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  • Zavattini, above and beyond Neorealism
  • Giorgio Bertellini and Courtney Ritter

Outside of Italy, Cesare Zavattini (1902–1989) is widely known as one of the key screenwriters and theorists of Italian neorealism.1 This is, however, a most reductive characterization. For more than six decades, Zavattini occupied Italian public life as a poet, fiction writer, cultural activist, humorist, columnist, periodicals editor, cartoonist, art collector, and painter—a legacy Anglophone audiences are scarcely aware of because of the paucity of his translated work. Today we would refer to him as a multimedia practitioner, critic, and activist.

Considering the understandable space limits of this venue, we have selected three short samples of his wide-ranging interests and interventions.2 In chronological order, the contributions deal with, respectively, painting, television, and the so-called free newsreels. Although these selections may inevitably exude an air of serendipity, they should also convey Zavattini’s militancy for more democratic approaches to both new and old visual media. Beyond the familiar on-screen “shadowing” [End Page 1] of ordinary people’s lives, his engagement with painting, television, and news making reveals the promotion of an intermedial and egalitarian notion of mass authorship that exceeds the traditional understanding of the neorealist film author.

For Zavattini, painting was neither a hobby nor a professional occupation. His indefatigable activity with brushes and colors could not fit either description. He regularly spoke of himself as an amateur artist, but painting was a significant part of his continuous experimentation with antihierarchical modes of expression and participatory formats. He began painting late in life, in 1938, starting with watercolors, and, as he often put it, for very personal reasons. His art, however, did not remain a private matter for long. In 1943 he won first prize at a Venetian art contest opened to about sixty Italian writer-painters. Two professional art dealers offered him a contract, and dozens of personal exhibitions of his work followed. Still, what truly mattered to him was the sheer joy of artistic creation, particularly through form and color, and the fact that painting itself, while a traditionally highbrow form of expression, could lead to unconventional practices of democratic image making.

Astonishingly productive and technically consistent, Zavattini worked with acrylics and mixed media on paper, colored cardboard, and canvas, and he obsessively returned to imaginary portraits and self-portraits. Realism was never the guiding principle of his painterly output. His images maintained a sketchy, airless appearance; his colors formed suspended abstractions that dominated over outlines and perspectives.3 Trying to contextualize a dreamy and surreal poetics that resisted easy classification, critics made reference to Paul Klee’s abstractions and to the art brut of Jean Dubuffet to capture the primitivism of his subjects and style, and to Edvard Munch to describe his anxiety-ridden self-portraits.

If writing came with a civic consciousness, painting produced an irrational exuberance, as Zavattini recounted in a 1975 interview.4 “Self-Presentation,” herein translated, was published in the first exhibition catalog of his work (1946) and expressively conveyed his enthusiasm. In his multiple-decade engagement with artists, collectors, critics, and gallerists, Zavattini demonstrated a preference for artistic expression that challenged conventional social hierarchies and intervened into civic affairs. For instance, although he painted on surfaces of all sizes, he proudly displayed a preference for minimal formats—linked to the size of his notepad sheets—that better suited his idea of art as the expression of the curious everyman, not as the work of the great artist. The notion of anti-monumental and democratic art affected even his collecting activity. The tiny 8 × 10 cm format became the fixed standard for his collezione minima, an assemblage of about 1,500 miniature self-portraits that, from 1941, he commissioned from Italy’s best- and lesser-known artists. They included Carlo Carrà, Giorgio de Chirico, Lucio Fontana, Renato Guttuso, Antonio Ligabue, Fausto Melotti, and Mario Sironi; among the few foreign artists was Diego Rivera. [End Page 2]

Similarly, Zavattini’s engagement with television was not casual, fleeting, or peripheral to his larger body of work. By 1956, a mere two years after official broadcasts commenced in Italy, television had already started to animate Zavattini’s theoretical writings...


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