Antonietta Raphaël Mafai

A living and vital figure for today’s female sculptors

By La Galleria Nazionale

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

Letter to M. Mafai, August 11, 1925

The pale moon followed by a star – her only friend tonight. It was a divine night. A night of a novel, a night of love!

The rays of the moon projected all over the mountains and the Apennines, they were covered with a veil of pale emerald green. They seemed like ghosts rising from the earth, as if they wanted to breathe the fresh air of the world above.

The cypresses were long black shadows on the melancholy fields with their proud yellow haystacks. The dark and gloomy groves, the white houses of the peasants seemed like feathers loose and flying in the air, of the black ones you could only see their lights as in the stars arranged in the mountains.

A magnificent view was given by the birds that were like little lamps in the hedge, and the incessant monotonous noises of cicadas. Everything seemed asleep in a deep, mysterious sleep as if it were due to fairy’s rod.

he moon was still gazing into the lake and seemed paler than before, meditative and pained. Evidently her heart was full of sadness, she cried with bitter tears that went into the lake and made the foaming water bounce suddenly I heard a female voice sing.

It was a beautiful and clear voice and the echo carried it throughout. But she sang without feeling, sang with a cheerful heart and was pleased with herself.

The words were these, if I remember well: dry your tears, don’t cry anymore. Enjoy your life! And no more pain! Happiness, pain, delight and sorrow, all come from the only source! The author is love.

I searched for several minutes where that voice came from, it was not very deep, but nice.

And after a short time I saw that she was a mermaid of exquisite beauty emerging from the waters of the lake of Perugia, with a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other and while she was looking at herself and combing her beautiful golden curls, she admired herself.

The moon looked at her with disdain and said: “It is good for you to sing so that you have a cheerful heart. You are always in the depths of the sea, in your mother-of-pearl house where you don’t see the world above.

But I see everything, I see the naked life, really with its tragedies and its comedies. My rays like sharp needles penetrate into all the most hidden places and also know all the most hidden crimes in the depths of indigenous hearts. But why should I lose useless words with you, without ever being understood...”

Antonietta Raphaël

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

Antonietta Raphaël
(Kaunas, Lithuania, 1895 – Rome 1975)

Antonietta Raphaël’s life seems to epitomize the history of twentieth-century Europe through some sort of map.

Born in Lithuania, after the death of her father, the Rabbi Simon, she moved with her mother to London, where she graduated in music. In 1924 she was in Paris, alone after her mother’s death in 1919, and the following year she reached Rome, where she attended the Academy of Fine Arts and met Mario Mafai, with whom she began a partnership of art and life.

The co-founder of Scuola di Via Cavour together with Mafai and Scipione, she experimented with expressionist painting.

A central place in her life and in her work was taken by her family, with the birth of Giulia, Simona and Miriam.

In 1930 she moved back to Paris with her three daughters and Mafai, and began to study sculpture. She stayed in France for four years, but for a short stay in London where she met Jacob Epstein.

In 1933, back in Rome, she had a wide garden to work in.

She painted Miriam che dorme, which begins her gallery of girls, teenagers and women caught in everyday aspects, even when they lend their faces to gods or mythological figures, whom her daughters often sat for: a matrilineal genealogy.

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

In 1939 she moved to Genoa to escape racial persecution, then she returned to Rome in 1943, shortly before the Nazi occupation. After another period in Genoa, she got back permanently to Rome in 1950.

(It is difficult to resist the temptation to think that the grandiose female figure of the Fuga da Sodoma (Escape from Sodom), conceived in the mid-1930s, then destroyed, recreated in other variants and finally reassembled in plaster in 1968, was not a kind of self-portrait).

After the war, the participation in the Venice biennials of 1948 and 1950 and the solo show at Galleria Lo Zodiaco, followed by an intense exhibition activity, led to a constant re-evaluation of her work, including not only sculpture, but her role and contribution to painting from the 1930s, to which she will return after Mafai’s death.

Her whole work reveals her international apprenticeship: Maillol, alongside Martini, the classics, but also the drive for an archaic language, the primitivism discovered through the avant-gardes, the fullness of tense surfaces contrasting with the voids, the figure losing itself into large abstract masses.

Ritratto di legno (o Testa di ragazzo) (1945) by Raphaël Mafai AntoniettaLa Galleria Nazionale

She worked mainly with plaster and cement, poor materials – her bronze castings are in fact all made at a mature age.

Cesare Brandi defines her as “the only real Italian sculptress”. She said: “The word ‘sculpture’ alone fills me with an almost religious fear”.

Le tre sorelleLa Galleria Nazionale

Le tre sorelle (Three sisters) is a frequent topic of hers. The concrete version, now at Galleria Nazionale in Rome, had been exhibited with the title of Composizione at the Sindacale exhibition in 1937.

The group consists of the portrait of her three daughters: Miriam, the eldest, reads. Simona and Giulia listen. They look like a single body, a generative nucleus, a budding.

Daniela Ferraria told that she replied to a critic who asked her about her practice: “I work, I have always worked on a subject: the mother with the child, that is, genesis and motherhood. By motherhood I mean the beginning of the world, the beginning of things, of all things. I really love human figures because they can give the idea of movement more than anything else”.

(It is difficult to resist the temptation to see Antonietta Raphaël as a living and vital figure for today’s female sculptors).

Cecilia Canziani

Credits: Story

Antonietta Raphaël e Cecilia Canziani

Credits: All media
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