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Neo-Realism

The 1920s spawned a whole range of artistic movements. One of these, which came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s, was called Neo-realism. Let's explore the definition of Neo-realism and look at some examples.

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The 1920s spawned a whole range of artistic movements. One of these, which came to prominence in the 1940s and 1950s, was called Neo-realism. Let's explore the definition of Neo-realism and look at some examples.

Neo-realism definition

Neo-realism (or neorealismo) is an Italian cultural movement which spanned art, literature and film. It was influenced by Modernism in the 1920s and started after World War Two in Italy. Neo-realism is an artistic movement which aimed to depict the War, its causes and its aftermath, as realistically as possible, along with depictions of ordinary human life.

Modernism was a cultural movement during the first half of the twentieth century which abandoned the styles of the Victorian era. It encompassed art, architecture, music, theatre and literature.

Because Neo-realism is a ‘new realism’, there must have been a previous or older version of realism. Before looking at the new form of realism, let’s have a look at realism.

Literary realism is a way of writing prose or fiction which attempts to portray situations, characters and events as accurately as possible.

Literary realism: definition and context

Realism was a reaction to Romanticism. The Romantic period (late 18th to mid 19th century) aimed to portray the individual standing against the natural world with nothing but emotions to guide him or her. The famous painting Wanderer above the sea of fog by Caspar David Friedrich (1818) is a good example of the romantic ideal: a solitary figure, master of his destiny, surveying a dramatic and chaotic landscape.

Neo-realism and classical realism

By contrast, realism abandoned feelings and individualism for truth. It is called 'realism' because it emphasises ‘reality’: the aim was to depict the subject accurately rather than ‘romantically’. In this sense, realism was an anti-romantic movement.

As a writing style, realism expresses itself plainly, without adding much artistic flourish. In literature, realism aimed to represent life as it was lived by ordinary people, often in mundane settings. It did not try to offer an interpretation of what it observed. It only aimed to make the subject of the text known to the reader. Underlying this aim was a belief in the existence of objective reality.

This set it against the philosophical position known as idealism, which says that the mind constructs reality.

Idealism is a branch of philosophy which says that the world does not exist outside the mind. There are varying degrees of idealism, some of which say that the world is nothing more than our impressions of it and therefore entirely 'constructed' by the individual, and others which say that the world is partly constructed by the mind. The opposite of idealism is objectivism.

Famous authors in the British realist tradition include George Eliot (1819-1880) and Thomas Hardy (1840-1928).

At the start of the 20th century, realism was a popular literary form, primarily because of the increased use of the camera and moving film. Then came the Second World War and fascism, which neo-realism reacted against.

Fascism was a political ideology which originated in Italy and was adopted by Germany. It led directly to the Second World War.

Characteristics of Neo-realism

Numerous 'neo-realist' writers were affected by fascism in Italy in the years leading up to the War and sought artistic ways of responding to it. In this sense, fascism led to the birth of Neo-realism. At the same time, early Modernist writers from the English-speaking world were being translated into Italian, which influenced the Italian literary scene. This in turn spawned a new wave of Italian writers and a new writing style.

After the demise of fascism, Italian culture (art, literature, and film in particular) was rejuvenated. For example, neo-realist cinema became a popular export after the war years.

Italian literature has a long history of realism. In the 20th century, writers like Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) and John Steinbeck (1902-1968) influenced Italian literary culture.

Works of Neo-realism tended to be anti-fascist. The neo-realist writing style, like its cousin in neo-realist film, deployed a ‘documentary-like objectivity’.1 Neo-realism in literature depicted the lives of ordinary people, most commonly the ‘poor’. The names associated with this movement were Elio Vittorini (1908-1966), Cesare Pavese (1908-1950), Italo Calvino (1923-1985), and Alberto Moravia (1907-1990).

Neo-realism didn’t have a manifesto and had no established principles.

