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Antonio Pacitti

Antonio Pacitti

Antonio Pacitti (1924-2009) is one of the artists featured in the Voices Education Project compiled by the Charter for Compassion. Within an international listing, my husband’s name appears in the U.K. group of writers and artists who have contributed to our understanding of war. It feels right that the Project features both his life and his art, because the man and the artist were very much one.

Antonio Pacitti was born in Cassino in Italy. He always retained luminous memories of his birthplace – the fountain, the religious processions, the grassy spot where his mother gathered herbs. But at the age of three Antonio was wrenched away from Cassino, and from two of his siblings. After a dispute with the local fascists, his socialist father was given twenty-four hours to leave his home town. The parents and two elder boys fled to Glasgow, where Antonio grew up in severe poverty.

When I look at the photograph above of Antonio at the age of six, suffering from hunger, wearing ill-fitting clothes supplied by his Glasgow parish, it is fascinating to think of the expansive, vibrant man I met and married. But the people with the deepest sense of joy are often those who have faced hardship or been close to death.

In Antonio’s case, this included two soldiering experiences during the Second World War in which he nearly died, the first time near-drowning because of an officer’s incompetence during a training exercise. 

He was also no stranger to the constrictions of everyday life. His own artistic career was impeded by the need to support his family through working in education. The positive side to this was that a succession of students, including some serving life sentences in Wormwood Scrubs prison, benefited from his skills and an empathy born of broad social experience.

Creativity flowed into all parts of his life, whether he was cooking a meal for family and friends or improvising a tune on the mandolin. As an artist, this energy might flow into an explosion of spring blossom, into the rhythmic decoration of a ceramic, the sensuous line of a life drawing or into a sensitively observed portrait. But his art also engaged with the extremities of experience –- hence the recurring theme of Christ’s Passion. His political images of refugees, prisoners and the bereaved came out of his deep anger at injustice.

He was always a superb draughtsman, and this was recognised by the acceptance by one of his drawings into the British Museum collection. He exhibited at the Accademia Italiana in London, and was an invited artist at the Malta Biennale, where he received the award for Graphics and Watercolours. Sculptural work included commissions at the Church of St. Thomas More, Patcham in Sussex and ‘Woman Dancing a Prayer’ at All Saints, West Dulwich. Antonio produced hand-built and wheel-made ceramics, which have been exhibited at Bonham’s and Christies.

A nucleus of this art is being set aside for educational and spiritual projects. Some of Antonio Pacitti’s work is available to private galleries, but this collection will be kept intact.

When dealers state the provenance of a work of art, it is in terms of prices, sales and ownership. This body of Antonio’s work is already establishing a different kind of provenance, one that is far more relevant to the Charter for Compassion. This provenance is process rather than static possession. Its value is not located in a sum of money, but in empathy, insight, shared experience. Rather than being the property of a single person or institution, this collection of work has already engaged a multiplicity of participants.

In its treasure-house of writings and some images, the Charter for Compassion recognises the importance of the arts in creating compassion and helping us to understand war. I would like briefly to focus on some of the ways in which the visual arts can contribute.

A visual image can sear into the consciousness and haunt the memory. It has a primal power, unmediated by words, untouched by the barriers of language. In the area of war photography, Huynh Cong Ut’s photograph of a little girl running naked and screaming from a South Vietnamese napalm attack (1972) became the defining image of the Vietnam war. Oil paint, charcoal and etching techniques can achieve a similar intensity. In Los Desastres de la Guerra (1810-20), Goya created brutal images of the struggle between the Spanish and their French invaders, prints whose shocking impact is increased by the sparing use of black on white. Or we might look at a work reproduced in Voices Education Project: Russia, War (1964-66) by Marc Chagall, in which the tiny figures of peasants flee with their baggage or lie dead in the snow, while a village and its inhabitants burn and the frozen landscape seems to emanate from a gigantic horse-like beast, perhaps the white horse of Revelations, ridden into conquest. In war, abstractions acquire a monstrous life and dwarf the human.

