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Italy, 1930-1960. A country divided before it was even really united. The Italian population was fragmented, turned out by the war, slave of a regime. It was desperately seeking freedom, it was desperately looking for its own identity. At that time Italy needed to be real, needed to look in the face the desecration of its beauty perpetuated by strangers’ hands and ultimately by the Italians themselves. It was first chaos, then war, then misery, then triumph, then rebuild, then rebirth.

In post-Mussolini Italy, artists and photographers were left to make sense of the shattered ruins of a culture that had once developed their crafts into a well-oiled machine of nationalist propaganda. In this fascinating profile by Hyperallergic on a new exhibition at the New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, titled NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932–1960, these pivotal years of rebuilding Italy's cultural influence after World War II are explored through the lens of photography.

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.

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.

Enrica Viganò, an independent curator, spent nine years searching through the archives of individual photographers to assemble the 174 prints in “NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960.” There are no institutions in Italy that, like the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Ariz., hold the archives of important photographers, so Ms. Viganò sought out her subjects one by one. In fact, the point of the exhibition is to establish photography as a significant art form in a country where it has never ranked with painting, literature, music or, more recently, film.

The second world war left Italy in a shambles that proved fruitful for art. A republic was born amid the rubble and, after decades of fascist mythmaking, a new artistic frankness thrived. Yet one form of stylistic narrowness gave way to another — novelists, film-makers and photo graphers subscribed to the tenets of neorealism and united around a common project: to portray their devastated country unsparingly, with all its squalor, toughness and hope.

Consider these names: Fellini, Antonioni, Olmi, De Sica, Rossellini, Pasolini, Visconti, Scorsese, Coppola – the most compelling film artists of modern times, in this country and in Italy, not to mention the rest of the West. And yet the image world out of which they grew, the photographic milieu that nurtured all of them, that connected the diaspora Italians in New York (and Buenos Aires, among other places) with the home country, has never been explored in depth in the United States. Until now.

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.