Overlooked no more: F.N. Souza, India's anti-establishment artist

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Overlooked no more: F.N. Souza, India's anti-establishment artist
Oil on Masonite painting by the Indian-American artist Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), titled Head in a Landscape, 35 inches by 47 ½ inches.

by William Grimes

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In 1949, curious art lovers in Bombay (now Mumbai) gathered at the Art Society of India to see the work of a rising young painter named Francis Newton.

They were in for a surprise. On the gallery’s center wall hung an expressionistic self-portrait of the artist, stark naked, paintbrush in hand, looking directly at the viewer with total assurance and a complete lack of shame. Nearly 6 feet tall, it made a powerful impression.

A scandal ensued. The police rushed in, covering up the figure’s private parts. Obscenity charges were filed. Then, after removing all four paintings in the show, the police raided the artist’s studio in a search for pornographic material.

Once again, Newton, who soon gained fame under the name F.N. Souza, his actual surname, had delivered on the promise of his Progressive Artists’ Group, a handful of like-minded renegades who favored an assertively modern approach, incorporating such Western influences as cubism, expressionism and art brut.

Souza founded the group in 1947, just months after India gained its independence from British colonial rule. The goal, he wrote in the manifesto-like catalog essay for the group’s first exhibition, at the Bombay Arts Society in January 1949, was a “new art for a newly free India.”

No one embodied this spirit more than Souza, with a rebellious nature he exhibited from childhood.

He was born Francisco Victor Newton de Souza on April 12, 1924, in Saligao, Goa, a Portuguese colony in the south of India, to Roman Catholic parents. His father, José Victor Aniceto Piedade de Souza, an English teacher who went by the name Joe Newton, died just three months after his son was born. Within a few years the boy was taken to Mumbai by his mother, Lilia Maria Cecilia (Antunes) de Souza, who started a successful dressmaking business.

He was expelled from St. Francis Xavier’s College, a secondary school, for inscribing erotic doodles on the wall of the boys’ room. He protested that he had merely “corrected” an existing drawing. At 16, he enrolled in the Sir J.J. School of Art, where he chafed at the strict academic approach and again ran into trouble. In 1945, along with other politically active students, he was suspended for his activities in support of Gandhi’s Quit India movement and never returned.

On the day of his suspension, he went home in a rage and immediately began painting. The result was “The Blue Lady,” a nude he created by squeezing pigment directly from the tube onto a sheet of plywood and spreading the paint around with a palette knife.

“It was an angry, impulsive picture, and in painting it he discovered the way he wanted to paint,” Edwin Mullins wrote in “F.N. Souza: An Introduction” (1962).

Souza spent time in Goa, painting rural landscapes and portraits of poor laborers in a style reminiscent of Gauguin, then returned to Mumbai, where he began showing his work at the Bombay Art Society and gathered the coterie that became the Progressive Artists’ Group, among them Maqbool Fida Husain and Sayed Haider Raza.

In 1949, after taking part in an exhibition of Indian art at the Royal Academy of Arts the previous year, he set sail for London. He toiled in obscurity until catching the eye of poet Stephen Spender, who introduced him to Peter Watson, a well-connected collector and philanthropist. A group show with Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and others followed at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1954.

A year later Spender published Souza’s autobiographical essay, “Nirvana of a Maggot,” in Encounter magazine. His career took off when Victor Musgrave, the owner of the pioneering Gallery One, began selling his work.

It was in the 1950s and ’60s, fusing stylistic elements drawn from classical Indian art, African tribal art and Western modernism, that Souza produced some of his most notable works. He expanded his reach beyond landscapes and portraits to embrace the sacred and profane in erotically charged images, teetering at times on the edge of violence, and religious subjects like the crucifixion and the Last Supper.

“With a few slashing lines and a raw, expressive energy, Francis Newton Souza stripped away all subterfuge,” The Times of India wrote in a 2010 review of a retrospective of his work at the Dhoomimal Gallery in New Delhi. “Be it the sluts or the suits, the seamy side of life or the steamy, the gnomish, pox-scarred boy from Goa who went on to become one of the first Indian artists to be feted in the salons of Europe, laid it bare.”

His brutal “Crucifixion” (1959), purchased by the Tate in 1993, showed a black, jagged-edged Christ, “scourged and dripping, with matted hair tangled in plaited thorns,” as Souza described it in his collection “Words and Lines” (1959).

Several of the paintings from this period later fetched record auction prices for Indian art. “Birth” (1955), depicting a nude, heavily pregnant woman whose delivery is attended by a man in priestly garb, sold for $2.8 million in 2008, and then for $4 million when resold in 2015. His “black paintings,” first exhibited in 1966 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, adopted many of his recurring themes but rendered in a nearly all-black palette.

In 1967 he moved to New York and returned to brighter colors, applied in a brushy, expressionistic manner, like the wildly exuberant “Oklahoma City” (1971), one of several cityscapes and landscapes that reflected his travels around the United States. He also embarked on a series of experimental works in which he used chemicals to dissolve the ink on magazine pages, catalogs or photographs and superimpose new images.

A long period of neglect ended after his death, on March 28, 2002, while visiting Mumbai. The cause was complications of a heart attack. He was 77.

His art would find new admirers. Tate Britain, as part of the 2018 exhibition “All Too Human: Bacon, Freud, and a Century of Painting Life,” set aside an entire room showcasing 10 of his works. Later that year, the Asia Society in New York included several of Souza’s works in “The Progressive Revolution: Modern Art for a New India,” a show devoted to the Progressive Artists’ Group, and a stirring reminder of Souza’s headlong charge into the future.

“We were bold and full of fire,” Souza told The Times of India in 1989. “We were forging a modern Indian art with a blast!”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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