“I use aesthetics rather than bullets or knives as a form of protest against stuffed shirts and hypocrites.”
FN Souza, 1961
Soon after the death of Pablo Picasso, considered the artist of the century, Francis Newton Souza announced, “Now that Picasso is dead, I am the greatest.” This was perhaps a bit too arrogant even for Souza, the first Indian artist to dazzle Europe, the moving spirit behind the most significant development in the history of Indian Modern Art—the establishment of the Progressive Artists’ Group in the late 1940s’, that brought artists such as S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain together.
Click here to watch a slideshow of F.N. Souza’s works.
Souza was an iconoclast. His distorted figures challenged convention, his essays provoked the intelligentsia. He led a wildly interesting life, punctuated by many women, marriages and divorces, split between the cities of Mumbai, London and New York. His art enhanced the eye’s image of the world by distorting it. Like Georges Rouault and Francis Bacon, he was an image maker.
It is only befitting then that an exhibition of his works is prompting a massive makeover of India’s oldest art gallery—Dhoomimal. Uday Jain, the third-generation gallery director, says the gallery has, for the first time in its 74-year-old history, sought the expertise of an independent curator. Yashodhara Dalmia, a specialist in Modern Art, has sorted through the family’s enormous Souza collection to bring together 200 works that span the artist’s entire career, starting from his days at the Sir JJ School of Art in the 1940s. Since Dhoomimal’s premises cannot host such a large show, Volte-Face: Souza’s Iconoclastic Vision will open at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi on 9 April.
Master strokes: (clockwise from far left) Uday and his mother Uma Jain look through the family’s Souza collection at the Dhoomimal storeroom; one of Souza’s 1985 chemical alterations on paper; and a characteristic Untitled 1964 head. Photo: Priyanka Parashar / Mint
About 40% of Dalmia’s selection is pen and ink sketches and chemical alterations (priced at Rs2.5-6 lakh). The rest are watercolours and acrylics (Rs8-20 lakh) and large-sized oil on canvases, some as large as 6ft in height (Rs40 lakh-1.5 crore). The focus of the show is Souza’s iconic heads, which remained a staple of his works even while he moved across mediums and metaphors—from religious to sexual. The show focuses on heads with stabbing lines, eyes placed on foreheads, mouths fanged with multiple sets of teeth. As Dalmia explains, these grotesque heads were a powerful constituent in Souza’s arsenal against the evil in society.
Dhoomimal will organize discussions, documentary film screenings, poetry readings, a students’ art workshop and curated tours during the 10-day exhibition. It has roped in dedicated Souza collectors such as Ebrahim Alkazi and friends from the art community such as Krishen Khanna and Anjolie Ela Menon to engage visitors.
This elaborate effort is a serious bid by the gallery to re-establish its reputation after the scandal that sent waves of panic across the art fraternity in January 2009. When S.H. Raza, then 86 years old, came from Paris to inaugurate a show of his works put together by his nephew for the gallery, he was shocked to find that barring a few of his drawings, all the others were fakes. Dhoomimal called off the exhibition immediately, but the Jains are still embroiled in a case against Raza’s nephew.
The art world is unanimous in agreeing that Dhoomimal’s forthcoming show is in a different league altogether. The Jains are known as Souza’s most dedicated collectors and they consider him to be a family friend. All the works in the show have been bought directly from the artist.
Some of the works in the exhibition ring such a personal note that they’re not for sale: A portrait of Uday’s parents—Uma and Ravi Jain—is one. A canvas that Souza dedicated to Uday because he had helped the artist pick the colours for it as a four-year-old is another. Uday believes that Souza was their “gallery artist”. “He stayed with us even when newer galleries cropped into the scene in the 1980s,” says Uday.
Over the years, Dhoomimal has hosted several solos of Souza. One in 1966, one in 1976 that was attended by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and another in 1984. To commemorate his death, the gallery had also hosted a tribute exhibition in 2002.
