Mala Marwah essays

It stands to reason that with regard to an artist like Souza, whose temperament would seem to lay him bare his work will also be similarly apodictic. The thesis that points to things shared between body and mind is not a new one, but is perhaps the strongest argument that accompanies any work of an emotive nature, as opposed to work that is more concerned with verism and realistic report. Souza’s incisive line, vitriolic turns of phrase and feverish involvement with subjects that concern him most lie closely and intimately with his own style, in the jabbing lines his paintings and in the smooth, ‘pure’ line of his drawings. Perhaps it would not be wrong to underline the conjunction between an agile mind and the searing quality of the clear line. In Souza’s drawings in particular his line performs like a scalpel; in his paintings it animates the entire canvas.

As the difference between a drawing and a painting as finished works of art is today chiefly one of medium, we find that there is the usual exchange, clarity of pithiness not being exclusive to drawing. As a body of work Souza’s paintings display mostly a linear emphasis. His earliest paintings, with their areas of thick paint, nervously brushed on, carry a bounding, veering outline, usually black. Later work, including his most recent (done within the last two to three years) shows a markedly different attitude to colour and composition, but the linear punctuation remains the same. In his work, whether landscape, still-life, or portrait this delineation becomes a stylistic feature.

Souza’s plastic preoccupations do not generally overwhelm his priorities in terms of visual statement. He is, as a rule, more anxious to enunciate something specific than to display mere technical virtuosity, although it must be said that in his best work both function simultaneously. He spoke on his exhibition of January 1976, reiterating his new approach to colour in some detail, saying it was radically different in approach to his earlier work, which he called ‘achromatic’, where he used ‘pigment’ rather than actual colour. (“I am using colour-pigment rather than colour or pigment”.) Compositionally too, there is a dissembling compared to his earlier work, and a movement in the direction of a somewhat more detached approach. Souza places this change in attitude down to about 1969. His painting, ‘Shiv, Shakti and Ganesh’ of 1974 exemplifies this change.

Similarities between Souza’s work and that of several other Western Painters have been pointed out before, and Rouault is cited as one who shared a similar religious background. Both experienced the inherent splendour and awe associated with the Roman Catholic Church, in the combination of the brilliant and sombre colours of stained-glass windows, in the same mortal combat with the medium, and in their choice of subject. A Byzantine rigidness is also a common feature in some of their work. In Souza’s work upto the 60’s we notice the figure, encased in flat-coloured clothes, with the elongated ogival head, detached expression and votive stance - and the melancholy that is associated with this expression. Both absorbed religious experience and projected it in terms of symbolic compassion. Rouault’s curatorial position, however, stood in contrast to Souza’s trying penances in the seminary as a young man which he left soon after his irresistible urge to ‘correct’ drawings by other inmates on the lavatory walls drew dark frowns from his superiors and accelerated his growing realisation that painting was a matter of no small importance to him. Both, after the formal discipline of academic art training, plunged into their own fermented vision of the world, and forwarded this in their prostitutes and cardinals, lost yet living, sumptuous and secret.

For Souza the religious also turns into a tale of refutation, with emphasis on the terrible but seductive aspect of the devil. This duality runs through his entire experience. He even describes painting as something to attack, comparing it to a reptile; “Painting for me is not beautiful. It is ugly as a reptile. I attack it. It coils and recoils making fascinating patterns. I am not, however, interested in patterns. Otherwise I’d spend my days watching clouds or women’s fabrics. It is the serpent in the grass that is really fascinating. Glistening, jewelled, writhing in the green grass. Poisoned fangs and cold-blooded. Slimy as squeezed paint. Green hood, white belly from the chin to tail, yellow eyes, red forked tongue, slimy; careful not to put your foot on it; treacherous like Satan, yet beautiful like Him”. The Lamia in the forest, the enchanting siren; these attributes seem too direct in sympathy with a great many of his drawings of women. But the serpent, I would seem, is everywhere, in his crucifixions and landscapes, popes and cardinals, deities and madmen, with their wild apocalyptic surround, grimacing, gestures. His vision of the world reveals in this table of love and hate, running through all he does, rekindling it to life. This contradiction in terms of the seductive and the terrible is common to almost all his work, and he appears as both classical and modern, Christian and Satanist. His point of departure is religious, and like all visionary painters and as it is with the best fictional art, he is able to fuse together a wild earthiness with private illumination.

