I’ve studied Italian art from the Etruscans starting in the 6th century BCE to the Macchiaioli, Florence’s 19th century political painters. So, when I picked up the flier for Arte Italia’s exhibition on neorealism in photography, I saw an opportunity to fill in some of the gaps in my Italian art knowledge.
Arte Italia is an Italian culture exhibition and culinary center in Reno. The current exhibition, NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960, follows neorealism’s beginning as a fascist propaganda effort to its culmination as a democratic form of expression used to forge an Italian national identity. Following NeoRealismo according to the exhibition map gives you a clear sense of the history and the art developing.
As I walk through the galleries, I realize I’m looking for more than scholarship. Growing up in New Jersey in the Italian-American kitchens of my family, I was taught that store-bought tomato sauce is a cardinal sin. I sought a connection to home, family, and heritage—one I hadn’t yet found in Reno.
NeoRealismo captures a tumultuous Italy under fascism, then during and after World War II. Photographs show mundane aspects of life, including hardships, trauma, and joy. Television screens play clips of films by Italian directors like Fellini, Visconti, and Rossellini. The title of one photograph, Cesare Barzacchi’s “The Holy Family” (1944), sounds more like Renaissance art. A woman holds a baby and stares into the distance as another child stands over her shoulder. A crowd surrounds them, and the moment feels like they are trying to tune out the anxiety of the era.
The Macchiaioli also aimed to create a national identity through art in the previous century, primarily using landscape painting. Some of the most interesting Macchiaioli paintings document people’s daily lives and hardships. Neorealism focuses on people, but both movements seem to draw their vivacity from the stark contrasts in light. Whether capturing joy and humor or grief and hardship, NeoRealismo finds beauty in daily life without romanticizing.
The “Ethnographic Investigation” section’s wall text explains, “scenes of crowds were rare as photographers realized that the only way to rebuild a collective identity was to recognize individual difference.” One of my favorite photographs is Maddalena La Rocca by Franco Pinna (1952). Layers of thick black fabric cloak her head and body, filling the shot. Her face is puckered and wrinkled from age and sun-exposure. The caption reads simply, “The town witch.”
Through posters and a quote from Martin Scorsese, I begin to see how neorealism in photography also ultimately inspired movies. Besides home or heritage or education, I find out something about making art and writing, about how artists look at and see daily life.
A woman asks me if I speak Italian, and I say I can only read a little. She laments that several titles, magazines, and movie clips are only in Italian. But I would encourage you to embrace these images without worrying too much about the supporting texts. These moments were real, happening daily in people’s homes and on the streets. These photographs may have been made more than a half century ago, half a world away, but their realness and humanity need no translation.
NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960 is on view through Dec. 29 at Arte Italia in Reno. Gallery hours are Friday through Sunday, noon-5 p.m. Admission is free.