Widow organises exhibition of Antonio Pacitti's war art

A NEW exhibition at Glasgow University shows one man's depiction of the savagery of war.

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Diane Pacitti at the exhibition at Glasgow University Chapel. Pictures: Nick Ponty
Diane Pacitti at the exhibition at Glasgow University Chapel. Pictures: Nick Ponty

ANGELA McMANUS met Diane Pacitti and discussed the artwork created by her husband.

DIANE Pacitti looks around the chapel at the University of Glasgow and says: "To bring Monte Cassino and Glasgow together has been so emotional."

The widow of Scottish-Italian artist Antonio Pacitti is speaking just before the opening of an exhibition of his work in Glasgow, the city his family fled to after his socialist father was exiled by fascists in the 1920s.

Tony was born in Monte Cassino, a rocky hill south of Rome that was to become the scene of a pivotal battle during the Second World War when the Allies attacked the line held by the Germans.

It is 70 years since the destruction of the village and abbey at Monte Cassino by Allied bombings.

"He said no-one in Glasgow had heard of Monte Cassino, then when everyone had heard of it, it no longer existed," remarks Diane.

That early life of exile and displacement was retold many times in the artist's work, until his death in 2009 from a series of complications after a stroke.

The collection of paintings, prints and drawings on show, many seen for the first time in Scotland, brings together images of violence and imprisonment suffered by occupied people as well as biblical themes.

There's a great mastery of technique in the work on show, a pared-down simplicity that belies an expert hand.

"I called the exhibition In An Occupied Land because that's something that links Italy in 1944 with the series Tony did on Guantanamo: there were two armies and it was a disaster for the civilian population fleeing the bombardment.

"There are certain themes which are unfortunately common through occupation and war, like loss, bereavement and exile, and that's all there in the Pacitti family history."

Tony felt passionately about the war in Iraq, just as he did about the indiscriminate bombing of Monte Cassino that destroyed the abbey and killed civilians who were sheltering there.

"I think the political and religious pieces all link very well - they are part of the same kind of experience, the grief and the loss," explains Diane.

Tony was only three when his family splintered and fled to Glasgow, leaving behind two younger siblings who only moved to Scotland years later when his parents had set up a permanent home.

Brought up with a spirited, political home life in the Gorbals, his father spoke on Glasgow Green and knew people like Jimmy Maxton, and though there was great poverty it was an exciting upbrigning, including sheltering refugees during the Spanish Civil War.

A prolific painter, sculptor, potter and a gifted amateur musician, won the Glasgow schools gold medal for drawing in 1940 and a place at Glasgow School of Art the following year.

After two terms the Second World War intervened and he joined the Highland Light Infantry, serving in India. He finished his studies at the Slade, worked in adult education and taught prisoners at Wormwood Scrubs before focusing full-time on his art.

The draughtsmanship and use of black and white in the Guantanamo sequence is a reminder of Tony's training at Glasgow School of Art.

With poems by Diane, he published a booklet featuring the pictures which was acclaimed by the likes of Harold Pinter.

"I'm keeping them as a collection because I want them to be shown in projects on social justice," Diane adds.

The global Charter for Compassion, founded by author and commentator Karen Armstrong, features Tony in an international listing of writers and artists who have enhanced our understanding of war.

The work on show spans much of Tony's career, from an early etching made in the 1950s to the great outpouring of material in the past 20 years.

"Some of the images are painful, they are hard to look at," concedes Diane. "It's funny because some of his work is so joyful and that's the kind of man he was; he played the violin and he loved cooking, but I think if you've had that experience very young in life of displacement, if you've struggled with poverty as his family did, there's also a seriousness.

"I think for people who have experienced loss and pain, often their joy is greater because they really appreciate what it is to be happy.

"But he was drawing on different reserves with these pictures."

While the exhibition runs at the University of Glasgow Chapel, there is an accompanying show of photographs and memorabilia at Hillhead Library with family pictures, newspaper cuttings (coverage of the incredible story of his grandfather -who shot his wife's lover and had to flee back to Italy early in the 20th century - and images of Monte Cassino, all lovingly pulled together by Diane.

She has written a novel, based on the family's story, which has yet to find a publisher.

Better than any work of fiction, the tales of the Pacittis are even more wonderful because they are true.

n Antonio Pacitti: In an Occupied Land at the University of Glasgow Chapel and The Story of a Scottish-Italian family at Hillhead Library, both run until March 28.

angela.mcmanus@ eveningtimes.co.uk

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