It indeed is a fabulous show but not quite the show to match with Francis Newton Souza’s genius. The enthusiasm it has generated is also not wholly unexpected, the; provincial world of art has a special relationship with its expatriate artists, and for an expatriate there is a ‘ready’ and ‘dynamic’ audience which goods to his show with lewd voyeuristic eyes or course Souza does not provide cleft trees but his ‘garden’ is laden with ‘desirable’ fruits, big apple breasts and genitals, and there may not be much oral sin to ‘devour’ some of these with hungry eyes. And since Souza blows his audience, his Adam has only a passive role: he has been buried like so nicely irrational beliefs in the power of witches.
The Adam image repels; he is ugly: life is the existential Other, a ‘big orgasm’, and as Souza said in his auto-biographical notes it was “like my father’s. Then finished.
I can never forgive him for having died just like that, and having left me in the lurch. I get into the church after that?”
This is agreeable enough. The spectator’s vision, wandering ‘unframed’ looking at the uncleft trees growing in the centre of the garden, is framed by the artist’s personal history and acquires the same precision as that of the artist’s vision. What the philistine is after is a somewhat illicit excitement: The sight of the painter, to have the ‘tactile’ tie in his praying soul and the aura of that uniqueness which accompanies the great artist. The expatriate provides this in good measure. And Souza understands what the searching eyes of his audience is looking for: the image of a suffering artist, the romantic saga suggested by his art. As every successful artist develops the actor in himself, Souza shuns glory and fame and treats his art as so many predicates of his personality. And thus a myth is created.
At this point, plain-man-ism of art takes over. The media machinery comes in to ‘explain’ art in the context of artist’s personal history. And most artists submit to the talk-shows enacted for the benefit of the public. After all the switched-in is the mark of celebrity although one is not sure whether an artist is really happy about these talk-shows. Not at any rate artists like Souza’s sensitivity. Souza will not allow the ‘talker’ to take over: he always talks back; his weapon is the weapon of argument. And the element of co-presence immediately comes into operation with his audience. “It is surprising that at the age of 51, I can still pass as the enfant terrible”, Souza concludes his introduction to the catalogue. There is surprisingly no hint of his being a competing master with acolytes of different metropolitan avant-gardism: and for good reason because he is a proselytising genius and always makes it a point to underline his responsibilities count much more than the irrational belief in the metaphysical entity called “art”.
POLITICS OF PROVINCIALISM
He lets put a big blast against the assumptions of provincialism implying that being a provincialist is no shame: a, provincialist cannot choose not to be a provincialist, and the native accents are all important for him. He speaks with condescending rhetoric of the superiority the role the Progressive Artists Group aesthetic still plays in the art making activities in India, attacking the 1890 Group artists as being in some kind of a satellite relationship with New York and other metropolitan art centers. Since the importance of the 1890 Group lies in the fact that they refused to bind themselves in a surrogate relationship with the art rhetoric of the Fifties - particularly the beginnings of modern art with the artists of the PAG. Souza divides the local scene so that the focus of the endless talk-shows which, came with the in inauguration of his exhibition at the Dhoomimal’s continues even after he is back in New York. The premises of the attack are interesting: Souza says, “Another lot who called themselves the 1890 Group which mercifully went Ker Plunk have also been taking swats at PAG, using pins and matchsticks on Gulliver, but could an anachronism named 1890 ever overtake progress which was the aim of hotshot artists of the Progressive Group? The answer is ‘NOPE’, particularly because the style these Lilliputians adopted is of the 1960s from the Royal College of Art, Kensington, London, itself borrowed from American Pop Art. They are illustrators who paint with “illustrative paint”, of the sort magazine illustrations, even comic strips, are made. American Pop is limp-wrist product of vulgar camp by fruits and faggots who were previously interior decorators, fashion designers and commercial artists and whereas their manifesto may not have been in the Queen’s vernacular, they fallowed the words of Clement Greenberg to the extent that Tom Wolfe has pointed out in his book “The Painted Word” (1975), the blowups of Greenberg’s prose could well appear as exhibits illustrated with “small illustrations” by the Pop, Hardedge and field painters he helped to promote.”
Souza’s attack on the 1890 Group should of course be dismissed as a light-hearted comment of an expatriate as injurious as the stated purpose of his visit: “If you really want to know why I’m back after a decade, it’s because I read an article in an American sexrag on the brothels of Lahore and Delhi. Souza, it is true, never in his career played the surrogate to the art styles of metropolitan art. By choosing to leave India in 1949 he claims he had merely enacted the Gauguin journey in reverse. Gauguin was proud of being barbaric, to be amidst the unspoilt children of nature, while Souza lives in the West (since 1967 in New York, the imperial capital of metropolitan art) for enjoying the -bourgeois logic of social status that accomplices fame and accolades; so he converts his modern Khajuraho mythologies into sweet money. Souza who has been a card holding member of the Communist Party said goodbye to ‘progressivism’ before he left India: Gulley Jimson and his endless suffering search for a studio has taught Souza that only millionaires are the true friends of art. He was to seek the good life of a bourgeois not like Pissarro’s who said “it’s a wonderful business being a bourgeois - without a cent!” For him, there is no hide and seek game against his middle class credentials. Not for him the status of a moral God, which Gauguin sought and even acquired at a great price: his altitude towards the bourgeois is close to Picasso’s: to fool him as much as possible by enacting deliberate crowd-pleasing unconventionalities. And he is proud that he sells. “I am one of the few painters who live entirely on his art without resort to teaching or commercial portraits. As for my art I can confidently say that I am not influenced by anyone and that I am not experimenting.”
