Max Raphael: A Creative Life in Struggle

Some fight because they hate what confronts them, others because they have taken the measure of their lives and wish to give meaning to their existence. The latter are likely to struggle more persistently.  Max Raphael was a very pure example of the second type.

That’s the opening passage of John Berger’s tribute to Raphael whose Marxist scholarship and theories on the practice of art made him, in Berger’s estimation, the “greatest mind yet applied to the subject.”

Berger dedicated his own most sustained work on the practice of art, The Success and Failure of Picasso—to Raphael: “a forgotten but great critic.”

Raphael’s gifts didn’t go unrecognized in his own lifetime (1889—1952).  His work spoke to (among others) Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Meyer Shapiro and Herbert Read.  Yet after he escaped from Germany and a French internment camp in 1941, this independent scholar was forced to live on the edge. No doubt that was one of the factors that led to his suicide in 1952, along with despair over Stalinism, McCarthyism, and a torrid summer in New York City.

Three European art critics and scholars—Patrick Healy, Jules Schoonman, Gijs van Koningsveld—have brought new eyes to Raphael’s brilliant corpus. In the biography node at The Max Raphael Project, they have outlined the extraordinary range of Raphael’s interests and hinted at the intensities of his creative work. It all jumped off “when he saw a painting by Picasso in a window in Paris, which in retrospect would be a fatidic moment for his whole life.” Raphael’s trio of advocates recall his early 20th C. case for Picasso and Matisse whom he defended after an educated fool trashed those painters, trotting out (per Raphael) “the usual accusation of inability that is leveled at every new phenomenon.” Cezanne was another touchstone for Raphael as Patrick Healy explains in his essay, “Cezanne in the Critical Work of Max Raphael.”  For Raphael, Cezanne’s paintings instantiated “the main point which is that arteven naturalismhas nothing to do with the perception of things, but rather with their creation.” Cezanne was a hero to Raphael, though the painter’s work defined the difficulties of creative practice in a world that was in the process of fracturing. Or as Raphael put it:

It was not Cézanne who was sick, but the society of the period, torn by the absolute contradiction between material power and spirit under the impact of industrial capitalism, which he heroically resisted, carrying art as complete as was possible through an epoch which was bound to destroy art and then itself…[H]is work nevertheless does not disclose the slightest “ressentiment.” Rather his work tries with the greatest naturalness to be nothing but an absolutely faithful hymn of praise to the glory of God’s creation. As a result his work, in addition to its artistic value, possesses a moral significancean exemplary value for the life of the creative.

Raphael’s own life of the creative was mad wide, though he was able to get his mind around it. He once provided a succinct summary of his work for the Bollingen Foundation (which published some of his research):

The work I have been doing for the past 35 years concerns a theory of art encompassing:

1 the essential concepts of a scientific description of a work of art

2 a theory of art criticism

3 a theory of art history.

All my published work since 1913 and all my unpublished studies have been preparatory work for this purpose. They covered, from the historical and aesthetic point of view, modern art (architecture, painting, sculpture) of the XIX and XX centuries, the architecture and sculpture of the XII century, Greek architecture, the paintings of the Palaeolithic caves in France and Spain, and the prehistoric pottery of Egypt. My theory of art shall be general, i.e. valid for all times and all peoples. Therefore I had to analyze the creative process of the human mind, a project which was realized in my book “Theory of Knowledge.” Moreover history of art cannot be separated from economics, sociology, politics, religion etc., thus my studies embraced these fields too.

Raphael’s studies were far removed from pedantry. His advocates evoke the talent for wonder that informed his research:

To his surprise he found in measuring the Palaeolithic paintings that there was a consistent appearance of the golden section, approximately that of Paccioli, that is 2:3 = 3:5. Although surprising, he said he found a simple explanation for this: the human hand. Through spreading the fingers of the hand, one could approximate these proportions, and so the stylization in Palaeolithic art could be better understood from the presence of the hand. It seemed to Raphael that each period of art might have such a unifying source…

You’re forgiven if you flash on Casaubon’s “key to all mythologies” as you read this (or that summative note for Bollingen Foundation). Raphael’s suicide may indicate he wasn’t above worrying his theories might turn out to be ashes. Yet the following account of his art life in New York City by Shirley Chesney should disabuse you of doubts on that score. It’s a thrilling testament to Raphael’s insistence on meeting the demands of art. B.D.

