FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA | Untitled
FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA
1924 - 2002
Oil on board
Signed and dated 'Souza 1958' upper left
Bearing Gallery One and Victor Arwas Gallery labels on reverse
120 x 181.3 cm. (47 ¼ x 71 ⅜ in.)
Painted in 1958
Gallery One, London
Acquired from Victor Arwas Gallery, London, 2000
‘[Francis Newton] Souza is a dedicated vulgarian… To give pleasure has never been Souza’s aim… He feels that a painter is rather like a furniture manufacturer who possesses an inner compulsion to build the most uncomfortable chairs he can, and then make people sit in them. Why, one may ask this determination to offend? …because, what he has to say is uncomfortable, he feels that his paintings must initially cause discomfort, or they have failed; they are sweetmeats. Sin and sensuality: the two have grown together, tempting and mocking one another. It is this built-in conflict in Souza’s work which supplies its restless, fighting quality and what I have called its ‘dedicated vulgarity.’ It is as if each painting were both an act of hate and an act of love, and he himself were torn between disgust and longing uncertain whether painting is a protective daydream or something unpleasant in his system to be purged away. Escapism or catharsis. The surface of a canvas thus becomes a battleground on which are fought out the fears and passions of one man’s experience. On the dark side: …horror of the flesh, …the weight of sin and evil, sexual longing and despair, a sense of the ludicrous and the disgusting. Against this: the wonderment, the celebration of the flesh and of fulfilment, a delight with the naked grace of a women’s body, …and awe at the proximity and terrible power of god.’ (E. Mullins, The Human and the Divine Predicament: New Paintings by F.N. Souza, Grosvenor Gallery, London, 1964, unpaginated).
Amidst Souza’s complex psychological makeup, this magnificent and monumental painting depicts three frontal figures; one of them nude in all her glory. The work draws upon source material as varied as Edouard Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Old Masters from Titian to El Greco, as during this time Souza was travelling across Europe visiting capitals and seeing works in situ. There have been earlier drawings which depict a nude woman with two male figures previously referred as Susanna and the Elders in Souza’s oeuvre. This is a reference from the Old Testament and a recurring theme in Souza’s works. Susanna, a young married Jewish woman bathed in her garden pool every day. One day, two elderly men, guests of her wealthy husband, and respectable members of the community, lusted for Susanna while watching her bathe. The Elders, as they have been referred to, decide to wait for Susanna to be alone and when her maids were sent to fetch bath oils they accosted her. The two men threatened to condemn Susanna if she rejected their advances. She refused and was wrongfully accused of promiscuity by the Elders. In the end, following Daniel's intervention, virtue triumphed: the Elders were tested and their stories did not match. They were put to death, and Susanna was vindicated. The story of Susanna and the Elders, with its many episodes and nuances, has been depicted many times in the canon of art history. Artists from Artemisia Gentileschi, Jacopo Tintoretto to Chaïm Soutine have painted their interpretations of the famous story.
In a November 1958 letter, currently housed at the Tate Archives in London, Souza wrote to his gallerist, Victor Musgrave, from Spain, where he asks, "Do take the large two paintings from my place, when dry and try to have them hung up in some big house. Both of them are probably masterpieces. One is Susanha (sic) and the Elders. The other is, A Man watching a City fall!" (Courtesy of Tate Archives and Estate of F.N. Souza)
Victor Musgrave replies to this letter by commenting, ‘I have had the two large paintings collected from your studio. They’re ferocious; I think I like Susannah (sic) the best; though I feel the apparent speed of attack makes them lose that ice-cold precision which makes your best pictures look inevitable. And the way the nude has been squashed up to get the [sic] c*nt inside the picture edge does look a bit forced.’ Musgrave then proceeds to reference the critic, Robert Melville’s ‘splendid review’ of Souza’s recent Gallery One exhibition appearing in the November 1958 issue of Architectural Review. (Letter courtesy of Grosvenor Gallery archive)
The 1958 correspondence between Souza and Musgrave which also links to the year of the current lot, as well as the revealing anatomical details and reference to its large scale, lead us to interpret this painting as the large Susanha (sic) and the Elders that is being described in these letters.