A cultural eclectic, he accepts or rejects according to personal caprice, so that it is on the one hand full of sympathetic examples from traditional Indian art, on the other scornful of the very context that produced it. It becomes difficult in the light of his many provocative statements to construe anything singular with respect to ideological issues (whether personal or public); indeed this is hardly his concern. His chief protagonist is, simply, himself; and his dissatisfaction with a surround that applauds sometimes blatant examples of hypocrisy and regressive moralising appears to have conditioned him to lash out at the very idea of polite conformity - regardless of what it supports. Moloch is also the manufacturer of nuclear weapons; a landscape bristles. The gruesome intimacy of the Crucifixion carries more than warmth or pity for the tortured Man on the cross. The effect is cyclical and apocalyptic : the futility it includes points to violence. In this same enraged protest against convention Picasso enunciated his ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’. A similar triumph underlines Souza’s love-hate relationship with the nude.

In his drawings Souza displays a direct confrontation with the subject. His descriptions of all subjects, certainly those of women in particular, display the core of his passionate and impatient temperament. These acerbic notations of the female have both intimate and vicarious; occasionally this obsession turns into a frank expression of satiation - or deprivation - in his hypertrophic delineation of breasts and hips. This enlargementis not as much in evidence in his earlier drawings and paintings of women - of which one, the “Standing Nude” of 1962, is taut and vital both compositionally and in form. In a more recent drawing, ‘Portrait of an English Girl’, in which her gestures are confident and direct, these again become factors basic to the composition. The line in this drawing is as unequivocal as the subject, and the whole carries a clearly monumental quality.

Ballooning breasts and overemphasised buttocks are a feature repeated in a number of drawings in his exhibition of January 1976. This facility and loose emphasis has as much to do with arrangement as with association; it will be seen that Souza is the most successful when he is direct - vulgar, obvious, bold and always more than a little impatient - than when he attempts to be lyrical. His women are transformed, variously, into what is his own maniacal version of beauty or desirability, or transmogrified into hideous apparitions, as the ‘Seated Nude’ where she becomes a mass of pitted breasts and organs. The relationship of the seated woman with her pendulous breasts and unwieldy frame to the carpet, curtains and furniture underlines the incongruity and contrast - and certainly the curious nausea in this little drawing - of which Souza is the chief declaimer and critic.

It would be too easy to read the libidinal into all his notations of physical expression. His force is conscious; his sympathy perhaps not as obvious, but always the lurking informant. It becomes increasingly curious how Souza presents this: his energetic fascination for a subject that takes on the appearance sometimes of a target for assault, sometimes that of a wish-fulfilment figure.

It will be seen that denial (of all kinds) becomes the common prod towards the fashioning of new expressions, the way to destruction and recasting, assimilation, consolidation. In all this there is the common experience of Narcissus; the one face on the wall, someone else’s shoulders, a picture - we see ourselves and our passions everywhere. Souza can transform conventional iconographic reference into a personal gesture which at the same time remains typical of the subject. The difference is obvious: it is a manner exclusive to him, and he perhaps sees himself in it. Souza succeeds in vilifying wha he most covets, and never quite obliterates it from his mind. Wildness (it seems pitifully obvious to say) becomes lax at satiation. Souza’s triumph lies in his corrosive energy and its resultant expression, and Narcissus is forgiven his lapses. In funnelling inspiration into a tiny container of meaning, Souza’s work achieves a deliberate condensation. The only wrong turn in this road would be - strangely - too much facility, when vigour begins to turn into pattern.

Despite the difference between Souza’s early and later work it still enunciates different parts of a whole problem - the artist’s anxieties and questioning of his environment. The urge to dispatch on occasion overdoes itself, but this remains a horizontal difference - one of degree. The immediate effect remains the same, of angularity and refraction. The conquistador with the hawk, the woman with a face as if gored by a bull, the sinister antagonist of the self-portrait, the orgy of limbs, tyrant, tycoon, tramp, whore, lover, goddess; these are only some extensions of a planet where in one corner he once saw humanity seethe, with its “dwangs, farads and din”. We can hardly look for the formal-recognizable. Without much effort, the feeling behind it makes itself available to sight and identification.

Souza’s personal realism (Edwin Mullin phrase) is almost confessional, nd as in the early portraits and drawings of Oskar Kokoschka, Souza’s work too lays emphasis on expression rather than resemblance - being less concerned with likeness than psychological projection. As with his temperament, being obstinate and fractious, there is a sense of exasperation in all he does, his jabbings and emphasis on outline. Enunciation is a function intrinsic to line, even when the artist is aware of no wish to enunciate anything in particular; Souza makes conscious use of it. Percipience controls expression, and this in turn controls style. In the sum, vehemence remains the visible underlying factor, and this is germane both to Souza and his work.

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