Max Raphael wrote of Cezanne in Wie will ein Kunstwerk Gesehen Sein, published in English as The Demands of Art (Princeton, 1968):

‘I paint my still-lives, these natures mortes, for my coachman who does not want them, I paint them so that children on the knees of their grandfathers may look at them while they eat their soup and chatter. I do not paint them for the pride of the Emperor of Germany or the vanity of the oil merchants of Chicago. I may get ten thousand francs for one of these dirty things, but I’d rather have the wall of a church, a hospital, or a municipal building.’ Neither his curses nor his desires were realized, and the painter was thrown back on one last maxim: ‘One must be a good worker… The ideal of earthly happiness to have a beautiful formulation.’ (quoted by Gasquet)

In the same way Max Raphael dedicated his work to those fighting to create a better world, to workers, to all those who would find inspiration and energy in art to bring about individual and social self-determination. After years of active teaching and lecturing in Europe, Raphael spent his last years in New York in concentrated research and writing. Occasionally he would guide friends and scholars through museums and art galleries. He was always open and available to seeing new work, especially that of young artists. I met Raphael at gallery shows of Picasso’s sculptures, of Dubuffet, and at a large exhibition of Cezanne. The wealth of material from his last years now preserved in the Nuremberg archive was, however, for the most part, a solitary outpouring of effort and self-realization.

What were some of the problems he set for himself and how do we begin to approach such a world-encompassing work? Were the works of art elucidated for their own exemplary artistic merits or were they available to him, as points of departure for a theme and variation on an autobiographical journey? In much the same way that Cezanne used Mont. St. Victoire or the objects of a still-life, Rembrandt, the literary tales of the Testaments, Picasso, the full range of past and present works of art to stimulate their creativity. I believe, we must see Raphael as an artist-creator, using man-made works of art rather than nature or the people in his personal life to raise “seeing” to his own form of artistic practice. The physical break with the European continent not only brought him to New York and new objects (or subjects), but it was his last works that began to take on a kind of tragic grandeur.

Of course, I did not realize any of this when I was introduced to Raphael by my professor of history and philosophy at an experimental girl’s college in 1950. My teacher had given me two Raphael books to study, Prehistoric Cave Painting, and Prehistoric Pottery in Egypt. Both books were published in English translations by the Bollingen Foundation in the mid forties. I struggled to understand these books. I turned back and forth from the illustrations to the text and in the case of the pottery, to the originals encased in the Egyptian collection of the Metropolitan Museum. I took Raphael’s word as authority. I did not know the extent of the originality of his work and how it stood in sharp conflict with the prevailing interpretations of prehistoric archaeologists and art historians. When I finally met him, it was through my teacher’s recommendation that I apply to assist him in France on a trip to the caverns and palaeolithic art collections. The following September he planned to prepare his work on the “Iconography of Quaternary Art” and he needed someone to make new illustrations, based on bringing out compositional relationships. From that time on I “saw” compositions in palaeolithic art, but he died the summer, before leaving for France.

Today, I believe I was studying Raphael more than I was analyzing drawings of bison and reindeer or neolithic inscriptions. Yet there is no great discrepancy here. What he brought to “seeing” and interpreting the palaeolithic signs, symbols, and compositions was a life-time of seeing individual works and of forging a method to systemize his experiences; building a vocabulary to share and explicate them. His interpretations of cave art actually made other scholars angry. At Sarah Lawrence College where he analyzed the compositions of the great ceiling and galleries of Lascaux, as the struggles of totemistic social groups, a prestigious audience, including Joseph Campbell, Rudolph Arnheim, Helen Lynd, and Gene Weltfish were all overwhelmed by the intricacy of the analysis. Every detail of sign or graffiti was masterfully incorporated in his exposition. “But was it true?” people asked then and must still ask now. How could he retell the story of the Magdalenian hunters with such certainty and authority? Was he imposing “class struggle” on the palaeolithic hunters? Why did he embark on such a task alone in New York, far from a world fighting on the soil of the caves, where a twenty thousand year continuum of art making produced thousands of images? He had no department, graduate students, or computer. Yet he managed to compile a systematic file of thousands of drawings and information about the contents of over hundreds of caves sites in France, Spain, and other parts of Europe, the numbers and sites of animal species, their dispositions and relationships from site to site. He read and amassed huge bibliographies of published articles by European prehistorians and kept in correspondence with these scholars.

