Souza’s monsters mirror society’s ugly truths

A moving tribute to artist Francis Newton Souza in his birth centenary year.

Published : Jul 09, 2024 10:28 IST - 7 MINS READ

Souza at his apartment in New York, 1970-71.

Souza at his apartment in New York, 1970-71. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The artist Keren Souza Kohn, daughter of the legendary artist Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), narrated an anecdote her father had once shared with her at his New York apartment. It was about his days in his home State, Goa, where he would often sketch outdoors and small crowds of onlookers would gather to watch him. On one such occasion, he overheard a man in the group reassuring another: “Don’t worry. He’s going to take it [the sketch] home and make it better.”

“Dad laughed his head off while slapping his thighs. We both did!” recalled Souza Kohn, who was in Goa in April with her family—her son Solomon is an artist, too—for the 100th birthday celebrations of her father. The exhibition “In/Of Goa: Souza at 100” (April 12 to May 11, 2024) at the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts on the works of Souza from a private collection kicked off the celebrations of the artist’s centenary year that are taking place all over India and in the UK. The next was “Souza in Hampstead” (June 18-23) at Grosvenor Gallery, London. This will be followed by two more shows, one at Saffronart, Mumbai, from November 14 to 17 and the other at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi, in January 2025. HarperCollins India will launch an illustrated book of essays on Souza in January next year.

Enfant terrible of Indian art

Souza, one of the most important and influential painters of the 20th century, is often described as the enfant terrible of modern Indian art. “Souza wrote the progressive manifesto, Souza created the visual language of modern India, Souza crushed and opened all the doors for all the following artists of India. He is by far the most significant artist of 20th century Indian art, and for the UK he is one of the most significant post-war artists living and working in London—an expressive, once-in-a-generation type of artist,” said Conor Macklin, owner and director of Grosvenor Gallery. Macklin was in Sunaparanta in April for his lecture, “Souza: An Introduction to the life of F.N. Souza”, at the end of which he took the audience on a guided walkthrough of the works on display.

Portrait of John Coplans, 1958, by F.N. Souza.

Portrait of John Coplans, 1958, by F.N. Souza. | Photo Credit: “In/Of Goa: Souza at 100”, Sunaparanta, Goa

One of the founders of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, comprising M.F. Husain and S.H. Raza among other luminaries, Souza was one of independent India’s first artists to be viewed as a global figure. Born in Goa’s Saligao and raised in Bombay—where he was expelled from school for his pornographic drawings in the school toilet and, later again, from Sir J.J. School of Art for joining the Quit India Movement—Souza had a tumultuous early life. It set the tone for his avant-garde art, which now occupies a permanent place in prominent galleries and museums around the world.

Rejecting the traditional and prevalent aesthetic norms of his time, Souza forged a revolutionary art of the realistic and the grotesque. The art critic John Berger had famously said of Souza: “How much Souza’s pictures derive from Western art and how much from the hieratic temple traditions of his country, I cannot say… because he straddles several traditions but serves none.”

His art confronted poverty, religion, and sexuality; his Crucifixion (1959), painted during his time in the UK and now housed in Tate Britain, depicts Christ as a Black person.

The Burial, 1989, by F.N. Souza.

The Burial, 1989, by F.N. Souza. | Photo Credit: “In/Of Goa: Souza at 100”, Sunaparanta, Goa

In his presentation, Macklin directed attention to Souza’s socialist painting The Family (1947) (previously called After Working in the Field All Day We Have No Rice to Eat and The Proletariat and the Plutocrat’s Dinner), which portrays a poor Indian family in a style that breaks away from the colonial aesthetics of the time.

“It was the difference between the haves and the have-nots that got his goat. Which is why he joined, idealistically, the Communist Party although that didn’t last very long,” said Souza Kohn. However, her father was more than the enfant terrible he was made out to be: “He was also very gentle, refined, and courteous,” she added.

The works exhibited at Sunaparanta were from various periods in Souza’s life. His early works with their vibrant, colourful depictions of village life and Goan landscapes were arresting against the starkness of the later nudes and portraits that he came to be known for. “Although an Indian artist, Souza was foremost a Goan artist,” said Macklin, reminding us that as a Portuguese colony, Goa in Souza’s early years was vastly different in character from the rest of the country.