Painted in Souza's exacting style, through this subject matter, the artist adheres to what has always been important to him - revealing the duplicity of the society he inhabited and exposing the 'perverted pantomime of human relationships' through energetic brushwork and illustrative pictures. (E. Alkazi, ‘Souza's Seasons in Hell’, Art Heritage Season 1986-87, Art Heritage, New Delhi, p. 74) ‘Oppressive relationships borne out of sheer inequities of financial or religious imperatives repelled yet fascinated Souza.’ (A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Mapin Publishing Pvt. Ltd., Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 156) Renowned critic and a close friend of Souza, Ebrahim Alkazi, has elaborated ‘Souza is contemptuous of those bonds that hold together individuals into a family and a larger social unit of the community. His beings are predators, each suspicious and wary of the other.’ (Alkazi, ‘Souza's Seasons in Hell’, p. 74)
Souza makes no bones of his three subjects, Susanna and the two Elders. Some of the imagery is recurring from other works by the artist - the men are clothed while the woman remains naked and primitive in her rendering. She is rather impersonal in her vacant stare, another characteristic of Souza’s nudes. Her breasts are exaggerated, and she has relatively stout legs. Contrastingly, the Elders have been depicted from the waist up and in the 'act', successfully portraying the callousness and duplicity with which he aims to associate them. Both men have striking eyes on their foreheads, and the left figure has the face of an African mask while the other appears boorish and comical. They are both garbed in checked ecclesiastical garments that have subtle relief carving in the paint layers throughout the canvas. Saints, along with 'crowned king[s]... and the Pope were some of Souza’s favoured images. They fitted in with his highly critical view of persons in power, especially those who attain their positions largely by virtue of heredity or convention and who thereafter impose their self-centred or retrogressive view on others.’ (A. Kurtha, p. 165)
Given the mask-like faces of the three figures, it is difficult to pinpoint the exact mood of the scene. There does, however, seem to be an underlying submission on the part of the woman towards her predators. Souza uses strong lines to delineate the figures, especially their faces with their geometrically aquiline noses. ‘Souza seems to have been fascinated by the contours and possibilities of the nose. The small set eyes on the forehead with the broadly hatched configuration outlining a huge cylindrical nose and an almost non-existent mouth, creates a harrowing image whose origins are difficult to place or explain.’ (ibid., p. 147) This theme has appeared a few times in his oeuvre. There are earlier drawings from 1955 as well as a painting from 1956 titled The Two Elders, both of which have structural similarities to this current lot.
There are multiple influences at play in this work. Souza’s iconic stances, frontal compositions and the stiff demeanour of his figures are attributed to Romanesque art. The stout body of the woman is reminiscent of the classical Indian sculptures which Souza first witnessed in his early years in Bombay. Edwin Mullins, Souza’s first biographer, said ‘The emphasis on definitive line to trace the twist and movement of the human body; the impersonal, ritual treatment of sensuality; the tendency to stylize objects so that they become stripped of incidental detail; and the intuitive understanding of how to treat a virtually flat surface in order to create the effect, not of depth, but of movement; these are all important components in Souza's paintings and they stem more or less directly from classical Indian art.' (E. Mullins, F. N. Souza, Anthony Blond, London, 1962, p. 38)
There is a pervading 'primitivist flavour' and an 'urban street element' to this work which comes into artistic vogue years later in the works of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a post-War product of the African diaspora. Both Souza and Basquiat were influenced by Pablo Picasso who himself had been influenced by African art. As French colonialism was spreading through Africa in the early part of the twentieth century, a large number of priceless African artefacts found their way to European museums and private collectors. It is through these channels that post-war painters like Picasso were exposed to African art. This is exactly where the genius of artists like Souza and Basquiat comes to the fore. Rather than directly interpreting these influences into their work, they infused them with their respective backgrounds (Souza with his Indo-Portuguese and Basquiat with his Puerto-Rican and Haitian-American heritage) to create their own original artistic idiom.
The present work is an excellent example of another virtue of Souza - he handled the path from the religious to the secular in his works with great ease and forceful gusto. This could be a scene anywhere, any time and with anybody. One can imagine the model to be both Susanna from the Old Testament or a vision of the everywoman. He has successfully traversed these paths by a simple technique of ridding the canvas of any background that could reveal a context. Speaking of this technique, Aziz Kurtha notes that ‘this marked division suggests the separation of the material and spiritual worlds.’ (A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, p. 25)
The years between 1955-63 was a heady period of commercial and critical successes for Souza. During this time, he held five one-man exhibitions at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One in London. He received glowing critical reviews in highly reputed papers including the London Times and New Statesman, by well-known critics such as Andrew Forge, John Berger, and George Butcher, who steadily defended Souza as one of the few really important living painters in England, along with Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon. He was also one of the five painters chosen to represent Britain at the Guggenheim Museum in New York and one of the prize winners in the first John Moore’s exhibition in 1958. At the time of the Guggenheim exhibition, the critic, Guy Brett, wrote in the Guardian newspaper ‘Most critics and dealers and people whose job it is to spot emerging talent cherish the belief that quite independent of the activities of the so-called avant-garde, there are and always will be figurative painters. Somewhere or other, they feel there must be a man, a Van Gogh, who is really painting from the bottom of his heart. Rouault was one although he was at first neglected even by dealers. F N. Souza seems to be the perfect candidate for this category.’ (ibid., p. 41) In 1956, Souza found his first major patron in the wealthy American collector, Harold Kovner, who paid him a monthly stipend to create works. This convenient arrangement rid Souza of any financial burdens and allowed him to paint with a freedom never experienced before or after. The tail-end of the 1950s was thus a period of extraordinary creativity for the artist.
The current lot has a provenance of two stalwarts of the British arts scene. Victor Musgrave of Gallery One and Victor Arwas being the other. Like Musgrave, Arwas was an important figure - a scholar, collector and dealer of art, best known as a world expert on Art Nouveau. Arwas and Souza were lifelong friends. He occasionally handled works on consignment.
With the bold graphics and subtle effects of layering and feathered brushstrokes throughout, this painting has a dominating or ‘ferocious’ presence. The work is raw, beautiful and very relevant to contemporary society.