By implication Souza is drawing attention to the in-fighting among artists about patronage, and since Indian art has yet to evolve a firm support system, the Lalit
Kala Akademi is the only institution to whip and rebel against. So what is wrong with Indian artists is the 19th century notion of middleclass ways being in conflict with the lifestyle of an artist. Perhaps there is some truth in the contrary assumptions: the logic of art leading into one direction and the logic of social status into another. The Indian artist has yet to sort out his confusion: while state patronage assumes that the artist is a member of the middleclass, that is to say the support for his skill is based on the assumption that he is a professional man, the artist behaves as if he is a member of aristocracy, and that is why he feels cut off from the mainstream of life. There is some truth in the artist’s assumption that art making is impossible in bourgeois culture and for “being an artist” he has to pay a heavy price in terms of personal suffering. For this reason he finds himself a prisoner of show business as it has happened in the west.
Souza that way has been prophetic: he knew as early as in 1947 there was no escape from the bourgeois logic of modern art: the only escape from its octopus influence is to assume an aristocratic stance as Tagore did and to create art outside bourgeois values. So Souza and Raza decided to leave India: Gade, Husain and Ara stayed back and became decadent. The metropolitan initiative that came in the Fifties with Abstract Expressionism as the blast of internationalism, the whole art scene in India went in for it in a kind of provincial surrender. No doubt Husain and Ara kept their heads above the muddy aesthetic of internationalism but they were not even the minority as they were when Souza was there on the scene. If some philistines still admired Husain’s it was out of ignorance: the Gupta art paradigms of which Souza still provides a homogenized immutability to its development were no longer thought to be authentic, sustaining heritage. Trapped within the provincialist bind Husain turned the form language of the Gupta art images into formalised conventions that remains one as made up of some exotic formalist-modernist doctrine of the two-dimensional. Husain’s cultural givens no doubt connect his images to some nostalgia for the past: what was lacking was the context which could be considered socially specific.
Souza could have provided for PAG an aesthetic basis for human communication with implications of cultural superiority to art’s numerous optical products from the West. For it is clear that the metropolitan scheme of keeping the provincialist in surrogate relationship for ever could be defeated by intellectual talk-shows, which Husain and Ara were incapable of enacting. The reason for Indian art’s provincial bind was provided by the London Times critic Edward Lucie-Smith. He said: “If we are to try to localise what seems unsatisfactory about contemporary
Indian painting as we now see it-unsatisfactory that is, apart from sheer imitativeness it is the lack of a sense of personal identity. Even their particular painting nearly succeeds; we fail to find in it the urgent egotistical statement which we have taught ourselves to “look for.” There is another relevant observation this critic makes. “Consciousness of the self is one of the European gifts to India.”
This explains Souza’s frontier jumping acts, his extremisms, his readiness to shock the audience, and if the audience is ready for it, his readiness for the next: so his antics, the love of the irony and his Dali-like bluntness and cantankerous honesty.
Souza’s egotistical almost condescending superiority exhibits the old kind of consciousness which is princely as if it were part of a throne, issuing from a centre without a margin. Compared to the new consciousness of western bourgeoisie, harassed job conscious and worried about the results and in contact with the marginal subjects only, Souza’s is that of an old king’s which is above the common misery of the human condition, above time and as much remote from the world as those of the divine Chinese Emperors. Compared to Souza’s oriental Buddha-like detachment the buzz-saw (because his teeth are invisible) consciousness of the western guru appears very much like old Humpty Dumpty. This is well explained by Poulet (Studies in Human Time) how can one discover the principle of human identity amidst lineal sequences of movements? The self is obliged to the discontinuity of these typographic moments, “each time to forget itself in order to reinvent itself, to reinvent itself in order to regain interest in itself, in short, to effect a mocking simulacrum of continued creation, thanks to which it believes it will escape the authentication of its nothingness and out of its nothingness refashion reality.” To escape from this time structured consciousness Joyce embraced the modern spirit which he described as returned medievalism: “The object of any work of art is the transference of emotions and medieval art has “emotional fecundity”. Of course Souza like Joyce is medieval, because India is medieval as Ireland is medieval and so the common symbolic mode of communication is medieval.
ART AS METABOLISM
Souza thus hates any kind of experimentation: the aim of his art is to compose uniqueness and his compositional logic is different, there are no attempts to fill the gap between appearance and reality. Souza says (and as much Picasso would have said about his art): “I’ve made my art a metabolism. I express myself freely in paint in order to exist. I paint what I want, what I like, what I feel. “I wear my hat as I please, indoor or out”, said Walt Whitman.
Like a medieval saint Souza mythologises his personal struggle against false consciousness. That is to say he is obsessed with the modern world’s authoritarian dimension of conformity. Having to make art in the context of bourgeois culture Souza reversed the role of narcissism and adopts a self constructed negativity in opposition to its mirror image positivism. Instead of narcissism and of perpetual conflict and its resolution where self confirms itself to itself, by the plain Hegelian dialectics the self goes through a circuit (that is objectifying itself by transforming the Other, annihilating it and making it a part of its subjectivity) of the objective world to discover itself while for the narcissist it is just a detour. Thus self-consciousness for Souza is a substitute for self-realisation. This is the aim of all great art, to provide a set of substitutes for reality. Souza’s images of men and women seem still innocent because they have not touched the Tree of Knowledge, only the (non-existent) Tree of Life; they are more like after images of a thousand memories.
Published in Patriot Magazine, New Delhi, February 8, 1976