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What lies behind the enduring appeal of F.N. Souza?

A new record was set for artist F.N. Souza at a recent Christie's auction. Here is a look at new exhibitions and books that delve into the mind of the artist and look at the enduring relevance of his work

F.N. Souza, also known as the enfant terrible of Indian art rejected rules all through his life. Photos: courtesy Dhoomimal Art Gallery
F.N. Souza, also known as the enfant terrible of Indian art rejected rules all through his life. Photos: courtesy Dhoomimal Art Gallery

An “Untitled” work from the 1960s is currently on display as part of the retrospective, Reminiscing Souza: An Iconoclastic Vision: Celebrating The Birth Centenary Of Francis Newton Souza, at Dhoomimal Art Gallery, Delhi. The artwork is very different from the Goa-born modernist’s iconic large-scale pieces. It measures roughly 4x4cm and is an image from a magazine on which F. N. Souza (1924-2002) drew grotesque-looking stick figures in ballpoint pen. The unassuming work is indicative of how the enfant terrible of Indian art rejected rules all through his life. For one, Souza joined the Sir J.J. School of Art, Mumbai, at age 16 but was expelled soon after for his active support for Quit India Movement.

The exhibition, which is celebrating the Souza’s birth centenary, features over 150 artworks—ranging from nudes, still life, landscapes and portraits in various media such as charcoal, ink, oils—most of them hailing from the gallery’s private collection. The show encapsulates Souza’s comprehensive oeuvre, including his highly experimented chemical drawings, wherein the artist, after pouring a chemical on glossy pages of magazines, drew erotic and mangled figures on them. His inventiveness of these chemical drawings was a result of lack of finances: Unlike the UK, which received his figurative works very well, he struggled to find success in the US where abstraction was the trend. Short of funds, he used magazine pages as his blank canvas.

The exhibition at Dhoomimal that displays these works, along with some of his earliest works, are vital in showing his artistic flair. Head, his work in oil from the 1960s is a case in point: the bright colour palette, the strong lines and brush strokes of the ghoulish face are a reminder of why Souza was compared to the likes of Francis Bacon and Picasso.

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Curated by art historian-author Yashodhara Dalmia, the retrospective looks at how Souza’s legacy continues to inform the Indian art scene even today. “The bold distortions of the human visage and frank exposures of the body in his work aroused a strong reaction,” says Dalmia. In her essay for the exhibition, she has quotes Souza’s friend, artist Krishen Khanna, about the former’s earliest exhibitions in Mumbai, which sparked outrage over a nude self-portrait. It even prompted police action, and the artist was asked to cover the “offending portion of the anatomy in the self-portrait…thereby attracting still more attention”, as Khanna mentions in the essay.

'Woman Bathing Boy' (1949)
'Woman Bathing Boy' (1949)

According to Uday Jain, director, Dhoomimal Art Gallery, Souza’s single-most contribution was the courage with which he painted. “No ‘pretty’ figures or nudes or flowers or mountains, what he painted wasn’t traditionally accepted till then in Indian art. He was courageous and brave,” explains Jain.

To understand the artist’s abiding legacy, it is important to view the artist’s personal and professional journey. “There is something visceral and primaeval about his work; many people like to engage with it, but an uncanny unease fills them whenever they try to,” says Janeita Singh, author, FN Souza: The Archetypal Artist, published by Niyogi Books last month. It was this “uneasy space in Souza’s art” that became Singh’s focus for the book, especially the bold and formidable image of the female nude on his canvas, starting 1940s onwards. Singh’s book is a “feminist reading of Souza’s art with an equal thrust on its study through a Jungian lens and East-West philosophy.”

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Souza’s childhood was marked by loss—losing his father and a little sister at a young age—and health issues, and a complicated relationship with his mother. This marked his relationships with women in his adult life. All this got translated on to his canvas. The figures in his work kept evolving to reveal savagery, distortion, and a rage that simmered in the artist’s own tumultuous mind, especially when he faced failure as an artist in New York and felt rejected for his art in his own homeland. Shortly after his death though, his works started fetching astronomical prices. In 2008, his work Birth set a world record for the most expensive painting by an Indian artist for $2.5 million at a Christie’s auction. In 2015, it was resold at over $4 million. Christie’s ongoing Asian Art Week has an online sale running till 27 March, with 36 lots of the artist’s works as part of the centenary celebrations. As part of this, The Lovers set a new record for Souza recently, selling for $4,890,000 (nearly 40 crores).

While Dhoomimal will be doing another show on the artist later this year, DAG, Delhi, will be hosting a special exhibition in October. It will pair Souza with his friend, fellow artist and expatriate Avinash Chandra. The two artists’ works—and the essays by specialists in the accompanying book—will explore themes of cultural identity, sexuality and critical reception, offering an exploration of Souza and Chandra’s creative responses to the changing world around them. 

The exhibition is on at Dhoomimal Gallery, G42, Connaught Place, Delhi till 30 March, 11am-7pm (closed on Sundays)

Abhilasha Ojha is a Delhi-based art and culture writer.

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