From a distance, Matteo Massagrande’s works could be photographs. The rendering of the tiles, the wooden frames of the windows and doors and the exterior seascape and foliage have an extraordinary precision and detail to them. Yet this Italian artist from Padua is anything but a hyper-realist figurative painter. There’s something not quite right about his paintings.
The picture you see above, Dopo la Pioggia (After the Rain) is typical in its false perspectives, its differing angles of view, its composite nature. There’s a strange shape to the room you’re looking into it. You’re not quite sure where you’re positioned. Is the house jutting out over the sea? Where is the shoreline? There’s a precariousness to the work, a mystery. This makes his paintings beguiling.
Massagrande’s works are populated with buildings of faded grandeur where the plaster has peeled off, where the drainpipe has cracked and the wooden doors and windows have decayed over the years. It’s a typical sight in the area in which he grew up. L’odore dell’estate (The smell of summer) is such an evocative title. The lushness of the intense green of the trees in full bloom is offset by the musty smell of weeds and lichen thriving on the dampness. The doors in his pictures have a double function. They take you into the painting but they also block your viewpoint. You’re left to guess as to what lies beyond them. He is the master of concealing and revealing.
Massagrande loves to manipulate the senses, playing with the inside and the outside, using different planes, making you sense the connection between rooms and spaces yet making you feel you’re looking elsewhere.
Old villas with faded tiles are Massagrande’s signature. They evoke memories within him of a visit he made to a wealthy aunt’s house when he was eight years old. The house was full of rooms that were empty and he recalls opening the blinds to let in light and he vividly remembers their atmosphere and their colour.
He has reinterpreted those feelings in his adulthood. It’s like looking back to a golden age. Yet, golden ages are a myth, and his villas are mythical. They not only evoke nostalgia but loneliness too. The rooms are empty and silent save for the gentle lapping of the sea. Yet if their walls could speak, they could tell many a tale.
In Villa II (above), the artist began by painting the seascape. The foliage came next followed by the balcony, the columns and the foreground. The lines are clean with an architect’s precision yet Massagrande had no architectural training. He has, though, a wonderful appreciation of space reminiscent of early 20th century modernists. Here he uses a warm light, in other works it can be cold.
Terrazza a New York is a good example of false perspective. The coloured tiles in the foreground are improbably steep, leading you up into the painting. It makes it difficult to place yourself as the viewer. Once again, the doors are run-down with flaking paint, rusting handles and hung at odd angles. The balcony leads you around to the right but your field of vision is small. The broken line of the balcony on the other side of the right door must be a reflection, tantalising you as to what lies beyond it. He is evoking a romantic nostalgia that is no longer in reach.
One of the differences in Massagrande’s more recent works is that whereas in the past his locations were entirely mythical, they have now become recognisable. They are set in New York or Venice or Florence, all stages of the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th centuries when the nobility, and the wealthy, mostly from Britain, would seek out European art and culture. Hence the title of this exhibition. It’s a 21st century Grand Tour so to speak. Just as 18th century painters like Canaletto and Bellotto would reinvent their locations for effect, so does Massagrande though the atmosphere he creates is very different. His work is part of a continuum from those Italian and European masters, also with the way he uses light and harmony. It’s no wonder that Massagrande is feted as one of the outstanding contemporary European painters.
Unusually, the painting above, Piazza San Marco (Venezia) contains human figures. The same faded columns and worn tiles predominate and most of the tourists you see are anonymous, in a sense merely adding to the busy atmosphere of a tourist centre. These are people who come and go each day to visit the buildings that have stood for centuries, the ephemeral and the permanent. The one exception is the woman in the foreground. Her location gives a balance to the composition, but as she looks out of the picture, her shadow showing her looking into the late afternoon sun, the mystery is set as to what is so fascinating her. We can only guess.
This is a wonderful exhibition of a master painter. You can see A Grand Tour at the Pontone Gallery, 43 Cadogan Gardens, London SW3 2TB until 1 September 2019.
All images are ©Matteo Massagrande and courtesy of Pontone Gallery