Review

New York University’s latest photography exhibit showcased at Grey Art Gallery, titled NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960, features a collection of 174 images from over 60 Italian photographers. As the title references, the photographs are from Italy before, during, and after World War II. The concept of neorealism was a cinematic and literary movement that showed the disastrous postwar conditions, helping inspire this collection.

In 1932, to commemorate the first decade of Fascist rule in Italy, Benito Mussolini inaugurated the Exhibition of the Fascist Revolution in Rome. The exhibition, which consisted of 23 rooms filled with myriad forms of art, historical documentation, and artifacts, stayed on display for two years. It proved a massive success, drawing more than 2.8 million visitors.

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.