Bearing Gallery One label on reverse
The current work forms part of an important group of still life paintings Souza executed in the mid-1950s to early 1960s, built around a powerfully ecclesiastical theme. Here, the religious vessels of the Eucharist—including the chalice, censer, cruets, ciborium and candelabrum—are set upon the altar. Speaking of Souza’s still-life compositions, Geeta Kapur notes that ‘They are mostly ornate vessels and sacred objects. These objects retain their ritual aspect both on account of the visual description and composition... They are moreover, clustered formally as if on the shelf of the sacristy…’. (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, Vikas, New Delhi, 1978, pp. 29-30)
The background has traces of a checkerboard pattern, a recurring motif for Souza, reflecting the clerical vestments worn by religious figures which appear in his paintings of saints. The strong black outlines that enclose deep vibrant colours are reminiscent of Georges Rouault; like Rouault, they are influenced by the startling luminosity of stained glass, which in this instance lends to the overtly religious sentiment of the painting. The liturgical references and the formal layout of the objects across the table have appeared in a number of his earlier works, however, in the current painting, the vibrant colours set against the dark background have a bold and lasting impact.
This work was painted in 1960, the year that Souza went to Rome on an Italian Government scholarship. Works from this brief period in Rome are infused with an elated, expressive energy, repeatedly revelling in red. Souza’s choice of red is not only eye-catching but powerful, as the colour possesses biblical significance. In Roman Catholicism, red is the liturgical colour for Pentecost, the celebration of the Holy Spirit. However, red also represents wrath, one of the seven deadly sins, and signifies the blood of martyrs. The sacred vessels, a candelabrum and chalice, are made up of green, yellow and white. In the context of Christianity, green symbolises hope, and white and yellow represent purity.The colours used differ greatly in their symbolism and provide a stark contrast to each other, encouraging religious discourse and confronting the viewer with its compelling imagery. In this work, Souza depicts Christian iconography through a modern abstracted aesthetic, in a manner that is both shocking and appealing.
'STILL LIFE' (WITH LITURGICAL OBJECTS) 1959-1960
FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA
What is still about Life? In this paradox of art terms Souza brings inanimate liturgical objects back to life. These are the vessels that hold the scared conduits of Man’s connection with another world.
Present are utensils used in the Latin rite: the monstrance, paten, ciborium, pyx, lunette and chalice or communion beaker, which have direct contact with the Blessed Sacrament.
Born and raised as a Roman Catholic in the Portuguese colony of Goa, Souza became indoctrinated with the pervasive magnificence and elaborate rituals of the Church, rather than its dogma.
His passage from Words and Lines is often quoted: "The Roman Catholic church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogma but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services". (F. N. Souza, Words and Lines, Villiiers ltd., Londonm 1959, p. 10)
The genre of still life, was one that Souza used repeatedly through his vast oeuvre, along with nudes, landscapes, portraits and religious subjects. However, still lifes are the rarest, the least revisited, yet persistently present throughout, as if repeated incantations, reimagined of past inculcation. Speaking of this influence, Souza has said, "On retrospection today, it seems funny, almost ludicrous. But it created the artist in me... the dream world." (E. Mullins, Souza, Anthony Blond, London, 1962, p. 42)
Years later, writing in his exhibition brochure, Souza asks “What colour is reality? Reality is colourful or dull according to one’s mood. Unlike dreams which are said to have no colour, not even monochrome. Funny how puzzling it is to describe the hues of dreams. The Pope is said to dream up dogmas. He is said to dream in Latin. I went to Latin classes in school. Mensa mensae... A dogmatic man is dull. Never wags his tail! Only his finger!" (F. N. Souza, On Modern Art, Acrylics & an unlikely subject like myself!, LTG Art Gallery, New Delhi, 1996)
Made between 1959 - 1960, this painting straddles the distinctions and transition of two the decades. The long shadows of war stretching into the 1950s, finally giving way to London of the “Swinging sixties” and a world under palpable threat of the atomic bomb.
