TITTA FASCIOTTI (1927 – 1993)
The Passionate Artist
I had only been going to Johan Oldert for art lessons for a short while when one evening there was a sudden commotion outside and a minute later a shortish, stocky man strode in. This was Titta Fasciotti, artist. He had the darkest, most penetrating eyes I’d ever seen on anyone, and his demeanour was that of someone who was on a mission. Titta was one of those people who seemed to be an artist twenty four hours a day. He glanced at what was going on in the studio and dismissed it as being of little interest. In his world it was excellence or nothing.
Titta was incredibly touchy and took strong exception to my calling him Titta without his permission (I had been introduced to him as Titta). Respect was something he really valued and craved and I later came to understand why this was so important to him. It was because he was the son of an Italian prisoner of war. He seemed to believe that South African people looked down on him because of this and no amount of reassurance seemed to reassure him. It could be that this belief was the driving force in his never ending search for excellence and perfection.
In spite of this bit of baggage he carried, he was a good and loyal friend and generous with advice, knowledge and with his work too. I remember one day when he had been very critical of some of my paintings, he sat down and spent more than two hours showing me what he felt I should have done. The result was a beautiful painting which he then signed and gave to me. It is one of my most prized possessions.
When I moved to Durban, he on several occasions came and used my studio while down here, and this gave me the opportunity to really get to know him – if one could ever know this complex and brilliant artist. He taught me so much during this period even though cleaning up after him was a bit of a nightmare. Titta would unscrew the lids of paint-tubes and throw them away. The brush handles were covered with paint and once I even had to remove paint from the ceiling. Watching him work explained this. Painting to Titta was like going into battle. He would spend long moments absorbing and thinking about his subject and then rush at the canvas and paint in almost a frenzy. After a bit he would step back and glare at what he done and then then after a period of deep contemplation (during which you spoke to him at your peril) he would attack again. The results were always astounding. To me he was the ultimate artist. His knowledge of light, colour and composition were unrivalled. I remember him urging me to study composition. He said that 70% of paintings that failed were because of poor composition. No matter how good you were at everything else if the composition was not right the painting would fail. He was right. He generally was.
Titta had a strange way of working and managing his time. He would be idle literally for months. He would ride his bike and visit friends (especially the girls. He loved the girls). I do not know what triggered his urge to paint. It could have been his money running low or something in his mental clock, but at a point he would virtually lock himself away and paint with great urgency and in a sort of unbridled fury. After some weeks he would re-emerge with a dozen or two of the most beautiful paintings. He would be exhausted and so the cycle would repeat itself.
I remember a party we held for the artist before his exhibition at Neil Sack Gallery in Durban, and to which many artists and dealers were invited. At this party the painter Roy Taylor asked him about his way of working (Roy was the most disciplined and even rigid artist when it came to working) and Titta took this as an insinuation that he was lazy. His Latin blood boiled and we had to intervene as those dark eyes turned black and he was already rolling up his sleeves. Roy apologised and they ended the evening as great friends.
Another anecdote is that Titta Fasciotti was walking down the street in the centre of Durban one day when he noticed a dealer displaying a very mixed array of paintings in the banking hall of a well-known Building Society (do you remember those?) He noticed that some of his own work was on display and he did not approve of some of the work he was being shown with. He approached the dealer and asked him where he had obtained his (Fasciotti) work. ‘Why’ asked the man. Titta responded by saying “Because I don’t like my work being seen with this stuff”. The dealer bristled and said “That is too bad because it’s mine – I bought it.” Titta didn’t say a word but took note of the prices and came back a short while later with a bag of cash and bought all his work at the retail price and removed it.
I have no doubt that Fasciotti considered himself a South African. He loved the country and all the people in all their rainbow hues and revelled in painting the countryside, its exotic peoples and the skies. He was the ultimate landscape painter and his African figures too are legendary.
He was born in Bergamo Italy in 1927. When he was about seventeen he went and studied at the Accadamia Carrara Bergamo for a number of years. In 1948 Titta came to South Africa and joined his dad who had been interned here as a prisoner of war. He worked as an apprentice to his artist father who signed his paintings ‘Scotty’ after the war, and so did Titta. There are still a number of those paintings around and they may be Titta’s work or his dad Gino’s. You can fairly easily tell them apart. Johan Oldert once told me that the night after old man Fasciotti died Titta came to his home almost jubilant and felt that he had been liberated, and so he had. The Fasciotti style that we came to know and love was probably started when he went to W.G Wiles for tuition (as did many of our well known artists of that time). He told me that at one stage he (and at times Adriaan Boshof) had moved from farm to farm (especially in the then OFS and Karoo) painting. They would give the farmer a painting or two for board and allowing them free range of the farm, and in many cases the farmer would then organise for them to go to the farms of friends or family, and so they worked their way around the country. They certainly worked in their 10,000 hours in the best possible way. (See The book ‘The Outliers’ by Malcolm Gladwell)
Another peep into the way Titta worked was shared with me by a gallery owner and friend of his at Fishoek, Western Cape, who told me that the artist came and stayed with him to paint the sea from time to time. For the first couple of days Titta would go off armed with only an apple or two, and spend all day just looking at and gazing at the ocean. No dashing around with a camera happy-snapping here and there. Once he had the ocean, its movements, colours and moods firmly embedded in his sub-conscious mind he would start sketching. Tiny little post-card sized sketches that were masterpieces in their own right. Only after that would he consider painting or taking photos – almost always slides, that were equally as beautiful in their composition and selection as his sketches and paintings.
In his youth Titta married Theresa, an opera singer, and was devoted to her for many years. It came with great surprise to many of us when we heard that they had divorced, but this was tempered by the news that he was relocating from Johannesburg to the KZN South Coast. We would not have been so pleased if we had known that his time here with us would be cut short by a shocking event.
His arrival at Port Edward could be seen as a watershed for both Titta and especially artist Anton Benzon who Titta took under his wing. Titta and Anton’s dad Johan Oldert had been close friends and it seemed natural that he and Anton would also become friends. Titta remarried but it was short- lived and sadly happiness seemed to elude this very gifted man. The last time I saw him he had come to tell me he was moving to Hillcrest in KZN. It came as a great shock when literally weeks later we heard he had been found murdered in the cane fields near Leisure Bay on the KZN South Coast. We were all in shock and could not believe the news.
Titta was a really complex but brilliant man and artist. ‘Okay’ was not in his vocabulary. Every painting had to be the best. He set an artistic benchmark that kept all the artists of that time on their toes. His premature passing was a great blow to art in this country. No-one who knew him or was exposed to his work can truthfully say they were not touched by him. The visual arts in South African and the new artists that came after him are the poorer for not enjoying the very high standards of excellence that he set. We cannot and must not forget Titta Fasciotti a truly passionate Artist!