PADUA, ITALY - The work of the Italian artist Matteo Massagrande crosses boundaries between the old and the new, the past and the present, reality and imagination, even literature and painting.
The technical mastery the artist displays in his paintings and engravings puts them firmly in the tradition of the great artists of the past, yet they have a refreshing originality and immediacy.
Mr. Massagrande has had over a hundred shows in Italy and around the world since he started exhibiting in 1973. In his latest international exhibition, in September at the Albermarle Gallery in central London, a score of his fascinating "Interiors" depicted the rooms and corridors of old abandoned buildings, one of the themes he has been exploring for some time.
He has a studio-home in the old family villa on the outskirts of Padua, where he lives with his Hungarian-born wife Angela, his young son Zakarias and two friendly, wooly dogs, one Italian and one Hungarian.
During a recent visit on a luminous autumn day, he was busy preparing for an extensive retrospective at the Museo Le Carceri in the small town of Asiago, north of Padua. The show of 80 paintings and 20 etchings and engravings, created in the period 2002-11, including interiors, landscapes, figures and still lifes, opens Saturday.
"I seldom go to my own openings, not because I'm unsociable but I prefer to live a quiet life with my family," he said. Also, he might have added, to produce his extraordinarily subtle, multilayered images must take countless hours of dedicated labor.
Since marrying in 1993, the artist has divided his time between Padua and Hajos, a small village on the Hungarian puszta, where his wife's family has long had a house and where Mr. Massagrande now also has a studio. Hajos hosts an annual summer camp, Hajosi Alkototabor, where artists of all ages gather from Hungary and beyond, and at which Mr. Massagrande teaches.
Although born in Padua, the artist spent much of his childhood and youth in another nearby town in the Veneto, Treviso, where his parents ran a small shop. He was clearly an infant prodigy, as seen from a picture of some houses (a subject he has always returned to), painted at the age of 8 and now hanging on the family's kitchen wall in Padua.
"When I took it into school the teacher refused to believe that I had done it and I was punished for not telling the truth," Mr. Massagrande said. "I spent many hours haunting the Civic Museum and churches in Treviso when I was a child and I got locked in at night several times by mistake," he said. "My father became convinced that there was something wrong with me psychologically."
But his father did provide him with one of a series of epiphanies that have punctuated the artist's life and helped guide his choice of themes. His father had a shell on his desk as a paperweight and one day held it to his son's ear to listen to the sound of the sea. "I didn't just hear the sea, I had this incredibly vivid vision of it." (Beaches are one of the artist's favorite landscape subjects.)
Another experience that was to be of lifelong importance was visiting the country villa where an aged aunt and her companion lived outside Treviso. "We used to go there sometimes on summer days," he said. "It seemed to me as a child to have an infinite number of rooms, most of them empty or with furniture covered in white sheets. I used to love wandering through these forgotten spaces and corridors and unused bathrooms with their strange dusty light, and this has stayed with me ever since."
Mr. Massagrande's precocious talents caught the eye of some respected local artists, notably Giovanni Barbisan, Luigi Tito and Cadorin, from whom he learned essential and ancient techniques, like etching, engraving and painting with egg tempera.
When he arrived in Venice in 1977 as a student at the Fine Arts Academy, he found it dispiriting. His painting teacher was a well-known abstract artist. "When he did finally deign to turn up to teach us, he said nothing and just painted. I was used to talking about art. And all I could think about were those wonderful Renaissance paintings - by Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo - on the other side of the wall." (The Fine Arts Academy until recently shared the same building as the Accademia Gallery.) A more positive moment occurred when he met Giorgio De Chirico in Venice, who encouraged him to continue on his own artistic path.
Mr. Massagrande left the Academy after just a few weeks. But eager to learn new skills, he joined a restoration course and went on to become the assistant of a well-known restorer, working on pictures from the 15th to 19th centuries.
"This was an extremely useful time," he said. "I still use techniques I learned then in my own pictures. In fact, I tend to construct my images in sections, working minutely on each one. And I build up textures and patinas, almost as if I am restoring my own work."
No less influential were his visits to Belgium and the Netherlands to see Flemish and Dutch Renaissance artists. "The sheer level of technique absolutely amazed me." he said. "And I realized that I'd either have to just throw away my brushes or reapply myself with even greater energy." These Northern artists have proved a constant source of inspiration. When seeing many years ago Bruegel the Elder's "Preaching of St. John the Baptist," for example, what struck him more than anything were the sinuous tree trunks that frame the scene. "Those trees!" he said, remembering them still in awestruck tones. The seed planted then led over the past decade to a number of tree studies in urban and woodland settings, and this year to an intensely observed series of what he calls "portraits of trees."
The artist's "Interiors" inescapably bring to mind the mysterious stillness and atmospheric lights of some of the great masters of this genre, like Vermeer and Hammershoi, but are nonetheless highly individual.
Part of the secret of Mr. Massagrande's intriguing interiors is that they are as much invented as real. Both the artist and his wife are connoisseurs of abandoned and derelict buildings. Said Angela Massagrande: "If we see one, we can't resist going in and taking a look."
Drawing on such chance visits and personal memories, Mr. Massagrande constructs his images often from quite disparate buildings and locations. So, for example, part of a picture might be inspired by an old apartment block in Budapest, while the garden seen in the watery sunlight glimpsed outside might be somewhere in the Veneto or even his own garden in Padua. "I sometimes feel more like an architect than a painter of pictures," he said.
There is something Proustian about the combination of the artist's real memories - in this case, of aspects of real places - with elements that are elaborations of his imagination. And this narrative quality has given rise to an unusual project, which he has almost completed.
Intrigued by the strange qualities of Mr. Massagrande's "Interiors" and their suggestion of reflections of psychological states, an Italian psychiatrist and author Paolo Crepet asked the artist to paint an entirely new set of "Interiors" for which the writer would then compose a text.
"Usually, of course, the book comes first and then the artist illustrates it," Mr. Massagrande said. "But in this case we are doing it the other way round."
By RODERICK CONWAY MORRIS, New York Times