In the spring of 1960, Souza travelled to Italy and Europe on an Italian Government scholarship nominated by the British Council. He spent several months there producing a body of paintings exhibited in a solo show at Gallery One, titled Twenty-seven Paintings from Rome. It was also the same year he returned to India for the first time in eleven years. He spent several months there, including a visit to Goa during the summer. During his travels, Souza could ruminate on undiluted Roman Catholicism encountered in Rome and Goa.
However, Souza recalled "By the end of 1960 I got the shakes so bad I could not hold a brush". (B. James, A passage from India, seven painters from London, Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, Issue 9, 1968, p. 26)
The year 1960 was that in which Souza made the transformation from chronic alcoholic to teetotaller after receiving three weeks of intensive aversion treatment in a residential London clinic.
Later, Souza described this decision as the second most important in his life- to “get rid of the monkey on my back”. (E. Mullins, Souza, Anthony Blond, London, 1962, p. 49)
The iconic portraits of Souza by the remarkable photographer, Ida Kar (married to Gallery One’s Victor Musgrave) in his Belsize Park studio document the change and movement crossing the decades of 1950-60s in image and posture; paint splattered working corduroys replaced by sharp Italian suit, silk tie and new beard.
‘Still Life’ (with Liturgical objects) 1959-1960 is constructed from material difference and contrast: matt and gloss varnishes coalesce. Combined media of oil and PVA (precursor to acrylics) reach to the past and the future on the fulcrum of the decade, like Janus, looking both forward and backwards.
The writer, Geeta Kapur recounts Souza’s still lifes as consisting "of things used in liturgical practice. They are mostly ornate vessels and sacred objects. These objects retain their ritual aspect both on account of the visual description and composition [...] They are moreover, clustered formally as if on the shelf of the sacristy [...] His objects belong neither to the intimate comforts of a home nor to the grandeur of the market-place, both environments being specifically bourgeois in their origins. Very curiously in the object-world he reclaims the sense of the sacred that he so consciously drains from the human being and from God." (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, Vikas House, New Delhi, 1978, pp. 29-30)
While religion and Catholicism remained a constant source of inspiration and imagery as well as contempt, several art traditions in the genre of still life are invoked by the erudite Souza here. Evident are nods to Dutch still life, stilleven, Bodegon (seventeenth century Spanish still life) with their very dark background and Cubist perspective, exemplified by Gris and others. Souza also references himself. The structured background motif of cubes, squares and rectangles (compare pen and ink drawing) so often employed by the artist, are here in flux. Textured and shiny rectangles, floating away, like calendar dates disappearing into the ether.
Gone are the exquisite ornate embellishments (see comparable) now transformed in to bold and symbolic geometric language.
The rich colours of stained glass and liturgical robes become the phthalo green, cadmium yellow, cobalt turquoise and the creamy white impasto of the sacred vessels, objects set out on the table during mass. Sacred objects simplified and emboldened with contours of black. The collapsed perspective of the cadmium deep red credence table stands proud and sumptuous, bejewelled with luminous orange pattern. All is set on a background of Van Dyke brown and Mars brown tinged with orange fire.
Black outlines remain like Souza’s classic calligraphic signature. Beautifully executed, its horizontal line borrowed from Hindi script which is quickly over the decade, supplanted by a modernised version.
This work departs from its comparables in style, form and new media as the artist shifts into a new decade.
Describing, his early commissions with PVA, Souza recalled
"Reeves & Co, artists’ colour makers introduced acrylic paints in 1964. They asked me to test the acrylics, and reproduced the painting I did with this new medium on the cover of their catalogue. But I was using acrylics as early as 1960, and the Tate Gallery, London acquired a painting of mine, ‘Two Saints in a Landscape (1961) in this medium, which in its early days of experimentation, was known as ‘polyvinylacetate’, that is acrylics. It was reproduced by Penguins’ on the cover of G.V. Desanis’ book, ‘All About Hatterer’." (F. N. Souza, On Modern Art, Acrylics & an unlikely subject like myself!, LTG Art Gallery, New Delhi, 1996)
This compact and visually arresting work possess both classic and modern Souza: colours like gems, shades of Goa; it combines the wonder of hope, fear and the hues of dreams.
©Francesca Souza is an artist and educator living in London and the daughter of F. N. Souza.
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