Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary-32, 1985, pp. 42-43
The 1940’s form a most important decade of this century. It was a time known for its ambiguity and restraint. Cultural encounters were an incentive to drastic changes in the Indian art scene which resulted in various kinds of visual experiences. During this time, the general drift away from mythological subjects towards socially committed themes, such as poverty, became wide spread and consistent.
Francis Newton Souza was born in 1924 in the small Portuguese Catholic colony of Goa. He had a miserable youth, being fatherless from the months after his birth. His experience is described in A Fragment of Autobiography, including in his own book Words and Lines, published in 1959. In 1940 Souza joined Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay and was expelled in 1945. Then he had his first one-man show, whose works were bought for Baroda Museum by Dr. Herman Goetz. Souza came out of these circumstances with a new emphasis on visual form. A form in search to know its identity with energies to express something new. His liberal views and profound understanding had laid an anchor for his time.
In 1947 his works were accepted for the first time and awarded. In the same year, he founded the Progressive Art Group. The next year his works were represented in the exhibition of Indian art at Burlington House, London. Eventually in 1949 the most exciting events took place. His works were removed from the Art society, his flat in Bombay was raided by the police to seize ‘obscene’ paintings. Subsequently Progressive Artists Group organized their first group show and on July 22, he left India for London. During the next year he painted murals in London and wrote autobiographical essays to buy paint and food.
The present exhibition shows the works motivated by a tremendous force animating this strange, arrogant young man, eager to give expression to rather flashy baroque exuberance. The works are interesting in view of his subsequent career and from a psychological point of view. In every work he tries for a better experiment - to see, to visualize a new form, a new manner in art. The works intersects fresh mode of looking at life through intellectual interrelations and influences unnumbered.
Souza’s exhibition established the range and consistency of the visual problems with which he has been preoccupied for ten years. The work shows and restlessness between the academic western and the traditional Indian schools. However Souza, was not aiming to follow any school rigidly; he sought an absolute of his own, seeing it as the right and duty of youth to overturn the preceding generation. Each of his work differs from other in its style and with an astonishing variation in its colour application. Rendering, composition and over all in its subject matter. As John Berger put it in the New Statesman 1955 ‘he straddles several traditions but serve none’. But one thing common with most of his work is its striking restlessness for creative urge and the individuality of Souza.
Instead of standing outside the flow of events and recording what happens, he plunges in and experiences through his drawings and paintings. Works in this exhibition can be seen to fall into several different groups. Genre scenes (that is, scenes of common or everyday life) which involve subjects like Goan peasants in the market, women in market, groups of women and groups of women with children, sometimes just a single woman, i.e. nude models drawn and painted indifferent postures, depressing subjects like Women Mourning and Beggars. He painted regularly all these years showing them in somber colours of browns and reds, giving a sense of direct contact with life due to which, in a humble way, the artist became a critic commenting on social problems which is expressed in the most optimistic terms with an emphasis on sharp black lines. The most interesting thing is the quality of Souza’s brush work, which is very free and rhythmic. The lines representing the minimum details are partly narrative, stylized and incisive. A simplification of colours and form. There is a movement and weight in the lines of the figures with sensations and ideas. Especially in his nude paintings and in paintings like Portraits of Progressive Artists, a broad black outline, simple dark shadows and brilliant areas of light making the work powerful and marvelously handled paint in which he was influenced by Georges Rouault.
Another sort of paintings are religious scenes as he says himself in his ‘A Fragment of an Autobiography’, The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and he splendor of its services. The Priest dressed in richly embroidered vestments’… in Priest with Three Goan women, with a perspective floor tiles and niches form a pattern, superbly executed in with flat colours of black-robed priest and women in white with an added embellishment.
Pieta depicted in a few powerful pen lines with dabs of blues and reds water colour shows the tragedy and dramatic intensity of the crucifixion. Christ, 1944 the utter simplicity of the design and the economy of means employed, combined with a bold line, make it extraordinarily moving. And number of other paintings done on religious theme are Baptism of Christ, 1944, Church in Goa, 1948, Crucifixion, 1947 which he represented with an atmosphere of restlessness the images that were in-built in his mind.
Among the number of other works are Landscapes which he painted continuously. One of the early ones is a water colour, Rice Fields done with pen and ink outline giving a panoramic view of Goa and in the same year 1943 there is an another landscape resembling that of Cezanne representing nature by the interpretation of using familiar forms. Another interesting landscape is of Buffaloes in Water, 1946 with its linear drawings and brilliant colours, showing the countryside of wide cloud-swept sky, its billowing masses contrasting with the firm horizontals of the vast flat land. The whole panoramic view is carefully constructed so that the eye-sweep gently forward from the foreground to the horizon. Landscape, 1947 is equally interesting with thee boats outline. Over all the landscape has been a regular visual problem which he tried to resolve by various means. During these years Souza’s landscapes are imbued with magical light streaming towards us across countryside.
Souza is among the few painters during these years, who really tried to be himself, with paints and colours. He refused to get lost among the many and varied trends in visual form during his time. There is no question of imbibe in his visual images but a tremendous urge to see images on the canvas as a reflection of personal temperament and that is why when Souza’s paintings are seen they are immediately and unmistakablyrecognized.
Published in Lalit Kala Contemporary-32, 1985, pp. 42-43