What Are the Main Characteristics of Neorealism?

Neorealism encompasses a few significant art movements throughout the 20th century. Examples like Italian Neorealism in cinema and French Nouveau réalisme in fine arts portray defining characteristics of the movement.

Mar 18, 2023By Susanna Andrews, BA Interdisciplinary Arts

what are the main characteristics of neorealism


Neorealism is a broad term that can be applied to several different fields of study. In politics, it’s defined as a theory of international relations involving power politics being employed as a result of the uncertainty of other governments’ intentions. However, it has a different meaning concerning art. Neorealism encompasses a few similar movements originating in different countries and decades. The artists considered the pioneers all shared a similar purpose. Their creations take inspiration from their surroundings and illustrate reality in a literal sense. The honest portrayal of a society recovering from war or the illustration of the corruption of capitalism are examples of common subjects of this movement. Here are three main characteristics of Neorealism.


Portraying Everyday Life in Neorealism

neorealism renato guttoso the crucifixion
The Crucifixion by Renato Gutusso, 1941 via Arthive


The term Neorealism was originally coined in 1914 by two English painters, Charles Ginner and Harold Gilman. They belonged to the London Camden Town Group made up of post-impressionists following the creative beliefs of Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. Sixteen members were included who focused on the portrayal of daily life in London and different social classes formed before and during WWI. In Ginner’s Neo-Realism manifesto, he discusses the issue with Academism and the tendencies of artists to formulaically produce work and interpret nature with no originality or truth. This caused distance from reality which thought led to the destruction of civilizations and art itself.


charles ginner roberts 8
Roberts 8 by Charles Ginner, 1916 via Tate, London


Ginner proceeds to illuminate the problems with Post-Impressionists and the hidden superficiality that reveals they too followed a formula. This is when he argues the superiority of Neo-Realism. Different from Naturalism, which simply replicates what is tangibly real without a meaningful revelation, Neorealism is born out of a thorough study of nature which results in an interpretation unique to the individual. Beyond looking to the natural world for inspiration, this art movement emphasizes the exploration of everyday life, the work becoming a document of a period in history.


neorealism interior with mrs mounter
Interior with Mrs. Mounter by Harold Gilman, 1916-17 via Tate, London

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Although artists had strayed away from the intimate relationship with nature necessary for non-formulaic creations, Cezanne, Gauguin, and Van Gogh remained pioneers for Neorealism in Ginner’s mind. What these three were able to achieve while working in a Post-Impressionist landscape was a deep connection with life itself that translated to works of self-expression depicting the truths behind being human.


Gilman and Ginner kept this in mind as their work evolved to illustrate modernity and everyday life with the start of World War I. They eventually founded an art school together and created a Neorealist magazine called Art and Letters in 1917. They gathered many disciples who would carry on the movement after they had passed.


Promoting Anti-fascism

rome open city
Rome, Open City by Robert Rossellini, 1946 via Slant magazine


In the 1940s, Italian cinema and painting became art forms showing signs of Neorealism. With the release of Obsessione directed by Luchino Visconti in 1943 and Roberto Rossellini’s award-winning Rome, Open City in 1946, Neorealist cinema was born. Simultaneously, the Fronte Nuovo delle Arti (New Front of the Arts) began in 1946. The Manifesto of Realism was signed that year and was primarily inspired by Paul Cezanne and Cubism. Renate Guttuso and Antonio Corpora were among the painters who joined the movement.


The main themes of films and artworks produced during this time were typically similar. In English Neorealism, representing authenticity and reality lived by normal people was prioritized. In Italy, however, the art movement became popular in the post-war era after World War II. Ordinary civilians fighting against injustice and suffering from poverty were common subjects. Through the artwork, people who rebelled against fascism were honored and equality was preached.


neorealism bicycle thieves
Bicycle Thieves by Vittorio De Sica, 1948 via Onedio


Through cinema, filmmakers focused on a documentary-like style, where the footage was shot on location and many actors hired were actually not professionals. Many recognizable Hollywood acting cliches were replaced by real moments of economic and moral struggle in the midst of recovery from war. Italian Fascist leader Benito Mussolini lost his position of power as World War II ended, which provided space for antifascists to reveal the horrors of the aftermath of war through films and paintings.


Surprisingly enough, Neorealism was actually evident in Italy in the 1920s through literature. However, fascist control repressed the movement. Due to this suppression, Neorealists responded with anger at how the overpowering leadership and war itself subdued many gifted writers. The growing number of translated political and socially conscious written works from the United States and England established the movement in the post-war era. These literature pieces all reflected the same themes as the visual artwork of the time.


Rebelling Against Capitalism

yves klein untitled anthropometry
Untitled Anthropometry (ant 100) by Yves Klein, 1960 via Phaidon


Around 20 years later, Neorealism emerged in France as a visual art movement started by the art critic Pierre Restany and the painter Yves Klein. It was developed as an indirect response to Pop Art. Pop art, developed in the United Kingdom and the United States during the 1950s, emphasized mass consumption and glorified capitalism in their minds. On the other hand, Neorealism denounced capitalism, with a critically perceptive approach to reality that illuminated dark truths.


In their 1961 manifesto, Dada was named as the inspiration for their movement, also known as Nouveau Réalisme. Dadaism originated as a reaction to the brutality of warfare in World War I and contradicted the chaos of war with its own nonsense and irrationality. The modern capitalist society that existed was rejected by Dadaists and materialism that defined the bourgeois was protested. Nouveau réalisme was influenced by Dadaism as they revolted against the heavy production of material goods in post-war Europe. Artists promoted resourcefully using one’s surroundings as subjects instead of ignoring reality through abstraction or figuration.


The assemblage was one of the mediums popular during this time. This form of creation aligns with the message of the New Realists. Instead of adding something new to a world of excess, Neorealists used what already existed to create something new. Artists even resorted to destruction, taking away something to express the need for change regarding people’s perspectives on capitalism and the meaning of art itself.


jean tinguely baluba
Sans titre (Baluba) by Jean Tinguely, 1961 via MutualArt


Jean Tinguely was a significant figure of the movement who created sculptures from found objects. In his Baluba series created from 1961-1963, his comical 3-D pieces consist of worn pieces. This was meant as a commentary on the absurdity of the incessant need to produce and accumulate brand-new versions of everything. Tinguely was a pioneer of kinetic sculpture, which invited observers to interact directly with the piece. This broke down barriers between artists and their audience, unlike the complete disconnect between mass producers and the public.


The portrayal of ordinary people’s daily lives, the suffering caused by war, and the dangers of mass consumption are subjects that define Neorealism. The pioneers of this art movement all strived to depict reality as close to the truth as possible. They refuted the idea that they had to hold a deeper meaning, instead believing that meaning was something found in the honesty of their work. Neorealism influenced cinema, fine arts, and literature in many different cultures, and figures like the filmmaker Roberto Rossellini and the French artist Yves Klein continue to impact creators and consumers today.

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By Susanna AndrewsBA Interdisciplinary ArtsSusanna is an artist passionate about generating concepts for creative writing pieces and short films. During this process, she loves to research topics related to art history and philosophy to inform her ideas. She graduated from the University of Washington with a BA in Interdisciplinary Arts and lives in Southern California.