You don’t need a firm grasp on Italian Neorealism—about which entire college courses are offered—and its role in art and philosophy to appreciate NeoRealismo: The New Image in Italy, 1932-1960, now on display at Arte Italia, 442 Flint St.
The collection of more than 110 images captured over the course of decades by more than 50 photographers speaks for itself—and spoke to Arte Italia President Kristen Avansino when she first read about it in the Wall Street Journal.
“An article about a woman, Enrica Viganò, compelled me,” Avansino said. “She spent 10 years as an art scholar traveling, zigzagging as she says, through Italy to find photographs that would represent a very unique period in Italian history—1932 to 1960.”
The photos Viganò collected depict life in Italy from the era of fascism through post-World War II reconstruction and into Italy's rebirth as a democratic nation. Many were collected from private owners. After curating the collection, Viganò began touring it through Europe.
“And somehow the word was conveyed to [New York University] and the Grey Gallery in New York, where it was exhibited at the time of this particular article in the Wall Street Journal,” Avansino explained.
Avansino knew she had to see it, and, afterward, wanted NeoRealismo brought to the West Coast. The E.L. Wiegand Foundation, which operates Arte Italia, sponsored a large grant to bring the exhibition first to the Museo Italo Americano in San Francisco and then to Arte Italia. It opened in Reno on Sept. 27.
Avansino said what draws her to the photos is the “human spirit, the almost pulsing humanness” she feels when looking at them.
“Because they're not staged—they're raw,” she said. “And they represent different periods of time, starting from a point in time when photography was used as propaganda. And then after World War II, when photographers captured for the first time the dichotomy—which really wasn't—of debris and hope and ecstasy, because the people were liberated and they once again were practicing the joy of being Italian. And then the next phase, where photographers felt the need to bring the country together, so there was an interest in ethnographic representation, a novel thought, ‘Let's unify.' … And then the interesting final segment … is this notion of photographic clubs, which emerged in Italy. You had dueling schools of thought about what photography should be.”
A single walkthrough of the exhibition might not be enough to soak it all in. Thankfully, Arte Italia's exhibits are free. Between now and late December, a person could visit half a dozen times and notice something new in photos depicting fascist military scenes; others with people going about their everyday lives amid post-war, bombed-out buildings; and more lighthearted photos snapped in the decades after the war ended. Avansino encourages visitors to consider multiple trips to see it, too.
“What you will see upstairs, I think, will bring people back several times—because it's multi-layered,” she said. “You come to an experience of seeing something with your life experience, whatever that is. I watched a 6-year-old in San Francisco, when we opened the exhibit, riveted by these photographs. … I believe that this exhibit begs families to come together and see it together. … As I saw that little boy in San Francisco, I realized this is a family exhibit.”