Paintings by Mario Mafai
Born in Rome in February of 1902, Mario Mafai was an Italian painter. He and his wife, the sculptor Antonietta Raphaël, founded the Scuola Romana art movement. With its firm approach to European Expressionism, the Scuola Romana sought to counter the orderly, neoclassical character of Novecento Italiano, the Italian art movement founded in 1922 which rejected European avant-garde movements and became associated with Fascism.
Although Italian dictator Mussolini had little personal regard for the visual arts, he understood its value as propaganda. For years, his regime supported artists regardless of style, from the futurists who hated tradition to the classically inspired Novecento group which was initiated by art critic Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini’s mistress. Artists of varying degrees of political commitment entered the official exhibitions and received awards given by the regime for their work. The regime decreed in 1927 that all exhibitions must be authorized by the government and published in the official journal of record, the Gazzette Ufficiale. While the state did not dictate art’s content, it established control over the structure that enabled the art to reach a wider audience.
Mario Mafai left traditional education early in his training and, along with fellow student Gino Bonichi, chose to attend the free Scuola Libera di Nudo, a life drawing component of Rome’s Academy of Fine Art. Most of Mafai’s formative art training was gained through readings in the Fine Arts Library at Palazzo Venezia and by studying artwork at Rome’s many galleries and museums. Influenced by the style of modernist painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi, Mafai focused on the tonal quality of his work; he represented everyday objects with subtle color graduations that lent a magical existence to the painted image. Mafai painted from reality and portrayed his many views of the city of Rome with a fresh sense of curiosity.
In 1925 during their studies at the Academy, Mafai met Antonietta Raphaël, a graduate in piano from London’s Royal Academy of Music, who was studying sculpture and painting. They began a lifelong relationship that encompassed both their private life and the arts. In 1927, they relocated into apartment number 325 on Via Cavour which soon became a meeting place for the literati of Rome, among which were the poets Giuseppe Ungaretti and Libero de Libero, and artists such as Corrado Cagli and Mafai’s friend Gino Bonichi, known in the art world as Scipione.
In 1927, Mario Mafai had his first exhibition, organized by the National Association of Artists, at a gallery in Via Margutta. His second show was held in the following year at the 94th Exhibition of the Society of Amateurs and Connoisseurs of Fine Arts. Along with a collective group of young artists, Mafai exhibited his strong anti-impressionistic paintings at the 1929 Young Painters Convention held at the Palazzo Doria. He was deeply critical of Mussolini’s urban transformation of Rome, which razed many working-class housing districts. This criticism was particularly expressed in Mafai’s 1936-1939 “Demolition of the Suburbs”, a series of city views illustrating the destruction of these districts.
In 1938, Italy passed and began enforcing its discriminatory Racial Laws, This was a series of separate bills, between 1938 and 1944, that excluded Italian Jews and native inhabitants of the colonies from school, academia, politics, finances, and the professional world. Civil rights and travel were restricted, books were banned, and assets and property eventually taken. Mario Mafai and his wife experienced the cruelty of Fascism personally, as Antonietta Raphaël was the daughter of a Lithuanian rabbi. He and his wife left Rome and relocated to Genova where they found help from friends and collectors of their art.
Despite being declared a second-class citizen with no rights, Mafai was drafted into the reserve Italian forces during World War II. During the war years, he painted his “Fantasies” series, violent war scenes inspired by Francisco de Goya’s engravings “Disasters of War”. Mafai’s brutal reflections on the war depicted soldiers as sinister, spectral forms committing brutal acts against civilians. Mafai returned to Rome in 1943 and continued working on his principal themes.
At the end of Mussolini’s dictatorship, the importance of Mafai’s work became widely recognized. Entered in exhibitions throughout Italy, his paintings won many awards. For a period starting in 1957, Mafai rejected his previous artistic path of figurative work and started using a bold smashing of colors and shapes in an abstract form. Thirty of these works, which reduced the image to its essence, were shown in an exhibition entitled “Ropes”.
Mario Mafai died in Rome on the 31st of March in 1965. After his death, he was celebrated with an important retrospective of his work at Rome’s Ninth Quadrennial in 1965. Established as a widely exhibited sculptor, Antonietta Raphaël died ten years later in Rome.
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Mario Mafai in His Studio”, 1938, Gelatin Silver Print
Second Insert Image: Mario Mafai, “Paesaggio (Lungara)”, 1948, Oil on Canvas, 38 x 41 cm, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Mario Mafai, “Self-Portrait”, 1928, Oil on Canvas, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Mario Mafai, “Osteria al Neon”, 1952, Oil on Canvas, 77 x 77 cm, Private collection, Rome