F N Souza: The eternal rebel

F N Souza: The eternal rebel

Remembered as the most controversial, rebellious artist of his time, F N Souza’s works are today's most expensive and sought after, writes FRANCIS D’SA

Francis H D'saUpdated: Monday, September 09, 2019, 11:28 AM IST

“If there is no path, then I will create one,” said Francis Newton Souza, one of India's greatest painters of the modern era, that eternal rebel, who passed away on March 28, 2002, in Mumbai, flying onto an even greater canvas in the sky that would require no paint, as he often didn't when alive.

“Death comes when nature needs one’s atoms elsewhere. Nature is a hustler of atoms. A shuffler. To equate death with ‘nothingness’ is wrong because no man or woman knows or has experienced what nothingness is. Nothing dies. Everything is recycled into continuous life,” said Souza before passing away.

Fifty-five of his multimedia works will go under the hammer at the Saffronart auction in New Delhi on September 12, 2019. These works are from the Estate of Francis Newton Souza and many of them not seen before. These have been executed in multimedia like chemical alterations (when he didn’t have money to buy paint), marker on magazine paper, felt tip pen on paper, pencil on paper, watercolour and collage on paper, ink on paper, lithographs, and charcoal on paper.

Souza became rebellious after being expelled from school and college for his ‘pornographic’ graffiti on the lavatory walls. To which he defended himself by saying, “I hate bad drawing, and I was merely correcting them”.

In his early years, he landed in London with 15 pounds in his pocket, five of which he used to buy paint. When the money ran out, he would use chemical on newsprint.

Trying to get a foothold in the London galleries was never easy. Most of his earliest works were rejected. Ironically, today they are among the most sought after.

Souza was always ‘fascinated’ with women and the art of copulation. His work, although his earliest ones were masterly done in the realist genre, were filled with grotesque images of distorted heads (heavy influence of Picasso here), for which he was most famous. Eyes, teeth, noses were all over the place, you could say his draughtsmanship was incisive and mostly brutal. His realistic female figures were beautiful... he loved women to the extent that he transferred onto canvas what he could not achieve in reality.

Of one of the women he said, “...but your face is missing and you have no body. Only a girlish outline in a dreamy landscape which smells of your fine scent. And when I close my eyes, you are there in flesh and blood....with children and flowers and your clean hair, blowing in the breeze and your bright eyes shining in the night sky, streaked with rainbows.” (Excerpted with permission from Saffronart and the Estate of Francis Newton Souza).

His distorted angry images occurred after he rebelled against the system. He was the founder of the Progressive Artists Group that included Raza, Gaitonde, Ara, Husain and Tyeb Mehta.

Celebrated Indian modernist painter Baiju Parthan, who was in a residency with Souza in California in 2001, reminisces in an exclusive, “The residency programme aimed to bring together a younger generation of Indian contemporary artists and an older generation of modern Indian masters, to share studio spaces and work together while exchanging ideas.

That was how I got the opportunity to spend time with F N Souza in California working in adjacent studios, sharing a lot of quality time and in general having a great time peppered with conversations about practically everything under the sun. Among the paintings he did during the residency was the last self portrait he produced. It is significant that it is devoid of any of the violent distortions that is the signature of Souza’s heads.

Instead it is an uncharacteristically beatific depiction of himself probably staring straight into infinity. In retrospect, it appears as though he had resolved all the contradictions and conflicts within himself and was completely at peace. I clearly remember he was mighty pleased with that portrait.”

F N Souza will always be remembered as the most controversial, rebellious artist of his time. Nonetheless his works are today’s most expensive and sought after.

“There is no art-shart happening here in India. No interview,” he told me at our last meeting before he passed away. “Let’s go check out the nightlife, saiba,” he growled.

The Oberoi, New Delhi

Preview: September 10, 2019

Auction: September 12, 2019

Viewings: September 6-12, 2019