Antonio Pacitti: Artist who owed the joy and vibrancy of his work to his adopted city of Glasgow

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The Independent Online

In Antonio Pacitti's last exhibition, images of Guantanamo stood alongside drawings of Christ's suffering. A luminous glass painting of the Nativity was shown, as was an oil painting in sombre colours of the mother whose labour and determination supported the family through years of poverty. These polarities, which ultimately dissolve into a unified spiritual vision, were found early in the life of the artist born of a Catholic mother and a violently anti-clerical father who called his oldest son Lenin.

In 1928, just before his fourth birthday, Antonio Pacitti was catapulted from the ancient town of Cassino to the slums of Glasgow when his anti-fascist father was forced into exile from Mussolini's Italy in a hurried flight that split the family of four children. Pacitti retained memories of his birthplace, which was later obliterated in the Allied bombing of 1944.

In the two environments of his early years can be seen the twin poles of his artistic influence. Cassino, with its famous monastery, was a centre of spiritual power, and from there he imbued memories of light and colour, of religious processions and images. But he owed his sense of sculptural form and the bright vibrancy of much of his work, as well as his passion for justice, to Glasgow.

In Scotland the family encountered a series of cramped lodgings and sadistic landlords before settling in a tenement in the Gorbals. Pacitti's mother, Filomena, washed floors to support the family, and Pacitti was regularly among the crowd of hungry people who waited on the quay when the fishing boats were due, hoping to grab stray herrings as the boats were unloaded. His father turned the Gorbals flat into a place of passionate socialist debate, especially during the Spanish Civil War when the family housed refugees and were in contact with the Italian volunteers.

While attending Holyrood Senior School, Pacitti worked part-time as a delivery boy to help with family finances, but a teacher spotted his artistic ability and, after winning the Glasgow schools' Gold Medal for Drawing, he gained entry to the Glasgow School of Art.

After two terms,war intervened. Pacitti joined the Highland Light Infantry and narrowly escaped drowning in an exercise on an overloaded embarkation craft. Later he served in India, where he contracted fever and was put out to die on a hospital veranda. A natural rebel, he found a niche in the army painting murals, acting as educational sergeant and taking on an intelligence brief.

During the war, his family moved from Glasgow to London in search of work so, to Pacitti's regret, he was unable to resume his art studies in Glasgow. A spell at the Sir John Cass College was succeeded by three years at the Slade under William Coldstream, where he formed a lasting friendship with Craigie Aitchison.

In 1950 he married Gina Stephenson, with whom he had a son and a daughter. To support the family, Pacitti taught in schools and at Wormwood Scrubs prison, where his students' work gained recognition in the Arthur Koestler Award scheme. Colleagues remember his unconventional, inspiring approach, his antipathy to jargon and his generosity with his time and energy. His own art during this period included a series of fine drawings, one of which, "The Mother", now belongs to the British Museum.

However, the demands of teaching, his own worsening cardiac condition and his wife's illness, which resulted in her death in 1983, made it impossible for him to work consistently as an artist. The year 1987 was a turning point, bringing retirement from full-time employment, a successful bypass operation and his marriage to his second wife, Diane. Then came a long outpouring of creative energy, in which his pent-up artistic inspiration burst into a variety of media and embraced an unusual diversity of themes.

Pacitti's is an intensely physical art, realised through the indentations of his fingers in his pinch pots and sculptures, the rhythmic flick of the brush across his ceramics, the flowing lines and intricate meshing of his drawings and the dancing energy of his oil studies. His draughtsmanship was exceptional, and this was recognised in two solo shows in 1993, at the Accademia Italiana and at West Soho Gallery. His work is in public collections in England, Malta, Italy and Germany, and in 1999 he gained the award for Graphics and Watercolours at the Malta Biennale. His ceramics have been auctioned by Bonham's and Christie's.

Joy and vibrancy sings through his work, which includes life studies and portraits, monotypes inspired by classical mythology and a luminous series of flowers and blossoming trees. But Pacitti also sought out extremities in his art, whether through drawings of Christ's Passion or images of occupation founded on the conflict in Iraq.

His passionate opposition to the American detentions resulted in a collaboration with his wife Diane to produce Guantanamo, a collection of drawings and poems which elicited a variety of tributes, including an admiring response from Harold Pinter. As Nicholas Usherwood has pointed out, the drawings suggest the dehumanising effect of the prison regime on the guards as well as the humiliation of the prisoners. Pacitti's political and spiritual works finally came together in his final exhibition, "Source of Life", at All Saints Church, West Dulwich.

Pacitti had a huge appetite for life. Family and friends remember meals in the garden around a trestle table laden with colourful Italian antipasti and cake made with fruit from the garden that Pacitti prepared himself. He played the mandolin, and after buying a cottage in Normandy in 1991, he played at local D-Day celebrations and at the funeral of a French artist. Then, at the age of almost 80, he embarked on violin lessons and learnt to read music. During his last debilitating illness, a severe stroke, he was cared for at home and visited by family that included great-grandchildren, as well as numerous friends.

"Tony" has touched many with his boundless warmth. We are fortunate to have been fortified, not only by many pizzas hot from the pottery kiln and gutsy red wine, but also by his thoughtful, animated engagement in endless conversations on art and life, and for his persistent challenges to injustice, his prizing of human rights and insistence on finding our common humanity.

Dr Viv Golding

Antonio Pacitti, artist: born Cassino, Italy 1 April 1924; married 1950 Georgina Stephenson (one son, one daughter; died 1983), 1987 Diane Southgate; died London 26 July 2009.

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