When, in 2000, Italian artist Riccardo Prosperi decided to take up a full-time career as a painter at the age of 18, he discovered there was another artist of the same name. So he came up with the hybrid pseudonym Simafra, which would also serve as a symbol of his new identity.
Simafra's rich use of colour that includes, unusually, gold in works such as Albero dei sogni (Tree of Dreams, above) in his new exhibition, Eden, in Mayfair's Maddox Gallery, has helped him become something of a darling to interior designers. He has been adopted by the Cipriani group and his work regularly hangs in their luxury restaurants and clubs around the world.
His work has featured on the covers of design magazines and, as a result, his paintings now grace the walls of such celebrities as Cameron Diaz and The Royal Prince of Qatar. They have been shown in numerous art fairs and major exhibitions around Europe. Eden is his first London solo exhibition in the UK, and as the name suggests, centres on the theme of nature.
Despite having lived in a number of European countries, he produces his work in a self-founded studio in the centre of Florence that also serves as a collective artist studio and gallery space. He first used gold paint while working his apprenticeship in Florence helping to decorate the frames of ancient paintings and pieces of furniture under the tutelage of Ottavio Traiano.
"Gold gives importance to my paintings, a kind of regality," he told me through an interpreter. Inevitably, this has drawn comparisons with Gustav Klimt, though Simafra's work has not the depth of symbolism and expression of the Austrian master.
However, it would be wrong to think of Simafra's work as merely ornamental. Though Eden references the Bible - the Garden of Earthly Delights, Adam and Eve, serpent and so on - his theme is a metaphorical depiction of his own life through nature in a dreamy, often semi-abstract way that goes beyond the instantly accessible. After Modigliani, his main influences have been Italian abstract expressionists like Afro Basaldella and Alberto Burri. He also says the dreamy, timeless qualities in his paintings were inspired by the Scottish painter, Peter Doig.
Among the entirely figurative pieces on show is Il re dei giardini (The King of the Gardens, above) in which the use of gold accentuates the majesty of the peacock in full display. He got the idea after seeing an illustration in a book belonging to one of his two children. The largest of the works, it is given pride of place. "There's more emotional content, a more personal engagement with it," he says.
There's much personal engagement here. His depiction of Adam and Eve, for example, embodies himself and his partner. Another picture comprises a group of monkeys that represent the communality of life, emphasising the strong union he has with his family. Simafra is clearly experiencing contentment in his private life, reflected in the joyous colours and in showing nature in its glory.
His inspiration for Eden stemmed from a previous project, an installation in Italy which recreated a fictional jungle in which a car is eaten by the jungle itself, reflecting on the regenerative power of nature.
He sees nature as a place where opposites meet, including good and evil. "My life, like everyone's, has been full of events, sometimes good and sometimes bad. I feel nature has the same characteristics in that you can have a hurricane and an earthquake or a peaceful landscape and a placid lake. That's where this strong connection comes from. It reflects an inner, emotional world."
This notion is best expressed in Albero della conoscenza del bene e del male (Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, above) redolent with symbolism and emotion using the textural 'layering' method that forms a consistent element in his oeuvre.
Painting, he says, is where he finds his tranquility. His canvases are where he can "immerse myself in their peace and find, in exchange, the peace I need to create my works".
Eden is showing at the Maddox Gallery, 9 Maddox St, London W1S 2QE until 11 February 2017
All images are used with the permission of the artist and gallery.
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