The mechanisation of war, and what that does to the human, can be built into the formal structure of an art work. This is so in William Roberts’ Munition Factory (1940) in which we seem to be looking inside a high- functioning machine in which the men are absorbed in their group task, turned to tools like the spanners and pieces of machinery, while a diagonal of cocked gun parts draws the eye to the centre. And in Severini’s Plastic Synthesis of the Idea of War (1915) reproduced in the Voices Education Project; Italy, a gun carriage is at the centre of a composition that contains an aircraft wing, a factory chimney and war-related script, but is unpeopled.

Yet war can bring new opportunities and challenges. In Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (1943) war artist Laura Knight depicted a female munitions worker engaged in a complex mechanical task, given dignity by the war effort.

Part of the fascination that war exerts on the imagination is that it disrupts the patterns of ordinary life, bringing disaster to some, but to others the excitement of a new role, a sense of living at a greater intensity. Our task is to direct these energies towards the equally demanding challenges of peace.

Of course, what I have just written is a personal and partial view of these artworks. Others may pick out different details, offer different interpretations. And this is one of the strengths of art in unsettling ideologies, creating compassion. No-one fully owns a work of art, not even the artist, whose completed artwork may not match her original intention. Looking at Antonio’s works with groups of adults or children, I have seen how the gesture of a sculpture or a presence in a painting can call forth differing, rich interpretations.

This is important because war is an arena of fixed loyalties, aggressively held beliefs. In conflict, human beings contract, becoming mouthpieces of ideology and hatred. Anything that can de-centre us, can open us to differing points of view, is valuable. Drama does this superbly. One example would be Euripides’s The Trojan Women, (415 BCE) presenting the suffering of the conquered, staged in Athens a year after that city had executed the male defenders of the island of Melos and forced its women into slavery.

The Swing (2001) by Yinka Shonibare, a British-Nigerian artist, startles our expectations with an ambivalent tableau, based on Fragonard’s painting (c.1767) with the same title. See

We may wonder what Fragonard’s delicate work has to do with war, until we remember that the French aristocrats whom he depicted at frivolous play owed their wealth and leisurely culture to violent conquest.

In Shonibare’s installation, the woman poised on the swing is white-stockinged but dark-skinned: she wears a eighteenth century style dress made of colourful African print. She is headless, and this makes us think not just of the guillotine that awaited the French aristocracy, but, together with the swing’s thick rope, of the beheadings and hangings suffered by African and Caribbean people who dared to rebel. And the Chanel label on the African fabric implicates us now, suggesting how the legacy of a colonial war continues. The painting shocks us out of a Eurocentric view of world history, not least by raising questions about cultural identity and the construction of self.

In Antonio Pacitti’s Guantanamo series (2003), the guards are presences in the drawings –faceless and indistinguishable as they watch, restrain, or punctuate the pictorial space at uniform intervals. The art critic Nicholas Usherwood writes of the dehumanisation implicit in ‘the stabbing, rhythmically repeated huddled forms of prisoners’, but also recognises that ‘the effects of the guards’ behaviour is quite as humanly degrading and pitiful as that being dealt out to their victims.’ The eye goes naturally to the prisoners – at times presented in a white that seems to flare against the enclosing dimness – but as we, like the surrounding guards, look at the naked flesh of a prisoner as he showers, we have to ask whether we too are implicated in the guards’ voyeurism, or whether the act of looking will translate into something more active, more compassionate. In the Source of Life publication, Usherwood also recognises that Antonio’s politically orientated works are ‘human statements before they are political ones’, and that they grow out of his own experience. In 2004, two of these works were shown in London in the powerful mixed exhibition Pax Britannica.

Source of Life. was the title suggested by the Revd. David Stephenson for the 2007-8 exhibition at All Saints, West Dulwich in south London, an exhibition I embarked on with Antonio. Here art was a focus for reflection and meditation. The exhibition unfolded with the church year, intermingling political works with ‘sacred’ themes. The fact that the trial and execution of Jesus by the occupying Roman force was, amongst other things, a profoundly political act was emphasised by the presence of contemporary political artworks.