Italian neorealism became noted for its literary and cinematic focus on stories that arose from the everyday lives of common people during fascism, the Nazi occupation, World War II, and the immediate postwar period.2

It is important to note that Neo-realism was a leftist movement. This is no surprise, given the rise and dominance of Italian fascism in which it first defined itself. Neo-realists hoped for a more equal society and a fairer, more representative type of governance after years of dictatorship. Communism seemed to offer the antidote to fascism. Neo-realism described the

often brutal material conditions of post-war Italy in simple, colloquial language. They

devoted substantial attention to social, economic, and political problems, giving rise to the concept of impegno sociale, or the “social commitment” of artists to renewing Italy and its citizens.’2

Where fascism had been brutal and lacking in compassion for the plight of ordinary people, Neo-realism aimed to provide a counter-voice: emphasising compassion in its depictions of ordinary people in their suffering. In this sense, Neo-realism is a form of Socialist realism.

Socialist realism is a kind of realism which comes from the political left and encourages equality and compassion.

Neo-realism in literature: examples

There are numerous examples of literary works in both the Italian and American neo-realist traditions. This article is about the Italian movement, but it is worth mentioning the American tradition. On both sides of the Atlantic, Neo-realism was an attempt to take the realist project a step further. Its aims, although not unified, were to depict reality in all of its rawness and intensity.

Italian Neo-realism produced works like La Luna e I falo (The Moon and the Bonfires) by Cesare Pavese (1949), Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (The Path to the Nest of Spiders) by Italo Calvino (1947), and La Ciociara (called Two Women in English) by Alberto Moravia (1957). These works depict, as honestly as possible, the lives of ordinary people, sometimes involving journeys, romances, and coming-of-age motifs. On the other side of the Atlantic, American neo-realists included William Faulkner (1897-1962) and John Steinbeck, as well as Ernest Hemingway.

Neo-realism's impact

The impact of neo-realist film and literature has been felt in Italy and around the world in the years following the second world war.

Creating their works out of the ruins of World War II, authors and filmmakers such as Primo Levi, Alberto Moravia, and Vittorio De Sica attracted international acclaim for their elaboration of neorealism as the aesthetic defining post-Fascist, or “new,” Italy. Although not a formalized artistic school with prescriptive tenets...3

The impact of the movement can be felt in modern documentary film-making and arguably in the concept of reality TV.

Neo-Realism - Key takeaways

  • Neo-realism (or neorealismo) is an Italian cultural movement which spanned art, literature and film.
  • Neo-realism aimed to depict the second world war, its causes and its aftermath, as realistically as possible, along with depictions of ordinary human life.
  • Realism was an anti-Romantic movement.
  • The neo-realists were affected by the repression caused by fascism in Italy before and during the war.
  • Neo-realism was a leftist movement.

References

  1. Britannica, Art, Neorealism in Italian Art
  2. ‘Neorealism: What is and is not’ in Neorealism and the ‘New’ Italy, part 1
  3. SM Konewko, 'Neorealism: What is and is not', in Neorealism and the 'new' Italy, 2016

Frequently Asked Questions about Neo-Realism

Neorealism (or neorealismo as it is known in Italy, where it originated) is an Italian cultural movement which spanned art, literature and film.

Works of neorealism tended to be anti-fascist. The writing style, like its cousin in neorealist film, deployed a ‘documentary-like objectivity’. Neorealism in literarture depicted the lives of ordinary people, commonly the ‘poor’. 

Italian neorealism produced works like La Luna e I falo by Cesare Pavese (1949), Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno by Italo Calvino (1947), and La Ciociara by Alberto Moravia (1957). These works depict, as honestly as possible, the lives of ordinary people, sometimes involving journeys, romances, and coming-of-age motifs.

The main ideas are that. life should be portrayed as honestly as possible, and that mundane, ordinary life in particular should form the subject matter of novels. 

Neo-realism influenced later novels which took the novel into the latter half of the twentieth century as a vehicle of postcolonial literature and depictions of life in the post war years. 

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