Antonietta Raphaël Mafai, Memories of an Archaic World

A non non-compliant artist

By La Galleria Nazionale

Mura delle terme di Caracalla (1929) by Antonietta Raphael MafaiLa Galleria Nazionale


Antonietta Raphaël was born around 1895 in Kovno, a small village near Vilnius, today the capital of Lithuania.

The father, rabbi of a small Jewish community, died in 1903 and immediately afterwards the family immigrated to London, the city where Antonietta lived for about 20 years. After graduating in piano at the Royal Academy, she makes a living as a solfeggio teacher.

At that time, she approached painting and sculpture, with particular interest in archaic and classical sculpture, which she had the opportunity to enjoy at the British Museum.

Suggestions that, together with the deep-rooted connection with the rituality and folklore of Jewish culture, will emerge in her future artistic production.

The School of via Cavour

In Rome, Antonietta Raphaël met the painter Mario Mafai and became his lifelong companion. From their union, three daughters were born: Miriam, Simona and Giulia. In 1928, they moved to an apartment in via Cavour. These were years of feverish artistic activity for the couple and their home became a hot spot and gathering place for various artists and writers of the time, including Enrico Falqui, Giuseppe Ungaretti, Leonardo Sinisgalli, Renato Marino Mazzacurati and, above all, the artist Scipione.

The group of artists - that Roberto Longhi identifies as the "School of via Cavour" - had a common artistic harmony which mainly referred to European expressionism.

In 1924, shortly after her mother's death, she decided to undertake a solitary journey that took her first to Paris and then to Rome, with the intention of continuing towards Greece and further to Egypt. But the Italian capital will enthral her, becoming a real revelation for the artist.

Ritratto di Mario (1928) by Raphaël Mafai AntoniettaLa Galleria Nazionale

Ritratto di Mario (Portrait of Mario), 1928, painting.

"Antoinette Raphaël's painting, (...) among other things that came to my attention in getting to know this group - which, from the address, I would call 'the school in via Cavour' - could reveal the vagaries or rapid growth of a "Chagall's milk sibling."

La sognatrice (1946 ca.) by Antonietta Raphaël MafaiLa Galleria Nazionale


Between 1930 and 1933, Antonietta, first with Mafai and then alone, lived between Paris and London where she regularly met the sculptor Jacob Epstein.

In these years, her interest in sculpture consolidated and she began to experiment with it on her return to Rome and Genoa, a city where the family was forced to move due to the Italian racial laws of 1938.

Her work at the time was developed in isolation and its visual aspect reveals the lack of influence of the Italian sculpture of the period, growing instead her relationship with archaism.

Ritratto di giovane donna (1928) by Raphaël Mafai AntoniettaLa Galleria Nazionale

The Sixties and the Seventies

The sixties continue to be years of great work, but also years of pain due to the disease and subsequent death of Mafai in 1965. On the thread of memory, she painted Homage to Mafai, a large canvas from 1966. Before 1970, she created all of her sculptures.

Encouraged by Giuseppe Appella, she dedicated herself passionately to lithography while continuing to face, with the extraordinary energy that characterised her whole life, the last two large canvases, perhaps the most joyful of all her production: Homage to Picasso and Grande Concerto on Lake Vico.

Mafai nello studio (1965) by Raphaël Mafai AntoniettaLa Galleria Nazionale

Mafai in the study, 1965, painting.

Missione Segreta (1965) by Raphaël Mafai AntoniettaLa Galleria Nazionale

Antonietta Raphaël Mafai is an artist characterised by a vigorously anti-academic conception that also dominated her activity in the field of sculpture, an art to which, especially after the Second World War, she devoted most of her time and whereby she particularly underlined the tender and vibrant carnality present in the stone.

Discover more aboutAntonietta Raphaël Mafai

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