But his best hopes for preparing an assistant was not in asking me to read the archaeological literature. Instead he wished to help me to “see” works of art. When I spoke to him of my own doubts about my vocation of art practice, he tapped his head and said “We came from the Talmud.” This ancient Hebrew taboo was a prohibition on the creation of graven images of the deity for the Jewish people that he believed severely limited their powers of pictorial invention. Whether he was deeply serious about the constraints of the Hebraic patriarchs on a not very committed Jewish art student or only encouraging me to undertake to help his scholarly work, I later felt his “prohibition” deeply and did abandon my studio work. After his death, I lived in the Raphael apartment with Mrs. Emma Raphael. She was an outstanding woman and anti-fascist militant who had dedicated all her energy to assist her husband, before and after his death. While she returned to Europe to try to interest publishers in Raphael’s books I became part of the small group including Dr. Ilse Hirshfeld and Claude Schaefer who with Mrs. Raphael were concerned about the preservation and publication of the total work. From the 1940’s until 1968 no new book appeared until Dr. Robert Cohen, a philosopher and physicist, together with Herbert Read, encouraged Princeton University Press to bring out The Demands of Art.

I had come to the study of Raphael’s work through the simplest observation that anyone approaching a world art museum can ask: Why did no one for thousands of years in the palaeolithic era create an image that looked like one from Egypt? Or why for thousands of years in Egypt were conventions so strict that there was no palimpsest as in palaeolithic times or Greek proportions or Greek spatial compositions? Was there never a moment of complete artistic freedom or one single transgression of cultural norms throughout whole eras of human history? If there is an approach to this problem, how would one begin? Trough a study of history? Through the study of anthropology and ethnology? Through Hegel and Marx? “Yes,” was Raphael’s own answer, through the internal evidence of his published and unpublished works. But primarily, through the relatively independent domain of works of art themselves, which must be seen, grasped, felt, reconstituted and recreated, compared with other works and become the data for psychology of artistic production. A further task was to form a hierarchy of values by which to compare and judge the works of art. This the experiencing individuals would incorporate into their growth, ethics, and practice in the world. Only by seeing something of the whole range of art making might one begin to approach the “necessity” implied in such questions.

Again and again at different periods of my own life I have taken up the study of palaeolithic art and the reading of Raphael’s books and studies. Raphael worked with the photographs and drawings of cave murals and mobiliary art made by the early prehistorians and scholars up until 1952. The nineteenth and early twentieth century practice was to ignore context and select out for reproduction of the clearest lines which corresponded to an identifiable image, animal or human. Great traditions of markings and signs that overlay or undercut or continued the individual figure or group were virtually ignored. Even at Lascaux it took decades for the Abbe Glory to prepare new drawings of the thousands of undecipherable markings of the Lascaux galleries for publication. We have in Raphael’s palaeolithic, neolithic, and Greek studies the beginning study of motifs which he began to recognize, compare and encompass in a story of the visual record of mankind beginning with the wandering palaeolithic big game hunters, particularly at the last periods of the Magdalenian era, when that way of life was coming to an end.

