One of the largest exhibitions of India's best known modernist, Francis Newton Souza, held at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi recently, traced his journey — personal and artistic — from being an expelled student to an angry iconoclast.

A large portrait of a couple, oil on canvas, catches your eye as you enter the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi for what surely is one of the largest and most comprehensive exhibitions in India of the works of Francis Newton Souza — the Goa-born artist of whom art historian and critic John Berger once famously said that he “straddles many cultures, but serves none”. Eight years after his death, Souza, of course, remains one of the best known Indian modernists abroad, his trademark nudes and (distorted) faces being much sought after by collectors abroad. But in India too, in recent years, the prolific painter's energetic landscapes and other experimental work have found renewed following. On the other hand, the portrait that catches your eye is at once quintessential Souza and un-Souza-like, contradictory, perhaps much like the artist himself.

Done on a Holi day, after the Roman Catholic-, Left-leaning- (at least in his early days) artist had celebrated the festival of colours with his hosts and friends Uma and Ravi Jain of the Dhoomimal gallery in Delhi, one of the city's oldest, the painting is undoubtedly a gentler, perhaps happier, Souza. The lines are strong as are the colours (of Holi) that he captures but there is none of the angst — and thus distortions of the human face and form — that we may have come to expect of the artist. “My mother was expecting me at that time, and after Souza presented it to my parents he explained that he had tried to capture her from a particular perspective that he had been observing her from,” says Uday Jain, who, along with his mother, has now put up this mega show to celebrate the man and the artist and promote a deeper understanding of the iconoclast.

Intensely personal

But while the painting naturally occupies pride of place in the huge Dhoomimal collection — of the 400 works in the family's private possession by the artist, 200 have been picked and chosen for display by curator Yashodhra Dalmia — it is also illustrative of the fact that despite his larger concerns for the society and his fellow men, Souza's art, at its core, remained intensely personal. It is common knowledge that people that he was close to at that particular time — including the women in his life — made an appearance on his canvasses, and often the distorted heads, violently emotional faces, were indeed his own.

In fact, an arresting work in the exhibition was the “Birth of Francis Patrick”— Souza's only son, done in pen and ink and dated October 27, 1971, “Roosevelt Hospital”. The work indeed captures almost the very moment of his son's birth in the hospital and it would be interesting, says Uday Jain, to find out whether it was actually done “on the scene, live, since Souza was so prolific and was always sketching and doodling.” According to Jain, who was very fond of “Souza uncle”, growing up around him, the artist was very generous and would often complete these pictures and present them to his subjects, a fact that is also borne out by artist Jatin Das who knew Souza in Mumbai and remembers the latter gifting a bunch of 15-20 works to his son, saying, “Gift them away to your friends… sell them… you are free to do with them what you want.” This, in the 1990s, when the artist was at the very pinnacle of success, According to Jain, the artist, so mercurial and vitriolic otherwise, could be equally large-hearted with students and, well, “fans”. At the Kala Mela, an annual art occurrence in the 1980s, a young Subodh Gupta, then a student of art in Patna who had journeyed to the capital, observed the iconic artist at work and sketched him. He then took the sketch to Souza, who in turn did a sketch of Gupta's with an encouraging note tagged on!

It is easy to develop a sense of voyeurism towards Souza and his personal life. After all, so much of his art was rooted in it — right from the time he was expelled from St. Xavier's, Bombay, for drawing pornographic sketches in the toilets! His love-hate relationships with women, the church and the lands to which he travelled far and wide, after all, are the genesis of much of his art. But it is equally interesting to trace the artist's development in terms of his emotions, his personal state of being over those years. And the Dhoomimal exhibition gives one a chance to do just that, what with the works being displayed chronologically — from the 1940s, when he started painting as a raw, young boy, to his very last, when he almost held on to his easel battling illness as perhaps a metaphor for life.

The artist has been much chronicled, including by his own self (Words and Lines). Expelled from the JJ School of Art in Mumbai before he could complete his diploma, the artist describes his transformation from an expelled student to a professional painter:

On the day I was expelled from JJ School of Art in 1945, I marched home indignantly, told my astonished mother what had happened — I was 21 years old then, had grown an Errol Flynn moustache and I smoked cigarettes from a holder like Robert Donat — and started furiously painting in oil with a palette knife on a large piece of plywood my mother had bought to use as a cutting table-top for her dressmaking. I painted an azure nude with a still life and landscape in the background. I finished the painting in an hour or two of white heat.

The “Blue Lady”, as this was to be called, was soon exhibited and bought by Dr. Hermann Goetz for the Baroda Museum. Souza's journey had begun. Through the 1940s, Souza's rebellion and aggression come out in his art in his vigorous strong lines of pen and ink sketches. There is a sense of raw energy even to the landscapes and water colours of a Portuguese Goa that he does. The preoccupation with human form and anatomy is evident too — the artist apparently even studied surgical tomes and practised dissection on cadavers — with one sketch reminiscent of a biology diagram. By the late 1940s, it wasn't just a post-Independence society in tumult that Souza may have faced and been artistically inspired by but his own personal tensions and restlessness. The move to London was fraught by these, his first marriage was apparently falling apart, and all this becomes a trademark of his work in that period.

The late 1950s-1960s, on the other hand, see a much more confident artist, points out Uday Jain. This was a period when he had found international success and was personally happier. His resulting works are thus more confident, his heads softer, but the strokes stronger, and the trademark Suza is now emerging. Interestingly, works such as “Birth” or “Lovers”, auctioned for famously high prices at Sotheby's and elsewhere, belong to this mid-1950s period with (inexplicable) international market trends having favoured the artist's works from 1950s and 1960s.

By the 1960s, however, the artist was once again restless personally — and something that inevitably found its way on to his canvasses. His first marriage had broken down and he was about to shift to New York, at once loving the city's energy as questioning its commercial spirit. Consequently, it may be possible to see the angry lines of even his landscapes and distorted heads — distortions in self image — that were to become his trademark in this context.

“I have made my art a metabolism. I express myself freely in paint in order to exist…” wrote Souza of his credo as a painter in the 1940s. “… When I press a tube I coil. Every brush stroke makes me recoil like a snake struck with a stick. I hate the smell of paint. Painting for me is not beautiful. It is ugly like a reptile…” he adds. And these are words that may help us understand the artist and the process of creation better. What it underlines is the passion, the self that Souza puts into each of his works.

Gentler themes

By the 1970s, the artist was again in a happier frame of mind with another marriage and the birth of a child and his numerous “mother and child” softer themes reflect that. In the 1980s, however, the artist is now at the peak of his authority. His strokes seem less angry and the distortions may be a way of stylising figures. He seems to be in a “been there, done that” frame of mind, points out Jain and figures on thrones often adorn his works. From the mid 1990s, death becomes a concern. It is a time in his life when he is very ill. And he paints many versions of The Last Supper. Pieta, from 1993, shows deep anguish in every line, Christ's body being carried away by a group of women. It is ironical that the rebel could never free himself from religion. But Goa and Catholicism, no doubt, were him, however much the distance he traversed.

Curated show

The exhibition, titled Volte-Face, Souza's Iconoclastic Vision, one of the largest and most comprehensive Souza showings in the country, was held between April 9 and 18, 2010 at the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi.

It was curated by Yashodhara Dalmia with over 200 paintings and drawings from the Dhoomimal Gallery Personal Collection.

It was also accompanied by a film screening, a poetry session, art workshops for children, talks on Souza by Kishen Khanna and Ebrahim Alkazi, and curated tours.