Souza in London

Souza’s grand work, The Burial (1989), called for a pause as did his striking Nude Goan Girl with Necklace and Girdle (1960), among other works on display. The most unusual, however, were the Kafkaesque sketches that accompanied “Nirvana of a Maggot”, an essay Souza wrote in 1955 for Encounter, a literary magazine founded by the English poet and novelist Stephen Spender. The essay traced the journey of a maggot—a metaphor for himself—in a dung heap, speaking of how it grows and changes shape as it comes into its own. It would prove to be prophetic. The post 1955 years were immensely productive for Souza as he left India in 1949 for the UK.

Supper at Emmaus, 1987, by F.N. Souza.

Supper at Emmaus, 1987, by F.N. Souza. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

In his lecture, Macklin threw light on the cultural, political, and social milieu of London in the 1950s and 1960s, mentioning the poet and curator Victor Musgrave, whose Gallery One exhibited all the notable South Asian artists of the day. Macklin’s account was echoed in the introduction to the “Souza in Hampstead” show, which said: “Although he had exhibitions in Paris, his major breakthrough came in 1955 when Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One began to represent him. Musgrave, a visionary dealer, showcased some of the most exciting artists of the day, and Souza quickly became his most successful artist, with several sell-out shows.” In London, Souza worked alongside artists like Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon, breaking all rules of art to create a style that spoke to the social and psychological breakdown of the post-war years.

Also Read | The fine art of a coarse India

Musgrave’s partner, Ida Kar, is famous for her striking black-and-white portraits of artists and authors. She photographed Souza, too, and some of these images were displayed at Sunaparanta. In one of them, an immaculately dressed Souza posed cigarette in hand, his eyes ablaze with the defiance his art is associated with. “I remember my dad dressed in an incredibly smart suit that day as he was to meet the Queen at the Commonwealth Institute, where he had been chosen to represent India,” said Souza Kohn of one of Kar’s portraits featured in the exhibition. “As a wonderful artist herself, Kar has left behind a fabulous collection of photos of artists in their studios and enriched our family albums with her domestic documentary photos of our lives,” she added.

An abstract landscape by F.N. Souza.

An abstract landscape by F.N. Souza. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The exhibition was interesting in its many juxtapositions, of Souza’s early works with his later pieces, his painted portraits with Kar’s photographic portraits of him. Macklin also presented Souza’s work against that of Picasso, whom Souza had met and looked up to: “Young Ladies of Belsize Park is a homage to Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is now at MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] in New York,” said Macklin. This painting was one of the major works displayed at Grosvenor Gallery’s “Souza in Hampstead” show, which focussed on the paintings Souza made in this London neighbourhood, where he lived from the mid-1950s until 1968.

A Goan artist

Sunaparanta paid tribute to Souza through an exhibition of works by Goan students and artists. Renditions of Souza’s works from a workshop series, “After F.N. Souza”, conducted by the artist Viraj Naik at various educational institutes in April 2024 lined the walls of the central courtyard and café. The series also included sketches, etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs by notable artists like Walter D’Souza, Ryan Abreu, Vijay Bhandare, Swapnesh Vaigankar, and Shripad Gurav, all of whom have their roots in Goa.

Still Life with Eggs, 1984, by F.N. Souza.

Still Life with Eggs, 1984, by F.N. Souza. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The Ahmedabad-based D’Souza, whose family, like Souza’s, has lived out of Goa but retains strong ties with the State, said that he is fascinated by “the randomness with which Souza captured familiar imagery—the way in which he addressed local images and used Western art as an influence”.

Souza’s revolutionary art is more relevant than ever in the conflict-ridden world of today. “Souza in Hampstead” featured works like The Apocalypse and Mad Prophet in New York that, Macklin said, were painted in reaction to the resumption of nuclear testing in 1962. And Souza Kohn spoke of Souza’s book, The White Flag Revolution: “It is a collection of essays which says that if all men and women flew white flags, there would be no war.”

Janhavi Acharekar is an author, a curator, and creative consultant.

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