But we must recognize some of the contradictions that came with exile, independent research and his preoccupation with art from Europe. Raphael had visited caves in 1935, according to his own diary entry on his research trip to the Romanesque churches, but at that time he did not undertake a systematic study. What works he cited, were from tracings and photographs from publication. In the case of the neolithic pottery, he worked from the originals in New York. But in the “Classical Man” he used a cast reproduction available in the Metropolitan Museum study rooms. His painstaking reconstructions often had flaws, which he was the first to acknowledge. But he wanted to be judged by the brave hypothesis and the broader implications of his work, which in the case of the palaeolithic, he judged to be the only scientific way to approach the vast material. To be acquainted with the totality of the then discovered works and to organize and compare them at individual sites. What he was doing was selecting out features that became part of his own paradigms of Palaeolithic man, Neolithic man, and Classical man in Greece. He then attempted to use these paradigms to show how a given social and economic system necessarily demands a unique spatial relationship, proportions, materials, and symbols, and feelings for each era. These powerful emotions evoked by works of art can affect viewers of all times. In a sense there is a limitation on the freedom of every artist since the most remote times of purposeful architecture, 300,000 years ago. Chronological and nationalist arrangements of art in museums would therefore, not help the individual trying to feel his way back into the palaeolithic works. We can see several different forms of symbol systems operating simultaneously – the large animal forms, the abstract notational markings and the signs that looked to Breuil like huts, emanating rays, and the undecipherable mazes of engravings covering whole ceilings. With no written record of traditional mythology to guide him , did Raphael create a mythology for the palaeolithic?

For ten years Raphael was engaged in the palaeolithic studies. I only met him two years before his death. Every occasion of meeting to see a gallery exhibit or visit for a simple dinner with Emma and Max Raphael was an enjoyable and relaxed experience. He was not threatening or formidable in person, but smiled often and had a need to laugh. This was, perhaps, because we did not know each other very well and while I may never have satisfied him intellectually or in practical matters; ie. for the field trip in France, he expected me to learn to operate a motorcycle and to transport him in a side car to cover the distance between caves. He seemed happy enough with my simple intuitive reactions to the art we saw together. A close college friend helped me translate a short preliminary essay for him that was sent to French scholars and for years later we joked about the meaning of such passages as “bison of uncertain sex,” which we couldn’t understand or translate at that time.

While he began the intense comprehensive studies of eras of art making with neolithic Egyptian pottery, he worked further back into the earlier universal era, the palaeolithic, with the deciphering of the neolithic signs. These “decorations” he could relate to a later hieroglyphic tradition and to an elaborate mythology, as well as to the earlier era. In his book Prehistoric Cave Painting he analyzed the markings as originating from gestures; the spreading and closing of fingers in the human hand, the central organizing device for proportions and spatial compositions that corresponded to the asymmetric animal bodies of bison, mammoth, and deer of the big game hunters in the palaeolithic era. He asserted that the lack of a base line corresponded to the experiences of wandering nomadic tribes and the palimpsest to the experiences of seeing the animals in herds and hordes. To my knowledge, no other scholar of art or archaeology made these relations between what was known of the life experiences of the palaeolithic peoples and the kinds of figurations they produced based on formal analysis of the compositional relationships. But when he went further to assert a meaning for the symbols, as a palaeolithic totemistic ideology and a magic of regeneration, we still have few studies that either confirm or deny these hypotheses. We do have forty years of literature attempting to debunk the magical and religious interpretations which were suggested by the earliest prehistorians and sociologists of religions, Frazer, Durkheim, Abbe Breuil, and Reinach. Their work had postulated a magic practiced on the animals; sympathetic magic for killing and fertility magic to increase or insure food. Raphael saw animals as symbols for men and social groups faced with the struggle for individual and collective survival.

The monumental works of the caves were themes and variations on the motif of love/ death/ immortality. For a man beset with the demands of such unstinting research alone, of analyzing, cataloging, and synthesizing the materials of a 20,000 year tradition, recreating the experience of a magic of rebirth must have been a powerful and dangerous undertaking. Here Raphael may have felt he was going to “the Mothers,” in the passage of the second volume of Goethe’s Faust, which he often quoted, where men find it difficult to find their way back. Was Raphael writing his own autobiography with palaeolithic imagery? Mrs. Raphael confirmed that he was working so intensely during the last weeks in New York that he needed pills every night to sleep. She was never certain how much they may have created a mood of uncertainty and horror along with the unbearable heat a New York summer, that contributed to the taking of his own life. But it can not be ignored that he was deeply preoccupied with deep rites and images that he believed were one of the most potent responses to the fact of man’s mortality. He was always deeply concerned with “political realities and 1952 was a continuing agon for a committed but non-conforming Marxist theoretician. In my attempts to question him about contemporary politics, he referred to the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as a fact that would take generations to bring to full realization. He spoke to me in terms of the millennia he was dealing with in his art studies. Mrs. Raphael later spoke to me of how deeply disturbed he was by the events and purges in Eastern Europe.

