One of India’s greatest modernists, Francis Newton Souza is celebrated the world over for his multimillion-dollar nudes. But a series of shows featuring his early works shed new light on certain little-known aspects of his creative practice, writes Bhumika Popli.
It is interesting to come across the early works of a distinguished artist. The themes and subjects usually give us a good idea of the creative trajectory followed by the artist later in his or her life. But the exhibition entitled Souza in the 40s, which recently concluded in Delhi and is now on view in Goa, challenges that notion.
Displayed here are sketches and paintings that Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002) did in the 1940s, when he was in his 20s. The show includes many of his nudes—a genre Souza became known for—as well as some of his early landscapes.
The curator of the show, Conor Macklin from London’s Grosvenor Gallery, spoke to Guardian 20 about this little-know phase of Souza’s career. “Souza painted landscapes all along his career, and they were an integral part of his output. The nudes and figurative works, however, are what made him famous and cemented his reputation as a rebel artist. In India, we have found in the past that the nudes are a bit more controversial whereas the landscapes have always been very popular. This is changing as any painting by Souza now is so valuable that it’s a great thing to have in any house, nude or landscape,” he said.
Souza in the 40s opened simultaneously in three cities: at Delhi’s Saffronart Gallery (where it concluded on 18 January); London’s Grosvenor Gallery (where it ended on 25 January); and Panaji’s Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts (where it goes on till 5 March).
According to Macklin, the Goa show is attracting huge crowds, because of the artist’s connection with this state. “Souza was born in Goa and he is considered a hero, a legend in Goa,” Macklin said.
The Panaji show includes some of Souza’s Goa paintings, including that of a village, a paddy field, a harbour and more. His colours are vivid. There are shades of pink, green, yellow, which are quite unlike the darker tones we know from his later paintings. There are around 30 landscapes among the 148 paintings displayed at various locations.
The 1940s was an eventful decade for Souza. He was actively getting involved in the freedom struggle, and his work—mostly nudes—was being censored by the art establishment. One of his shows was even shut down by authorities, and his studio raided by the police on the grounds of obscenity. At around the same time, Souza was expelled from Sir J.J. School of Arts, for drawing an “obscene” mural on the school premises. He further went against the grain in these years and founded the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group.
In 1948, Souza was recorded as saying, “I underwent an abortive art training. The teachers were incompetent. I was expelled from the School of Art. I was banished from a secondary school. Shelley was expelled once; Van Gogh was expelled once… I was expelled twice. Recalcitrant boys like me had to be dismissed by principals and directors of educational institutions who instinctively feared we would topple their apple-carts.”
Souza’s early paintings reveal the softer side of his personality. As a landscape painter, he was acutely aware of his surroundings, and wanted to capture everything he saw.
But his rebellion was never a superficial one. He had strong political views and often chose to take up controversial artistic themes and forms without thinking about the repercussions. Although Souza’s life story is engaging, his works never needed a story to back them. They were strong enough in themselves.
Dattaraj Salgaokar, chairman, Sunaparanta, Goa Centre for the Arts said, “Souza was known for producing thought-provoking and powerful imagery through his unrestrained and graphic art work. His Goan roots and rebellious nature, marred by his troubled relationships and broken marriages, are often reflected in many of his works which were very provocative and bold. He became known for his aggressive lines and thick application of colour. Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see how Souza functioned as an artist at the very beginning of his career, and gauge the growth of his skill and artistic vision in just a few years by comparing them with the works he produced around the time of the formation of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947.”
Souza was always a confident artist and this confidence reflected starkly in his later work. But even in his early paintings one can perceive this trait—in his bold use of line and colour.