“The whole meaning of Life is Life itself ”, was F.N Souza’s favourite statement. Ever so often, he repeated, “ Everything happens according to Nature’s intention”. And so he lived….and so he died….while celebrating the individual and celebrating love.
His skeptical view of the establishment and his dry humour expressed itself in his paintings with a madness – whether it was his nudes, self-portraits, landscapes or the compelling Christ series.
Born in Goa, Francis Newton Souza moved to Mumbai after a bout of small pox that left him scarred permanently. Always unconventional and rebellious in his ways, he was expelled from college for his radical thinking. He believed that the box of suppression and hypocrisy needed to be opened – whether it was in the Church, the upper class or the sexual repression.
His expressive lines ripped away all the facades and double standards and showed a raw honesty, whether he was depicting the prostitutes or women he had slept with or the depictions of Christ.
Most of his works ridicule everything from religion to human forms. “I use aesthetics rather than bullets or knives as a form of protest against stuffed shirts and hypocrites,” he once said. His strong, slashing lines, a web of crosshatch strokes defines the structure of his figures that find their inspiration sometimes from the European artists.
When asked why he used to distort his human faces and figures the way he did, he replied, "Renaissance painters painted men and women, making them look like angels. I paint for angels to show them what men and women really look like.”
In 1945, he was expelled from the JJ School of Art because he joined the Quit India Movement and thereafter the Communist Party in India in 1947. Later that year he founded the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group with S.H. Raza and K.H. Ara and others, a divergent group whose main aim was to create art, purged of colonial influences or the Bengal School aesthetic so prevalent at that time.
While M.F Husain was the flag bearer of the group, VS Gaitonde and FN Souza became more and more reclusive.
In 1948 Souza moved to England where he found success after an initial struggle. In fact, he is one of the first Indian artists’ to be recognized by the European audiences.
In India, however, he continued to remain on the fringes and was never appreciated as an artist until after his death. This was partly because of his highly erotic nudes. They were bold and didn’t shy away – instead they looked you straight – emboldened and unapologetic. Their sexual power and unrestraint, sadly, made Indians uncomfortable at that time and they did not want them displayed in their homes.
Not that it affected Souza’s obsession with the female body. He confessed they had taken form while watching his mother through a peephole, bathing.. He felt no shame drawing her all over the walls and said that he had drawn on the walls of her womb as well.
Restless and curious, he experimented with different kinds of media and chemical agents on printed paper and painting over them in some works. In fact, he was one of the first artists to use acrylic paint in the early sixties.
His irreverence and fearlessness reflected in his paintings of the icons of Christ. He unabashedly challenged the hypocrisy of the Church and his paintings depicted cruelty and imprisoning – sometimes torturous in nature. He blurred the lines between impious and sacred and laced both on his canvases, evoking awe and tension.
His Crucifixion (1959), which is part of Tate's permanent collection, shows Christ as scary, black and scrawny, with eyes high up on his forehead and huge teeth defying all conventionally worshipped forms of Jesus Christ.
In 1967, Souza moved to New York and lived there until the end of his days. He married several times and his work reflected his emotional turbulence. He was embittered and sad at not having found acceptance in his motherland, saying “ Better had I died after my smallpox. I would not have to bear an artists tormented soul, create art in a country that despises her artists and is ignorant about her heritage”.
Little did he know that after his death his works would rock the Indian art world. In 2008, the spectacular Birth (1955) set a world auction record for the most expensive Indian painting by selling for Rs11.3 crore at a Christie's auction, the most expensive painting sold till then.
His dream of a museum of his works in his hometown, Goa might be unrealised but his works have definitely found their home with the Indian art collectors. Finally..
-‘Why FN Souza Matters – Sanjukta Sharma Live Mint
- ‘God, sex and Souza – Neelam Raaj Times News Network