For us who inherited a wonderful legacy of problems Raphael did not live to bring to conclusion, there are infinite possibilities for further research. Perhaps the archaeological and historic sciences may now find his questions and hypotheses of more than historic interest, after forty years of collective new data from all over the world. Researchers today are testing hypotheses about the migrating social groups and settlement patterns of the Old Stone Age that relate to his hypothesis of social group boundaries (totemism), as the content underlying certain, but not all, palaeolithic representation. Recent research has revealed the sources of flint, the numerous mineral resources for the colors and evidence of trade and ceremonials of a seasonal character, particularly in the Dordogne river valleys. Raphael believed the growth of population, the constant meeting and mingling of groups necessitated their differentiation by animal symbols. The major signs may be regional markers. He wrote that many caves show records of initiations, marriages, battles and exchanges between the sexes of the differing social groups. In Niaux he saw a magnificent hall of heroes, a place where the great dead were commemorated. In other caves such as Los Casares he saw evidence of animals representing the passage of a deceased clan member, ascending to an underwater purgatory and emerging as a reborn spirit. For his interpretations Raphael used a long historic tradition of grave symbolism – images showing similar forms or devices that have a magical regeneration content. He also freely utilized the materials of Robertson Smith, Durkheim, Frazer, and other students of comparative religions. But no where does he suggest that there is a collectively unconscious storehouse of these images, which can be summoned at will or need from a universal collective unconscious. Raphael’s sense of visual motifs is different from a universal predetermined archetype in the Jungian sense. But the processes whereby symbols are retained in history and folk memory and transformed are not very clear or developed. We may never know the origins of art or symbols (the palaeolithic caves and mobile art are a late phenomenon), but Raphael went further than anyone before him in attesting to the value and beauty of this earliest art we know.

The vocabulary of his time, which referred to contemporary indigenous peoples, as Naturvolk, with a regressive history sounds Eurocentric and in need of understanding and correction. Raphael seems to have shared a fundamental optimism and positive value judgement during the Second World War, on the emerging technological industrial world, whose monopolistic capitalistic practices he hoped to see abolished in the future triumph of a world socialist society. But he saw contemporary primitive societies outside the dialectic movement of history. Only in his study of a monumental sculpture from Eastern Island did he reflect positively on a recent prehistoric culture. “Who are the primitives?” he says in closing this essay, impugning his own Western values. In most cases he eschewed ethnographic comparisons, because he felt that most primitive societies were technologically overpowered by developed state societies and had created overelaborated magical ideologies in compensation. We may have reached a time when the formerly viewed superstitions, traditional ideologies, and practices of these people world-wide may now be seen as the only preservers of the planet? In any case, we must try to understand Raphael’s paradigms of “progressive” and “regressive” history, as central to the upheavals of our own time.

Raphael may be one of the last great heroes of a generation who tried to experience and recapitulate the documented experience of all times past and present in his own work. Picasso was such a person. The Joyce of Finnegan’s Wake also comes to mind. For me, Raphael created an art form, different from pictorial image-making, literature, or music, but which used concepts, images, history and myth as his basic material (working material). He wished to create a science of art. It is still our task to evaluate his work to see whether indeed that was his true accomplishment or whether he truly reached “the Mothers” – that inner creative sphere from which both the greatest art and the great concepts of science have emanated. In his last year he wrote of Cezanne’s late work with such depth of emotional intensity, as if he completely identified with both the creator and the created. In a sense, I have come to see the paradigm for Modern Man, succeeding the paradigm of Palaeolithic, Neolithic, and Classical Man, was Raphael himself.


March, 1989