In the history of art one of the most important developments of the twentieth century may be the emergence of a new humanist Asian art. Or will it be the opposite that is remarkable? Will the desperately practical needs of Asia preclude art for the first half-century of their independent power? What will their art, when it is established, owe to their own traditions, and what to Europe? Such questions can only begin to be answered by those who have lived in Asia. And it is for that reason that the exhibition of painting by the Indian artist, Souza, at Gallery One, Litchfield Street, is both so interesting and so puzzling. Analysis breaks down and intuition takes over. If one enjoys these pictures, one must simply accept that pleasure; what we accept may or may not be what the artist intended.
Souza, who is a comparatively young artist now in London, was born in the Indian Portuguese state of Goa. He was brought up a Catholic but is now hardly an orthodox one. In Bombay he is well known as both a painter and a writer. How much his pictures derive from Western art and how much from the hieratic temple traditions of his country, l cannot say. It is obvious that he is an excellent designer and a good draughtsman. His subjects are landscapes, nudes and figures of priest-like men. The colours he uses are dark and rich, and his forms are usually bound by heavy outlines.
I find it quite impossible to assess his work comparatively. Because he straddles several traditions but serves none, his work lacks grace and has to make up for a lack of certainty with a clumpsy, individual power. But at the, same time it seems to me to contain an imaginative tension which is truly moving, One can of course avoid the whole problem of what his work means by explaining its entire appeal in formal terms. His use of engraved lines, graffitto-like, to enrich the surface of his paint, his sense of pattern tending towards the effect of dark brocaded silks, his method of modelling a figure solid by apparently-burnishing the pigment and its tones until the result is reminiscent of a smooth, very simplified but full bronze statue, his occasional use of acid colour, quick and aerial as small flames, his awareness of the weight of the human body-belly keeping it to the ground: all this contributes to the impact of his work.
But what about the arrows that stick so ungorily into the necks of his men, what about the sex of his women, triumphant and yet entirely uncultivated, what about his Byzantine-looking towns and his cubist analysis of objects? Ignorant before the meaning of these phenomena we can only react intuitively. Or are all these considerations fabricated? Are these twenty-one rather clumsy canvases only the expression of a man hopelessly muddled and meaninglessly pushed hither and thither? Are their few qualities only the result of the tag-end of a broken, used-up tradition? I do not know. I can only say that this exhibition draws, fascinates and gives me pleasure. If I try to define what moves me, I come to the conclusion that it is the yielding in the works of the hieratic to the banal, and vice versa. The bearded man in front of the landscape is both arch priest and gimcrack tramp. The nude is a greedy undeniable goddess and yet common as any fruit in the market. The couple are Abraham and Sarah or Bombay shopkeepers. Indeed, the nearest parallel is the Old Testament. A shout can break down a city wall.
Finally, however, I can only recommend readers to go and look for themselves - and also to go and look at Josef Herman - drawings at Roland Browse and Delbanco.