The Source of Life exhibition was in progress when Antonio suffered the severe stroke that ultimately proved fatal. While he was in hospital, I continued the exhibition with the help of friends, and showed him computer images of its progress. It felt important that his art should continue to speak even when the hand that had created so generously was powerless. Later, when I was caring for him at home, he visited the climax of the exhibition - the Passiontide and Resurrection images – in a wheelchair. He saw the draft of Source of Life (available from a publication that presents the man as well as the artist, drawing together a variety of voices, from distinguished contributors like Craigie Aitchison R.A. and Peter Selby, the Bishop for Prisons, to unknown and equally important people like the visiting carers.

Antonio Pacitti: A Celebration was an exhibition in 2011 at St. Christopher’s Hospice in south London, the hospice founded by Dame Cicely Saunders that has been a world-wide inspiration. The exhibition was nothing to do with war, but very much to do with compassion. It was my act of thanks to an institution that had enabled me to care for Antonio at home right up to his death. Luminous paintings - a blossoming tree, a garden with a white gate and a shaft of sunlight - seemed to be in dialogue with St. Christopher’s own garden through the huge glass windows. A series of photographs traced Antonio’s life right up to his final illness - its big moments and its small, important moments like a meal shared with family. I hoped this would give St Christopher’s patients and their families a space in which to reflect on their own lives, and to recognise the implicit value of every stage, including the last. In fact, so many people stopped at these photos, including carers and bereaved relatives.

One woman close to death made the journey from her bed to the landing every day to sit in front of a sea watercolour that ‘spoke to her’. I was happy that I could offer a poster of the work when she was unable to leave her room.

In an Occupied Land, which opened in Glasgow in February 2014, was an opportunity to show in the U.K. some of the works featured by the Charter for Compassion. It was also a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the battle of Monte Cassino, with a private view that included an act of remembrance involving the chapel choir. Antonio was deeply upset by the destruction of his birthplace and its famous Abbey by Allied bombing in 1944. The bringing together of two significant parts of his life – Cassino and Glasgow – was so important to me.

The BBC filmed the exhibition and interviewed me. It was an item on the BBC Scotland television news, and on the radio, with acknowledgement being given that this was an artist featured by the Charter for Compassion.

In an Occupied Land was accompanied by an exhibition tracing the turbulent story of Antonio’s family through photographs. The two exhibitions complemented each other, showing how a family history of displacement, migration, loss and resilience helped to crystallise the themes that recur in Antonio’s art. The photograph exhibition will be mounted later this year in an area of Glasgow with a high immigrant population. 

In October 2014, the Italian Cultural Institute in Edinburgh will feature Antonio’s art in an interfaith exhibition showing the art of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In February 2015 I will embark on a project with Bradford Cathedral, in which the art will be part of the liturgical journey through Lent and Easter. As in the Guantanamo publication, and as at St. Christopher’s Hospice, my poems will stand beside Antonio’s art. My own writing has changed radically since caring for him. In 2013 my poems have been shortlisted for three awards, including the Religious Poetry International Competition hosted by Manchester Cathedral.

So, Antonio’s art is engaged in a journey that will branch into various forms and invite the participation of different groups of people. Its provenance will not be sales figures and owners, but rather shared experience, individual reflection. Developing through time, this provenance might be the awakening of empathy, the generation of acts of sympathy and solidarity. It might be the inspiring of other artworks.

To continue this creative journey, I would like to hear from organisations and institutions about any project in which Antonio’s art can actively engage in furthering the work of the Charter for Compassion. It could be a simple proposal, like showing Antonio’s work in an exhibition about the legacy of war, or it could be more complex project. Antonio’s work has been shown in France, Malta and Italy, and, provided shipping and insurance costs are contributed, can travel abroad.

I am working as an individual living in south London, not a charitable foundation. I am also a writer, and have to limit the number of projects I can engage with, so that I can develop my own work. But when I do commit myself, I engage wholeheartedly.

When Antonio was lying at home, paralysed from the stroke, a postcard dropped through the door.

I am writing out of curiosity. I hope you
don’t mind. I travel on the top deck of the number 3 bus down South Croxted Road and I used to enjoy taking a peek at the room where a gentleman spent his days painting. In fact
it inspired me to do a short painting course at St. Martin’s School of Art .....

It was a wonderful testimony to the way our acts and personality ripple out into unseen channels, affecting people we will never meet. I hope that through my proposal here his art will touch different minds, speak in new contexts, and his vision be kept alive.