of ordinary people scratching out a living, immune to great-man narratives, just getting by. And that’s all here. But curator Enrica Viganò gives still photos pride of place in a show featuring magazines, books, posters, and film clips. Her approach makes the interdependence of Neorealism’s various forms apparent while also clarifying the style’s evolution, revealing its roots in Mussolini-era propaganda, its flourishing in street photography and reportage after the war, its takeover of mass media, and its influence on Italian art photography as it was critiqued and debated in spirited camera clubs. 

The sprawling show is presented in five sections: “Realism in the Fascist Era,” “Poverty and Reconstruction,” “Ethnographic Investigation,” “Photojournalism and the Illustrated Press,” and “From Art to Document.” In the first part, we’re introduced to the primary motif: a fanfare for the common man. In images manufactured by the propaganda outlet Istituto Luce, fishermen, factory workers, peasants, and pilgrims are always pious, robust, and hardworking—they make the nation great. The pictures seem unplanned; it takes a moment to realize that squalor has, for the most part, been left out of the frame. Just a few years later, the fascist regime has collapsed and everything turns stark: Wild hope mixes with crushing deprivation and kids play on rubbled streets. As the country rebuilds in the late ’40s and early ’50s, Neorealism becomes genial, democratic, idealistic, searching. The hunger for a unified Italian identity is fed by imagery of all kinds. Photographers travel and experiment, taking chances with the medium’s elastic relationship to facts. Styles within styles proliferate. The photos are sometimes political, other times fanciful; they are often earnest, occasionally weird. What’s constant is their preoccupation with documenting faces and bodies in ugly-pretty environments. 

Sometimes the moment is decisive, but more often it’s diffuse. There’s a hint of Henri Cartier-Bresson in the more subjective works, such as Enzo Sellerio’s Montelepre, 1958, a photo of a boy caught midstride as he bounds with a balloon on a string. On the other end of the spectrum, there are the many ethnographic portraits that coolly observe how individual personality and social position interact, as in Renzo Chini’s Dante Agroppi, former worker at the Magona, 1955–56. Documenting the aftermath of a factory closing, Chini captures a man staring the camera down with presence and dented pride; he may be unemployed, but he’s still on the job. Most of the photos don’t fit into either—or any—category. But while the images rarely look like anything else, they aren’t exactly original, either. Many are almost fascinating, like any one rock on a beach. That coupling of individuality and banality, of poetry and boredom, is of course very real.

The best photos are, unsurprisingly, cinematic. These shots, almost accidentally, deliver us from our plain world: Nino Migliori’s atmospheric People of Emilia. Summer’s Evening, 1953, which peers in on a family through a single lighted window in the lower-left corner of an inky frame; or Cesare Colombo’s Go and Return, 1960, a hard-to-parse image of men in a rowboat gaping at a woman in the water, which reminded me of Michelangelo Antonioni’s drifting, knotty film from the same year, L’avventura, one of the earliest, and best, post-Neorealism movies. The style eventually became mannered and fractured, then fueled years of academic wrangling and fond remembrance. (Scholars agree on hardly anything about Neorealism, except that they all like it.) The show at the Grey Art Gallery makes the original ask urgent again. Strip away assumptions about what’s proper or natural; see what’s new.