It is a fabulous show: the season’s first grand offering at the Centre for Contemporary Art. Francis Newton Souza is represented by seven large landscapes (oils), six small heads, 12 works in acrylic on paper, 15 drawings bathed in chemicals and 16 drawings, two of which were done in 1979. Our response to the show is characteristic of the poor tribes of eastern Brazil: whenever Curt Nimuendaju came back after a sojourn in civilized parts, the natives wept at the- thought of sufferings the ethnographer must have undergone away from their village - the only place where, they felt life was worth living.
Of course the analogy is a vast exaggeration; we are no poor tribes of eastern Brazil, nor is Souza our imaging Nimuendaju. But bound as we are in a provincial relationship, so Souza’s status as an expatriate and knowing that life in New York for Souza is no bed of roses, we have our fears and sympathies and shed our share of tears. Souza is not an outsider as Nimuendaju is for the Brazilian tribal people: like James Joyce-who turned his back early in life on his native city rejected his childhood religion but wherever he went he carried with him the vision of his home and the emotion of his faith-Souza is our ambassador. Now if Joyce represents the highest values of modernist sensibility (but had few followers) so is it with Souza. With him is born a painting rooted in the consciousness of the self, a gift of modernism to India via expressionism. The subject of a Souza painting is Souza himself and the expressionist sensibility gives vent to its emotion by spontaneously loaded brushwork. Souza does it with unfettered egomania, almost to the point of being blind to form: and yet there is evidence of rational control. His painting is a site of visual frenzy and yet it is marked by excessive stillness. His iconography is original: though Indian to the core, it does not suffer from presence of the ethnic. His Christian iconography is far superior to anything produced in the West it has the right mix of the medieval and modern sensibilities. Consider for example his Last Supper: the images here are delivered brusquely to the eye with a dramatic intent and what is remarkable is his drawing which is more readable than in others.
Souza’s emergence was no odd happening given the revolutionary situation existing in 1942; the time was ripe for coming into being of a painting which was a radical response to the age. And it did in the canvases of the young artists who formed the Progressive Artists’ Group (PAG) immediately after Independence. They celebrated-with their bruised, schizoid egos-the shaping of their medium of expression whose subject was the self, the painter himself. The consciousness of the self was more pronounced in Souza’s work.
Souza, of course, was their natural leader and it is less egotistical for him to assert that “we had clear-cut views on art, what it was and what it should be. We found Amrita Sher-Gil hybrid, biologically as well as aesthetically. George Keyt was also hybrid: he derived from Picasso as Sher-Gil derived from Gauguin. We dismissed both as unsuitable examples for the promulgation of our ideas in art. Santiniketan was too sentimental for us and Jamini Roy, unsophisticated.”
This rational Newtonian analysis was the representative temper of the PAG artists. The young painters, particularly Souza, showed not only faith in themselves but also astonishing competence. It was a new experience for a mind gone dead with cultural schizophrenia. Everything seemed a product of commerce, a form of colonial kitsch devoid of any aesthetic merit. But through the haze they saw the presence of the ethnic, the revival of folk forms and embraced it as their identity.
Souza, in the West, turned a sexual voyeurist. It promised him not only liberation from his colonial self but also a ready market: West loves the buried Khajuraho within. Moreover, it was part of the expressionist ethos: lacking in any erotic tradition, the Western painter goes orgiastic with colour and in the process becomes the victim of sexual parasitism. Souza acts out the emotions associated with the worship of female fetish: female parts are exteriorised, breasts are the ‘desirable fruits’ and there is no sin committed in devouring these. His female images, rich in form, are as empty as mirrors; they are born out of inner necessity.
In the context of the ideology of the suffering flesh Souza’s sexual voyeurism has the touch of condescension. Sex is an escape from a time-structured consciousness: like Joyce who embraced the modern spirit which he described as returned medievalism, Souza goes medieval with Khajuraho as his Ireland, of which the landscape is the pleasure garden.
In the six large landscapes, colour invents its own pattern as it does in Pollock: line and colour are woven into a psychologically active surface. As in the abstract expressionist work, the authoritative disposition is directed towards randomness. The Souza landscapes exhibit a preconceived order; the visual logic of the eye is dominated by the discipline of the hand: a preference for what comes after meditation over the improvisation and form over action.
Souza is famous for his inflammatory treatment of heads. The iconography is morbidly personal, the distortion grotesque to the point of a neurotic edge; the image proper shows mannerisms played to the dark labyrinth of the psyche. Take for instance the group of six heads. These are the reworked images of the pen and ink work Six Gentlemen of Our Times, he did in 1955. He repeats himself but retains a sensation of passion-too warm to be tragic, while the 1955 work was concerned with a tragic view of life.
Taken at face value, his prolificacy seems to have played out now. Old as he is and without giving up the sacred rage, how long can he be in a state of mental anguish? He continues to play the game of make-believe that he has played all his life-like in the last scene of the Antonioni film Blow Up where a game of tennis is being played: the court is there, the players are there, only the ball is missing. Francis Newton Souza in this exhibition is no exception.
Published in The Times of India, August 26, 1990