Still, the memory of the scandal involving Raza fakes—one of Souza’s contemporaries, no less— is hard to erase. The episode had sparked talk of getting in place a mechanism to authenticate paintings. Ashok Vajpeyi, chairman of the Lalit Kala Akademi, had announced a national register to track all existing works by artists, living or dead. But more than a year later, there’s been little progress on that front. Some, such as Sunaina Anand, director, Art Alive Gallery, believe that Volte-Face is bound to pique sceptics. “Things look different this time but it’s hard to say how the art fraternity will respond,” she says.
When the recent economic slowdown brought down prices of Indian contemporary art, the Modern masters held through the slump. Their consistently high prices also meant that they were the most susceptible to spawning fakes. Souza copies have been quite a rage since the late 1990s.
In the last decade of his life, the artist had become aware that imitations of his work were proliferating among reputed galleries in India. He had reacted by writing letters to dozens of people, and in turn, faced a lawsuit for libel in New York which left him on the verge of bankruptcy.
The show’s curator, Dalmia, has been a Souza scholar for several years, and says she wouldn’t have curated the show unless each work had a stamp of authenticity.
Souza, who died in 2002 at the age of 78, is the only Indian artist to have a room dedicated to his works at London’s Tate Modern. But during his lifetime, Souza’s exhibitions in India went half-sold or even worse. The disdain he faced from his own people embittered him, even as he achieved success in Europe. The main reason were the paintings themselves—Souza never produced showpiece canvases, which were still the ideal of the Indian art-buying public. After his 1976 Dhoomimal show, Souza was devastated when he learnt that only one of his canvases had sold.
Now, three decades later, perhaps the genius will be resurrected in his homeland.
Volte-Face: Souza’s Iconoclastic Vision will be on exhibit at Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi, from 9-18 April.
The Best of Souza
The price of Souza’s works shot up dramatically after his death in 2002. In 2008, the spectacular ‘Birth’ (1955) set a world auction record for Indian Modern and contemporary art by selling for $2.5 million (around Rs11.3 crore) at a Christie’s auction.
This run hasn’t stopped. At least 46 Souzas were on auction last month. The Saffronart spring auction on 10-11 March had 11 Souzas, including the much feted ‘Decomposing Head’ (1956), estimated at Rs90 lakh-1.12 crore, which ultimately sold for Rs1.57 crore. On 20 March, 11 of his works were part of Osian’s Masterpieces Series. Nineteen were part of Christie’s auction on 23 March, followed a day later by five works at the Sotheby’s auction, both in New York.
Yashodhara Dalmia, curator of ‘Volte-Face’, picks five of Souza’s seminal works:
1. Death of the Pope, oil on canvas, 1962 (Jehangir Nicholson Collection).
2. St Sebastian, oil on board, 1961 (Ebrahim Alkazi Collection).
3. Crucifixion, oil on board, 1959 (Tate Modern, London).
4. Amazon, oil on board, 1957 (Dhoomimal Collection. Part of ‘Volte-Face’).
5. Mammon, oil on canvas, 1961 (Jehangir Nicholson Collection).
The Truth About Fakes
An expert’s guide to distinguishing the original from a fake
Fraudulent artworks have long riddled the art world. In his last days, even Salvador Dali was coerced into signing blanks, spawning a market for fakes after his death. We spoke to art expert Yamini Telkar, who is presently studying the Progressives, including both Souza and Raza, for a show set to open at the Delhi Art Gallery this August. Telkar tells us how to identify a real Souza:
Period: Comparing with other works produced in the same period would help as Souza went through distinct phases and he was diligent about dating most of his works. The distinction is stylistic and can be loosely identified around the decade with an emphasis on any one genre—landscape, nudes or still life.
Signature: He signed as “Francis Newton” uptil the 1950s, after which he signed off as “Souza”.
Handwriting: The strokes of the ‘S’ and ‘Z’ in his signature are unmistakable and since he has signed most of his works, this is a valuable parameter.
Anatomy: Even when Souza was drawing distorted figures, he never strayed from the basics of human anatomy. Representations of hands, especially, are a dead giveaway. So even the highly distorted hand of Jesus in ‘The Last Supper’ (1966) is anatomically correct. Fakes are rarely able to match this precision.
Lines and brushstrokes: Across periods, a Souza is characterized by strong lines and brushstrokes. The lines are forceful and there’s a powerful application of colour. Though this is a relatively difficult factor to discern, this ties together all of his works.