May 08, 2013


Vijaya Chandra BabuMenda            

If he were alive Francis Newton Souza would have been 89 year old on April 12 this year. And with the money his works produced he would have lived like a   king. But the fate had it otherwise to the India's trail blazer of Modern art, with rebellion in every nerve of his body and spirit bursting out from thosepiercing  eyes matched with Errol Flynn mustache which appear to be seeing through the brain waves of the human beings , died a humble death on March 28, 2002. From  July 7, 1949 , the day the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), founded by him held its first exhibition at Bombay Art Salon to February 1, 2013, to the day  Art Fair opened its fifth edition , a long journey of  63 years, the modern and contemporary art of India had made  its mark in the world on the path chartered by Souza.Those who call themselves today as contemporary artists of India owe it him in every aspect.

He grew up as an artist, in times which were riddled with  terrific emotions of freedom struggle, English enlightenment and brewing European romanticism. Europe was passing through the magical waves of Matisse, Picasso, Kandinsky from Fauve expressionism  to symbolism and from cubism to abstracts. His zeal for freedom struggle shunted Souza out of the most renowned Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay. But that sparked in him  a blinding explosion. He did not give in. He rebelled. He along with M.F.Husain, S.H.Raza, K.H.Ara, S.K.Bakre and H.A.Gade formed the most famous PAG and stood face to face against the system, against the academic realism and against revivalist tendencies emanating from Bengal School of Art.

His words spoken on that occasion would reflect the anger that was seething in him. While declaring on why he started the PAG he said: "… the  Bombay Art Society showed awful crap in its annual exhibitions which comprised of  the amateur efforts of some nice memsahibs in India who were pampered by  British imperialism. Hence their pretty–pretty paintings together with the work of several artists coming out of the art school exhibited  once a year  in the Art Society had no directions, no goal, no inspiration, no energy-  regardless of the style or method they chose to work in. It then occurred to me to form a group to give ourselves an incentive. Ganging up in a collective ego is stronger than single ego. It is easier for a mod to carry out a lynching; and in this case, we found  it necessary to lynch the kind of art that inculcated by the J.J.School of Art and exhibited in the  Bombay Art Society. We have no pretentions of making vapid revivals of any school  or movement in art. …" he said explaining the aims of the PAG.

“It was an attempt to rooting themselves within the paradigms of Modern Art. It was the at the same time a means of re-inventing these in their own context. To do so in the India of their time required an act of courage,” says YashodharaDalmia, an art historian. As Thomas McEvilley observed regarding the members of PAG, “At the moment  that some one  lifted  that brush and made that mark, a part of Indian culture  entered the modern world.” As their first exhibition created rippled in the art world, the exhilarated Souza boasted with a swelling heart“our art has evolved over the years of its own volition, out of our own balls and brains.” It was absolutely true in the case of Souza. Many critics and art historians tried to find a similarity, an imitation, a source of inspiration in the works of Souza. They had to ultimately, after strenuous researches had to contend that the work of Souza is his own and entirely original devoid of any external insinuation. Getting  'inspired' is not new even for those who acquired great names. As for Indian artists, they were accused of imitating  the West. But then there are instances when artists were 'inspired' by the work of others. Michelangelo was inspired to see the sculptures in Bologna when he went there  as a teenager. Picasso admitted himself that he took the cues from African Art, Gauguin was an absolute Polynesian, Matissse meddled with Persian styles. As YashodharaDalmia says ‘art does not exist in isolation but always arises  out of influences. But in  Souza people could see nothing else than himself.’

Souza's expressionism was hosted in human figure. He was an outright expressionist using the human figure in forms which were never seen before. Says Dr Hermann Goetz who bought Souza's Blue Lady, “He has shocked  many who can not  imagine a green or blue red human body; who can not stand a simplification intended to intensity of an experience…; who can not face  the frank statement of sex which sublimated not by suppression but by association and interplay with experiences of the soul.“   The works of F.N.Souza were based on human figure and very rarely were based on other subjects. Explaining why he chose it, he said in an interview: “The advantage of a figurative painter has over the abstract artists is sheer impact: the brute force of an expressionist  painting of a large, distorted  suggestive naked lady can overwhelm the bravest abstract painting- no doubt about it- because  humans will be humans and sadism in sport, the movies, in art in theatre  is where the meat is and the pleasure. The other  most important advantage figurative art has over non- figurative art is that humans can transmit energy to humans through images where abstract symbols like swastika, for example must be charged with a lot of meaning  by tradition before it can be taken to be potent.”

At another occasion Souza said,“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".

With a few slashing lines and a raw, expressive energy, Francis Newton Souza stripped away all subterfuge. Be it the sluts or the suits, the seamy side of life or the steamy, the gnomish, pox-scarred boy from Goa who went on to become one of the first Indian artists to be feted in the salons of Europe, laid it bare, wrote Times of India from its New York base.According to PranNathMago,  ‘Souza has evolved a new conception of reality, by basing his  forms on the principles of  organic growth with certain conventions inherited  from Cubism, Expressionism and Abstractionism.’ 

When Souza along with S.H.Raza and Akbar Padamsee entered the Europe scene with their first exhibition in 1952 at Galerie St Placide, It created a great deal of interest and curiosity. The critics could not place them in any category that existed in Europe at that time. But all the works exhibited were sold. So there were some more invitations to them, like GalerieCruez in 1953 and so on. As the time passed Souza was looked up as prominent international artists at par with many greats. He was also well versed man. He wrote two books Life of a Maggotwhich a biographical and Words and Lines, about his art.

In 1949 Souza moved to London and from there in 1967 to New York till his death on March 28, 2002. His Francis Newton Foundation in New York looks after his works and its business prepositions. His works are collected in almost in every major art museum in the world and almost in every Gallery in India. His work, “Birth” was bought for Rs11.3 crore in 2008 by the Tina Ambani’s Harmony Art Foundation. His estate collections were sold in Sotheby's auction for unprecedented amounted, which was not expected by the auctioneers. He drew 12,000 sketches in his life-time. The man who led India into the world of modern and contemporary art has his name etched permanently in the hearts of Indians. So let us remember him today, on April 12.