Francis Newton Souza is one of the most phenomenal figures in contemporary Indian art. His emergence on the art scene in the late forties centrally divides as it were the great spam of 20th century Indian painting. It closes the chapter firmly, and once for all, on the art of pre-Independence times. While still in Bombay’s Sir J.J. School of Art (which was not exactly hospitable to him), Souza not only rejected the oppressive presence of academic art but also rebelled against accepted legends of the times such as Amrita Sher-Gil though they had nothing to do with British academism. As one of the Progressive Artists’ Group’s leading founders, he was not only very vocal about the ideological stand involved in these rejections but he was also provocatively forthright and clear in his ideas.
It was at this time also that the young Souza forged his tempestuous style. Later commentators have used the term “Expressionist” while describing the work of the Progressive Artists’ Group painters. But this does not explain everything. Souza’s palette was as if forged in fire; it was a sentiment which was appropriate to his fiery political beliefs. He had had a brush with the J.J. School authorities owing to his part in the freedom movement. Later he tagged himself on to the Communist in a development which was typical of the post-1942 years. The first manifesto of the Progressive Artists’ Group is marked by all the firebrand ideological impulse of the Communists. But Souza is not a man to surrender his creativity to a stern political ideology. His liaison with the Communists was short-lived, and soon after he left for England launching himself on the great adventure of his career.
The current exhibition of Souza’s reminds us of his early years in Bombay and in London. In a way it restages some of his most substantial achievements. Souza is in his element here in his prismatic landscapes, the colours are excitingly sensuous and the mesh of lines organises the painting with a structural force unique even in Souza. These landscapes remind us that Souza is rooted in his Goan soil. Indeed, he is rooted like a tree. And considering his age and achievement, one even conjures up the image of a solid oak riven by lightening. Souza is nothing without this mark of lightening, this cross of suffering which he carries.
That brings us to another salient theme of his oeuvre: the Crucifixion and other incidents from Christian lore. Souza has painted the Crucifixion truly from his gut. He had earlier done some powerful pen-and-ink drawings on the Crucifixion theme. The nails that drive into Jesus’s flesh can be compared to the arrows Souza uses in his equally powerful heads. And when he draws a self-portrait these same lacerating barbs appear to attack his face in a supremely eloquent gesture of anguish. Here we have some works portraying Christ sitting at supper with his disciples, Christ treated with varying symbolism by an artist whose personal spiritual belief is more profound than any religious dogma. We also have a beautiful painting of Magi-like men coming from the Middle Eastern milieu of the Bible.
Souza has always promoted fierce controversy. He thrives on being provocative. It is this stance which is probably behind the nudes with their oversize breasts and unsophisticated postures. But one believes that, apart from the sensuality of these nudes, the artist also wants probably to map out the procreative role of woman. If so, Souza’s deep love for his homeland, Goa, and his visualisation of a mother image may be said to go together. Nothing else will explain his obsession for nudes with grossly outsize limbs. Perhaps, as he travels back towards the image of his home, he is reaching towards the sublime and the pure.
During the past decade or no Souza has got involved in the promotion of the Redmond Theory. First promulgated by Sanford Redmond in the U.S., the theory refers to the continuing infinity of nature. When it further develops into the concept of the White Flag Revolution, it calls upon artists and intellectuals of the world to stage a courageous stand against atomic proliferation. Souza has consistently and energetically espoused Redmond’s ideas. But this latest proselytising phase in Souza’s career can at best be said to run parallel to his continuing artistic achievement. Souza is important to us for what he does on canvas or the drawing paper. He pours out his perceptions in lines and colours which then blaze into the images he creates.
To say that Souza has seen life is to state the obvious. His entire persona has passed through ordeals of fire. But this exhibition establishes him all over again as a superb craftsman, a burning genius, whose art has the power to scorch our sensibilities. Souza touches us with the torch of his rare artistic integrity.
13 July, 1990