Artists: Notes on Art Making

SOUZA is an image-maker - like Rouault and Francis Bacon, His art lies in his power to strengthen the eye’s image of this world by distorting it, until it becomes merely the language by which his own mental image are expressed, and the common ground on which we may come to terms with them. For although Souza is a figurative painter, nothing about his art is descriptive; there is no celebration of nature, no attempt to capture the effect of a sunset, no concern whatsoever with what is “particular” in life. Above all, there is nothing romantic about his paintings. "I hate the smell of the paint,” Souza has written in his brilliant autobiographical statement , WORD AND LINES; “Painting for me is not beautiful. It is as ugly as a reptile. I attack it.”

It is not a crtitc’s job to ask why an artist paints as he does. At the same time, one cannot walk into a roomful of Souzas without at once being forced to participate in certain passions and fears which make these violent distortions of the visual world explicable and sympathetic. Frequently these passions are not only violent but destructive, as though each painting liberated the artist from a nightmare. His art is full of strange perversities and contradictions, too. On a superficial level this has led him to paint landscapes on cheap, tarty fabrics picked up from the outsize department of a women’s dress shop; or to paint a portrait over a colour-photograph of the Canadian prairies or the House of Parliament. But the contradictions go deeper than this; all his most successful work seems to contain something of an emotional clash - vulgarity and tenderness, or agony and wit, pathos and satire, aggression and composure. They have some of the sheer inventiveness of Picasso - specially Picasso’s late graphic works - and the same unresolved tumult.

Souza is an Indian, yet to explain away his paintings in terms of an Indian tradition is to explain it away. He has lived in this country for thirteen years, and before that was educated in a Bombay that was “more Victoria than Victoria," as he describes it, and whose intelligentsia thought more highly of Royal Academy bluebell woods than their own mighty sculptures of Khajuraho. If one looks for the true roots of Souza's art one must look towards Rouault and Picasso, and more particularly towards Spanish and Portuguese Byzantine imagery, which made up a deep impression on him in the small Catholic enclave of Goa where he was brought up. Much of his art still retains the stiff, hieratic quality of Byzantine church imagery.

All the same it would be foolish not to recognise some debt to Indian miniatures, bronzes and stone carvings; the emphasis on definitive line to trace the twist and movement of the human body; the ritual treatment of the erotic; and the intuitive understanding of a flat surface and what it demands --- these have their roots in classical Indian art. Yet no more than Mario Marini has his roots in Donatello.

From the catalogue of F.N. Souza's first one-man show at Kumar Gallery, New Delhi 1962.
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