A new kind of freedom – image and reality in the 1960s
Corinna Lotz discovers how the urge for freedom spread from the high life to the street in two photo shows
The golden mood that prevailed in 1960s Rome as it became a major centre for the film industry is indelibly fixed in the mass imagination through images of cinema icons.
Film stars at work and play in the Eternal City, selected from the archives of Italian photographers Marcello Geppetti and Arturo Zavattini, recreate this atmosphere in a show at London’s Estorick gallery.
The gloom of the post-war years was giving way to a new confidence, encouraged by the flow of American money into Cinecittà, the centre of Italian film production.
Rome was at the heart of an Italy still recovering from fascism and war. As the new decade of the 1960s began, an effervescent creativity and a sense of freedom began to break through, defying the norms and morals of the day.
Italy’s native talent, including directors like Federico Fellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, Cesare Zavattini (Arturo’s father), Michelangelo Antonioni and actors like Sophia Loren, Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale and Monica Vitti now came together with international stars from Hollywood.
There is a sense of the familiar in Geppetti’s skilfully snatched shots of Hollywood icons – walking down a street, in cars, restaurants, bars and clubs. This was a kind of birth moment when celebrity culture came on the scene. The millions who could not lead the charmed lives of the stars were increasingly hungry to see them off screen, as “real” people.
So much so that stealing an image became a game of pursuit as well as making money for ambitious photojournalists. Geppetti and his fellow street journalists gave birth to the term paparazzo. Fellini used one of these as a character in his masterpiece, La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life).
Zavattini’s more intimate and psychological approach to his subjects was facilitated by his role as cameraman and director of photography on La Dolce Vita. This heroic three-hour stream-of-consciousness story revolves around a bored reporter roaming around the city in a frustrated search for pleasure and meaning.
Film historian Massimiliano Di Liberto of Parma’s Solares Foundation (which put together the show) notes in the exhibition catalogue that the era of la dolce vita helped Italy to rediscover itself "steeped in tradition and modernity at the same time".
La Dolce Vita enraged the Church and state in Italy as it broke through moral and religious taboos. The Vatican threatened Roman Catholics with ex-communication if they watched it. It was banned in Spain under Franco and not screened there until 1981. Fellini was accused of atheism, communism and treason in 400 telegrams sent to the director after its premiere.
Within a very few years the challenge to bourgeois morality that the film came to symbolise took on a far wider and social revolutionary form. Early in 1968 an international financial crisis broke out only months after US armed forces in Vietnam suffered disastrous defeat at the hands of the National Liberation Front. The scene was set for a year of revolutionary uprisings.
Spring revolutions, 1968: A tale of two cities (Atlas Gallery) shows the response of young people and workers to that crisis through the work of two members of the Magnum international photographers' co-operative.
In May 1968, tens of thousands took to the streets of Paris after De Gaulle’s police attacked a student protest in Nanterre. They were supported by 11 million workers who came out on unofficial strike around the country. It was a moment that changed the history of France. Bruno Barbey’s images convey the mass nature of the protests and the intense political debates.
In the same year in Czechoslovakia the events known as the Prague Spring shook Stalinism to its core. Ian Berry was the only foreign photographer to witness the Warsaw Pact tanks rolling in to crush the Czech rebellion. He shows street barricades, anxious faces listening to news of the Soviet invasion, young people remonstrating with soldiers sitting on tanks. It was a turning point for the power of Stalinism.
Taken together these two shows have an intensely contemporary feel, despite their black and white vintage look. The contrast of reality and image in the dolce vita of Rome was of course a million miles away from that of later street movements. But underlying it was, as Fellini’s film revealed, a sense of depression and unease, of intense unreality. There was a sense of freedom in Rome – Anita Ekberg’s dip in the Trevi fountain, Raquel Welch dancing on a table. There, defying bourgeois norms of behaviour was the privilege of high society and the Hollywood élite.
Barbey’s photo shows students on a barricade made out of movie posters, in an almost surreal “take” connecting 1968 with Hollywood film-making, image and reality.
A different kind of liberation is well under way, as we can see in thoughtful faces of students discussing and listening at mass meetings, and confronting the riot police. Their courageous counterparts in Prague are also listening intently, discussing and demonstrating.
The movements against Gaullism in France and Stalinism in Czechoslovakia were both attempts by a new generation to assert their opposition to oppressive political and economic systems. And the aspirations of those years have a contemporary resonance as they re-emerge in today’s global movements. Much has changed since 1968. Stalinism's grip has been broken. What kind of organisations can go from resistance to defeating capitalism and developing an alternative are the issues of the day.
6 May 2014