Francis Newton Souza
- Francis Newton Souza
- The Deposition
- Signed and dated 'Souza 63' centre right
- Oil on canvas
London, Grosvenor Gallery, FN Souza, Paintings 1958-1963, 3 - 19 June, 1998
A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 2006, illustration p. 104
Notable Indian and Western critics and viewers who have followed Francis Newton Souza’s almost seven-decade long career, attached great significance to his upbringing and formative years as they impacted his contemptuous and anti-clerical work vis-a-vis the Catholic Church. Souza once said, “[t]he Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me…[T]he enormous Crucifix with the impaled image of a Man supposed to be the Son of God, scourged and dripping with matted hair tangled in plaited horns” (F.N. Souza, ‘A Fragment of Autobiography,’ F.N. Souza: Words & Lines, Villiers Publications Ltd., London, 1959, p. 10).
These visuals stayed with him and he depicted the martyred Christ in a great number of works. His contradictory feelings about religion are best represented in a series of large scale canvases painted in the early 1960s and exhibited at The Human and the Divine Predicament exhibition held at the Grosvenor Gallery, London in 1964. Among these were two famous Crucifixion scenes and this current work titled The Deposition, all painted in 1963.
In this painting, following the Gospel account, Souza depicts the scene of Christ’s burial; specifically the moving of his body. Pontius Pilate had given permission to Joseph of Arimathea to take down and bury Christ's body. Joseph is the man to the left. To the right is Nicodemus. John the Evangelist holds Christ's right hand. The grieving Mary is comforted by Mary Magdalene. Noted critic, Geeta Kapur has commented on this particular work, “[h]e has painted many versions of Christ, not all of them so bitterly contemptuous and the famous painting of the Deposition is not without a tragic content. Characteristically, however Souza treats even tragedy in his own way, permitting no element of grace to enter the horrifying drama of Christ’s death” (G. Kapur, ‘Francis Newton Souza: Devil in the Flesh,’ Contemporary Indian Artists, Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi, 1978, p. 17-18).
Souza’s Christ was a radical departure from Western iconography; he is denied dignity and divinity. He once said that he felt the anguish of a present city inhabitant to be worse than that of Christ on the Cross, “[t]he city man that you are, your suffering is more complex than the obviously simple tortured expression of one crowned with thorns and impaled with nails” (A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 21).
In this work, Souza adopts his composition from Titian’s Entombment of Christ. The fact that he chose to emulate Titian is poignant. His devotion for the Venetian icon stimulated him to reproduce many of Titian’s most iconic masterpieces. In both works, the entire composition is defined by the horizontal line of Christ's body. The frieze setup follows this line, concentrating our attention on the monumental figures grouped around Christ, all in the same perspective. Titian achieved this by applying a special artistic triangular technique used in ancient Greek art and revived in the Renaissance. The figures are placed with a measured correctness forming two isosceles triangles within the centre. The curving shapes of the bodies of the surrounding figures then enhanced this triangular form. This was done to draw the eye of the viewer into the action taking place within the painting. Titian’s 14th century masterpiece is well-known for embodying all the key concepts that were established during the Italian Renaissance - the presence of religion, the focus on the human form and the compositional techniques inspired by age-old Greek influences.
Souza, while embracing these notions, improvised upon them. In The Entombment of Christ, Titian heightened the theatrical impact with a twilight glow that added warmth to the flesh tones, while the pale figure of Christ is hardly visible in the shade. Souza’s Deposition, by contrast, is cold with its excessive use of white and grey hues. The hands and feet of Christ unmistakably reveal the blood-stained nail markings from the Cross and his face bleeding from the crown of thorns. Unlike Titian’s mode that depicts a Christ with an almost peaceful demeanour, Souza does not spare Christ nor the viewer the anguish and the pathos of Christ’s passion. Souza’s Deposition is also devoid of any detailing of the trees and sky. The space is an almost blank ground, “somewhat curiously prepared to receive a figure which remains from start to finish the prime, positive, and self-complete proposition” (Kapur, p. 36). Here one sees the influence of El Greco in a palette that contrasts rosy pastels and ghostly figures amidst a stormy backdrop.
‘… [H]e straddles several traditions but serves none.’ These famous words of John Berger in the New Statesman of February 25, 1955 succinctly summate the genius of the artist and his art. In Deposition, we also see an influence of other artists. The thick black lines and feeling of compassion are reminiscent of Georges Rouault while Christ surrounded by the Evangelists and the fusion of the convoluted aspects of religion along with the sublime resonates with Spanish Romanesque or Catalan fresco paintings. Souza efficaciously took this complex and revered theme and allowed it to be truly re-born in his own expressionistic vernacular – an act that won him accolades among critics and posited him with the likes of Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon, both of whom had depicted religious subject matter in a similarly fierce style shortly after the Second World War.
The Deposition was celebrated on the cover of Studio International magazine in April 1964 along with a lead feature on Souza by art critic, Mervyn Levy. Here Levy revealed Souza’s technique, “[f]or the past year or so (1964), all the artist’s most important works – the large scale religious compositions, for example – have been created with the assistance of what he calls his machine” (M. Levy, ‘F.N. Souza: the Human and the Divine,’ The Studio International Art Magazine, London, April 1964, p. 134). This involved drawing the first sketch/idea on a pane of glass and projecting a magnified version of it on a large canvas using a specialized projector. Souza then made a second attempt on top of this first notation. This technique allowed him to “build” his large-scale compositions, facilitating the inclusion of as many figures and objects, while being able to see the work in progression in a miniature format of the sketch as well as enlargement upon the canvas. Levy noted that this technique helped Souza to “keep the spontaneity of the original idea writhing on the canvas at every stage of the painting… It is an essential and indispensable limb of his art, one which he frequently brings into play, particularly for his more important and large scale compositions; these big works which are more likely to lose spontaneity in the normal course of events than the small scale picture” (ibid.).
Levy was not the only critic who lauded Souza. At this time (1955-63), Souza held five one-man exhibitions at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One and received glowing critical reviews in highly reputed papers including the London Times, The Guardian, New Statesman, by well-known critics like Andrew Forge, John Berger, and George Butcher, who steadily defended Souza as one of the few really important living painters in England. He was also one of the five painters chosen to represent Britain at the Guggenheim International Award. Reflecting on Souza’s London years, Geeta Kapur notes “[h]e was the first Indian artist to become something of a sensation in the West. For that matter, even among his western contemporaries he stood pretty high on the ladder of success, and it goes without saying that he deserved it” (Kapur, p. 11). Indeed these years demarcate Souza’s skills as an artist at its zenith, in terms of both commercial and critical success. Tate Britain also acquired one of Souza's large scale crucifixion scenes from 1959 as part of their permanent collection, but it was the celebration of The Deposition in exhibitions and publications alike that denotes this painting as the pinnacle of the artist’s triumphs.