The modernist painter who broke all conventions is making newsand there's no better time to celebrate him than now
Francis Newton Souza lived the last years of his life in a New York apartment, the floors of which had risen with the debris of forgotten canvases, art tools and unremarkable stockpiles of everyday life. Around this time last year, Mint Lounge published a moving piece by Goan writer and journalist Vivek Menezes about his visit to the artist in that apartment in the late 1990s, and how, while helping to clean up the space, he stumbled upon a painting by the other great Indian modernist painter V.S. Gaitonde. “Gai" had signed it, and presented it to Souza.
Both friends—both with Goan lineage, and both iconoclasts—found fame long after their death. Last year, Gaitonde was at the Guggenheim museum in New York. Thirteen years after his death at the age of 78 in Mumbai, Souza is making news for various reasons. He owned the month of September. At two auctions—Saffronart in New Delhi on 11 September and Christie’s in New York on 17 September—two of Souza’s works fetched prices unmatched by any other Indian artist. Man And Woman Laughing (1957) went for ₹ 16.84 crore at the Saffronart auction and Birth (1955), a nude pregnant woman in labour, made in oil on board, sold for $4,085,000, or ₹ 26.5 crore, at Christie’s. Birth is like a Souza totem—it carries a distressed woman’s body getting ready for childbirth, in his signature bold, distorted lines. The artistic provenance of the piece is impeccable. Women in Souza’s works don’t hide or stoop. They are comfortable in their nudity, often looking straight at you or entangled in sexual passion.
While M.F. Husain became the popular envoy of modernist art, wowing the philistine and the aesthete alike, Gaitonde and Souza became recluses. Souza found appreciation in Europe, where he settled after spending a large part of his youth in Mumbai. In 1964, he was named one of the four best painters of Europe. He is the only Indian artist to have a room dedicated to his works at London’s Tate Modern. Besides his themes, which unapologetically revealed the political animal in him, his craft kept evolving in Europe.
He was one of the first artists to use acrylic paint in the early 1960s. He experimented with different kinds of media, using chemical agents on printed paper and painting over them in some works. He married several times, and his art often mirrored his broken marriages and the tumult of not finding acceptance, in his homeland and in the US in his later life. He sunk into a phase of alcoholism and extreme mental strife. He is said to have sold some of his works for as little as $500.
In his lifetime, Souza’s paintings barely sold in India. He never had showpiece works like serene landscapes or spiritual abstracts or interpretations of Indian myths that usually appeal to Indian art buyers. Most of his paintings ridicule everything from Christianity to sex. “I use aesthetics rather than bullets or knives as a form of protest against stuffed shirts and hypocrites," he once said.
Souza’s creativity was fuelled by the belief that what is considered seedy and destructive in a society should be confronted and celebrated. His art is an unflinching engagement with the urban underbelly, with sex workers, with the hypocrisy of the Church and the corruption of the upper class. It is not clear why he is making big news in the art world now. How the art world values an artist or an artist’s work is difficult to decode in a logical way, but it can almost always be determined by the value of artists similar to them in age or style or the time in which they painted. After the Gaitonde retrospective at the Guggenheim, it would seem logical that a big Souza retrospective is in the offing. The modernists, after all, rule the roost at all Indian art auctions—but that’s a subject for a different essay.
Souza’s life is a defence of artistic freedom and originality. At home in Goa and New York, he lived for pluralism and diversity, and for engaging with fissures and complexities of class. What better time to own Souza again.
The problem with Souza’s legacy, much like that of Gaitonde’s, is that there has been no sustained effort to study his art. His works are scattered in collections across the world. The FN Souza Estate, based in New York, and owned now largely by his children from different marriages, is not an organized, collective unit.
Uday Jain, owner of Delhi’s Dhoomimal Gallery, which owns one of the largest Souza collections in the world—200 works with 50 canvases and 150 paper works—says: “Estates internationally have played a pivotal role in maintaining artist legacies and building strong archives and museums. In Souza’s case, the only problem is that the family is quite fragmented. So while some family members are doing a good job of trying to preserve, archive and authenticate works, there are others who are just trying to make quick commercial gain out of them." He says he plans to take the works they own for an exhibition to Mumbai and to London, and hopes to create a memorial in Goa.
In 1977, Vikas Publishing, based in Noida, near Delhi, approached Souza for an autobiography, and he agreed. As author and publisher Ashok Chopra writes in his recent book A Scrapbook Of Memories, in 1979, Souza sent a handwritten manuscript from the US with 62 drawings and a high insurance cover. Customs officials in Delhi seized the packet on charges of “obscenity". It eventually reached the publisher, but by then Souza was exasperated by the potential censorship, and was disinterested in the idea.
Dhoomimal Gallery has had various Souza shows over the years. The first was in the late 1960s, the second in 1976. “Souza asked why only one of his works sold (in the 1976 show) and my dad (then owner of the gallery) said you will see that in the next show more will sell and gradually the Indian market would start appreciating your work," says Jain. In 2010, a show of over 200 works from their collection was curated by Yashodhara Dalmia, and displayed at the Lalit Kala Akademi. The last was in April, on his birthday; the show was titled Souza: City Of Women. It dealt particularly with his nudes—his treatment of them changed with time, but the women never lost their power and sheen.
An Old Dog’s Diary reintroduced London to an artist the city already seemed to cherish. In India, Souza is still a whimsical, maverick figure known to the art-loving elite.