Spotlight Society

An exhibition captures F.N. Souza’s early years as an artist

‘Untitled (Women on a path, Goa)’, 1948.   | Photo Credit: Grosvenor Gallery & Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts.

Upon being expelled from Sir J.J. School of Art in 1945, the young painter, Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), rushed home, dragged out a piece of ply that his mother Lilia Maria had set aside to fashion into a dressmaker’s table, and began to paint in a ‘white heat’ of indignation. Within an hour he had finished ‘Blue Lady’, that was sold in 1945 to Dr. Herman Goetz at the solo show hosted by Bombay Arts Society in December of the same year.

It is stories like this, rare photographs, and never-before-seen paintings from the lesser-known period of Souza’s life that the travelling exhibition, ‘Souza 1940s’, highlights. Curated by Conor Macklin, the show is a collaboration between Saffronart, Grosvenor Gallery, London, and Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts.

Crucial decade

“We chose to focus on these compelling and formative years of Souza because the 1940s was a crucial decade in his life,” says Macklin, the director of Grosvenor Gallery. He explains that after Souza was expelled from Sir J.J. School for challenging the system (he disrupted the British flag-hoisting

‘Goan Rains’, 1942

‘Goan Rains’, 1942   | Photo Credit: Grosvenor Gallery & Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts.

ceremony and was known for his provocative graffiti in the university toilets), he repaired to his ancestral home in Goa, which now lies in ruins. “It was here that he painted a very important body of work that has often been overlooked. Souza left for England in 1949, and he carried with him the essence of these formative years,” says Macklin.

“Through the exhibition and catalogue, we hope to provide scholarship, research and analysis of this period of Souza’s life and work, much of which has been erroneously represented,” continues Macklin. Many reviews and cuttings appear without dates. A set of photographs from the estate of Souza, the family archive, and some taken by Ida Kar, a London-based photographer, have been sourced for the exhibition and the accompanying book. Importantly, some paintings have Souza’s own inscriptions, which are crucial in getting the timeline right, Macklin points out.

In the 1940s, Souza was at the very beginning of his artistic career. “Souza was known for producing thought-provoking and powerful imagery through his unrestrained and graphic artwork. His Goan roots and rebellious nature, marred by his troubled relationships and broken marriages, are reflected in many of his works, which were often very provocative and bold. He became known for his aggressive lines and thick application of colour,” observes Raj Salgaoncar, a collector of Souza’s work and the patron-founder of the Sunaparanta Centre.

Bucolic phase

But if Souza is known today as the painter of the underbelly, he evidently took time to arrive there. The works on display are proof that Souza went through a phase of bucolic landscapes, like his 1942 painting titled ‘Rice Paddy

Untitled (High Street, Goan Village)’,1944

Untitled (High Street, Goan Village)’,1944   | Photo Credit: Grosvenor Gallery & Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts.

Fields’ and an ‘Untitled Landscape’ painted in 1941. These works are calm, even sentimental: there is none of the dark, serrated lines or the brooding atmosphere that characterise his later landscapes. One might surmise that Souza was captivated by his native land and allowed it to permeate his senses in a way that was not possible later when he moved to Bombay and eventually left India.

It is a treat to read his notes on that period of his life: “Some years ago, I spent a few months in an almost deserted village in Goa, which is my native ‘country,’” writes Souza in his autobiographical essay, ‘Nirvana of a maggot’, published in his book, Words and Lines (the catalogue has extracts from the book). “I was living in an old dilapidated house. The village, quite a primitive one, was scantily populated. The tentacles of the monstrous civilisation spreading on the outskirts beyond, were gradually strangling it...” Souza’s contempt for ideas of ‘civilisation’ and urbanisation, especially of the kind being promoted by the British, comes out here.

Souza goes on to write, “In those days, I was painting peasants, and rural landscapes. I painted the earth and its tillers with bold strokes, heavily outlining masses of brilliant colours. Peasants in different moods, eating and drinking and toiling in the fields, bathing in a river or a lagoon, climbing palm trees, distilling liquor, assembling in a church, praying or in procession with priests and acolytes. Carrying monstrance, relics and images; ailing and dying, mourning or merrymaking in market-places and feasting at weddings.”

Socialist side

His painting titled ‘The Family’ (1940) captures a peasant family in their living room. The man, woman and children are of dark skin and robust build: they hark back to the Socialist side of Souza, which lasted briefly as he returned to painting ‘only for the self’. His erotic drawings and the archetypal ‘Mother and Child’ paintings that dominate the latter half of his career have come to signify his signature style. The works from around 1948 to 1950 indicate a bolder, more stylised approach to painting.

By 1948, we begin to see the dark lines, the powerful brushstrokes and the impasto colours. But it is an oil like ‘Girl with Goat’ (1949) that experts like Mackling think is rare and important, since it indicates the influence of folk sculpture and painting that left their mark on both Souza and M.F. Husain.

When Souza displayed these works at Chemould Frames in Mumbai, the Goan community exclaimed that the figures looked ‘nothing like them’ and wanted to break the windows and vandalise the paintings. The artworks were moved to another venue, where they were finally sold.

Souza has always been controversial. The enfant terrible of the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG), for which Souza wrote the manifesto, was forever challenging the system, whether that meant a given style of painting or an ideology that suppressed his artistic impulses. The PAG, while breaking away from the revivalism of the Bengal School of Art, also refused to succumb to the dry academic approach of contemporary art schools. Like his close friend, Husain, Souza was a maverick who worked outside the system and burnt a path of his own. This exhibition and the book are worthwhile for the way they capture his formative years.

ON SHOW: ‘Souza 1940s’, till March 5, at Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts

The writer is a critic-curator by day, and a creative writer and visual artist by night.

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Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 2:29:46 AM |

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