What is there not to love about the wild Expressionist of Indian modern art? Francis Newton Souza: suspended student of Mumbai’s Sir JJ School of Art, founder of the Progressive Artists’ Group, the man responsible for the discovery of M.F. Husain.
He was the first post-independence Indian artist to achieve high recognition internationally. In 1949, he left for London. It was there, in poet Victor Musgrave’s bohemian outfit, Gallery One, that Souza had his first solo in 1956 and met the Armenian photographer Ida Kar (1908-1974), who was married to Musgrave.
Kar was known for her defining portraits of artists and writers— black and white images that captured their spirit. Her photographs included those of the French architect Le Corbusier and the co-founder of Cubism, Georges Braque.
Deep focus: Kar shot Souza in his studio.
To coincide with a major retrospective of photographs by Kar at the National Portrait Gallery in London, Grosvenor Vadehra gallery, London, has brought Kar’s portraits of Souza to India. The seven pictures have never been published or shown before.
The photographs, all shot at the artist’s studio between 1957 and 1961, document a crucial phase in the artistic careers of both Kar and Souza. They capture Souza in a manner reflective of what we know of him—proud, unapologetic, dandy—against the backdrop of his cluttered studio. The photographs themselves are of great quality, eschewing stark contrast for finely nuanced grey tones.
Souza was obsessed with self-portraits. In his own depictions, he highlighted what he considered to be his physical failings: scars from his near-fatal childhood encounter with pox. In his sketches, he always had an exaggerated nose.
Souza, the man and his art, covers vast landscapes. His canvases swing between the extremes of his strong Catholic upbringing and his later obsessions with graphic sex and nudity. He was a man of countless different shades—Kar manages to reproduce many.
In his manifesto for the Progressive Artists’ Group, Souza had said, “Our art has evolved over the years of its own volition; out of our own balls and brains.” Surely, you’d want to see the face of the man who said that.
Ida Kar’s portraits of F.N. Souza will be on view at the British Council, New Delhi, till 15 October; Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts till 18 October; and Pundole Art Gallery, Mumbai, till 28 October.