It isn't often that you can get a glimpse into the making of great art, its genesis in the mind of the artist. That's why the “Before the Canvas” exhibition of F.N. Souza's sketches at Apparao Galleries is something special.
The small but powerful collection of works allows you a look, quite literally, into the sketchbook of Francis Newton Souza, one of the most remarkable figures in Indian contemporary art. Part of the gallery's private collection, most of the works on display are drawings done by the Goa-born artist during his visit to Chennai in 1987 for an exhibition.
The sketches have a rough, incomplete feel; many being preliminary drafts of what went on to later become fully fleshed-out artworks. This gives you, the viewer, a vicarious thrill, a sense of being present at the beginning of an iconic creative journey.
But the exhibition is powerful for more reasons than that. Rough pencil sketches though they might be; the works radiate energy and emotion, and reflect the artist's signature style. Described as the ‘enfant terrible' of post-Independence Indian art, Souza was a rebel, a provocative and inventive artist who forged his own path. One of his enduring preoccupations was with the female form; his female nudes are today some of his most renowned works.
This collection reflects that fascination, with several sketches dedicated to overtly sexual depictions of the woman's body, often impossibly voluptuous, emphasising her breasts, hips and thighs, and unabashedly erotic. Some other sketches capture the anger and violence that underscored many of his works — using just pencil and paper, Souza manages to portray these intense emotions and unsettlingly dark depictions of humanity with deep, slashing strokes.
Still others are incomplete landscapes — simple, bare-bones drawings of rural women at a distance, working on the fields. These unfinished works make you stop and wonder what Souza had planned for them — were they ever completed on a canvas? What did they finally look like?
Giving you a feel of the artist's finished works are two of his paintings, brought down from London especially for this exhibition. One of the first Indian contemporary artists to win fame and accolades in the West, Souza exhibited in a number of prestigious shows in London, Paris, New York etc.; indeed, he was appreciated far more abroad than in his own country during his lifetime, and lived for large portions of his life in the U.K. and the U.S.
These two paintings are representative of Souza's unique depictions of the face and the head, distorted, evocative and ambiguous. As the well-known art critic John Berger once said of Souza — “he straddles many traditions, but serves none.”
This exhibition is a tiny slice of the many faces of Souza, while its sketchbook feel gives you a different way to view art. It remains in Chennai until October 31 before travelling across the country.