If one studies the numerous sketches of Souza from the early 1960's one recognizes that the artist remained tirelessly experimental. An entire sketchbook can be dedicated to various versions of the same head that vary only slightly in form or composition. Male heads can be swollen to the size of balloons with features condensed into small areas of the skull, each aspect of the form reworked over several images, or elsewhere the eyes or teeth can be replicated to create monstrous distortions. These sketches are revealing as they document a process of systematic experimentation that reveal an artist confident in his skin, keen to stretch his own artistic boundaries yet in a manner that remains true to his own artistic vision.
'Figurative art presents no problem for Souza because he has succeeded in creating images which are entirely personal, yet recognizable at the same time. They are often distorted to the point of destruction -... but they never threaten to dissolve into formalized abstract shapes. The violence and speed with which they are executed keep these images, however distorted, in touch with the painter's vision of what they really are.' (E. Mullins, Francis Newton Souza, London, 1962, p. 37).
When transposed into larger format works on canvas the process of experimentation continues especially in relation to the medium. Unlike the bold formal oils of the 1950's created with thick black lines enclosing glowing colors, his canvases from the 1960's become more fluid, his application of paint is more varied and the texturing of his backgrounds become more detailed resulting in complex mutated forms. The current work is an exceptionally large example from this important period in his career. The artist states 'I have created a new kind of face...I have drawn the physiognomy way beyond Picasso, in completely new terms. And I am still a figurative painter...He stumped them and the whole of the western world into a shambles. When you examine the face, the morphology, I am the only artist who has taken it a step further.' (Yashodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, New Delhi, 2001, p. 94).
This self-made comparison to Picasso is interesting as it reveals quite clearly Souza's determination to remain firmly within the boundaries of figurative art yet at the same time to remain groundbreaking in his approach. In artistic terms the late 1950's and early 1960's are a high point in Souza's own career in Europe and it is clear that at this period he felt capable of new artistic achievements. For Souza, Picasso was the measuring stick of originality and artistic invention. Yet despite the comparison this does not imply that Souza felt any great debt towards Picasso nor that his mutated forms were inspired or even remotely derived from Picasso's style; rather that it was his self-confessed challenge as an artist to provide a new vocabulary to figurative art that departed from anything so far achieved. In the 1950's we see an almost obsessive adherence to his own formula of building up entire paintings from two parallel lines crossed hatched on both sides, 'the spinous vertebrae that became life' (F. N. Souza, Words and Lines, New Delhi, 1955, p. 24). However, by the end of the decade Souza allows the structure to becomes less rigid and by 1961 we see an expansion of signature motifs appearing alongside the cross hatched lines, in particular the water droplet or amoebic like circle which is integral to the current work. The addition of germ-like forms alongside cell-like structures would have appealed to the artist's sense of irony for with these magnified forms his paintings take on new mutations that become increasingly apocalyptic in their vision. The 'thistle' like tentacles that surround the figure are made from similar structures as the figure itself and so a new formula evolves which mutates endlessly over the following decade.
'If he was creating monsters, probably no one would be troubled; but because his images are clearly intended to be human, one is compelled to ask why his faces have eyes high up in the forehead... why he paints mouths that stretch like hair combs across the face, and limbs that branch out like thistles. Souza's imagery is not a surrealist vision - a self-conscious aesthetic shock - so much as a spontaneous re-creation of the world as he has seen it, distilled in the mind by a host of private experiences and associations'. (E. Mullins, Francis Newton Souza, London, 1962, p. 39).
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