EXHIBITION - F. N. Souza (Oct 30-Nov 15, 2003) :

Souza's stunning draughtsmanship and potent, if unsettling, imagination has earned him a significant position in the cannon of contemporary Indian art. Born in Saligoa, Goa, Souza was a founding member of the Progressive Artist's Group (1947-56). The Group stood at a watershed period in the history of India, coming into being at the same time as India herself attained her independence from British rule. Consequently, it aimed to harness the artistic potential of post-independence India and give it a shape expressive of the change in consciousness. Souza, in particular, sought to carve a middle ground between Nationalism on the one hand and Internationalism on the other. His oeuvre is a dynamic fusion of these dual tendencies. It succeeds in structuring a uniquely Indian aesthetic as well as creating a visual vocabulary of universal significance and appeal.

His repertoire of images includes still lifes, landscapes, nudes and Christian icons.

Multi-faceted and complex, Souza's aesthetic incorporates a myriad of both Eastern and Western influences. In Souza's art the monumental figuration of Classical sculpture meets a taste for 18th and 19th Century European landscapes and Christian symbolism merges with the colorful folk art tradition of Goa. Yet, for all this, Souza forges a style that is distinctly his own. As a critic once said of him, "he straddles several traditions but serves none." (John Berger, The New Statesman, 1955 'from a review on an exhibition in the same year')

With typically Modernist flair, Souza's bold, often disruptive, use of line and color are neither strictly realistic nor wholly abstract. His use of distorted figuration strikes an immediate cord in the viewer. The charged atmosphere of these deliberately disfigured renditions echo the thematic conflicts and contradictions that underlie Souza's choice of subject matter. The brute force of his images cuts through the fabric of social norms and conventions, unveiling the latter's underlying tensions, suppressed violence and animal urges. "One is forced to enter the flame and be choked by the raw passions and experience the canker which eats the flesh and enters the very marrow of the bones." (p. 82, Y. Dalmia, 'A passion for the Human Figure', The Making of Modern Indian Art, OUP, 2001) Souza's Roman Catholic childhood in Goa was to have a profound effect on the development of his artistic career in this regard. For example, the religious motifs in his work have a particularly sinister quality. Christian dogma is brought into stark conflict with eroticism and the desire for uninhibited sexual expression. In Souza's work, Christian icons are imbued with an aura of cruelty, they are revealed as instruments of torture, imprisoning and repressive in the fear they evoke. In Souza's painting, The Crucifixion, the dark figure of Christ is deeply menacing and starkly at variance from the gentle representations of Christ in much Western religious art

However, probing the hypocrisy and despair of modern existence are only some of the thematic preoccupations of Souza's work. His oeuvre includes a more lighthearted dimension. Sensuous depictions of the female nude celebrate human intimacy and its corresponding joyous abandonment to the seductions of physical reality. Souza's later works, particularly from the 1990s onwards, unfold with gentle lyricism, in contrast to the more frenzied distended forms that had become the hallmarks of his style from the 1950s to the late 1980s.

As slippery as the eternal snake, which serves as a self-styled metaphor for his oeuvre, Souza's art eludes classification. "It is the serpent in the grass that is really fascinating…Slimy as squeezed paint…treacherous as Satan, yet beautiful like him."(p. 10 and 11, F.N. Souza, Words and Lines, Nitin Bhayana Publishing, 2000). Perhaps, this touches the nerve of the most interesting, if infuriating, aspect of Souza's aesthetic. The latter flamboyantly evades compartmentalization, treacherously swinging between contradictory tendencies. It is both sacred and profane, both Modernist and relevant for the current academic pre-occupation with Post-modernity, both anguished and wryly humorous.

Souza's Works on Paper

"John Minton committed suicide because 'Matisse and Picasso had done everything there's to be done in art.'
Unfortunately he had not heard of me."
(P.21, F.N. Souza, Words and Lines, Nitin Bhayana Publishing, 2000)

Renowned for his prolific output and his superb technical virtuosity, Souza's art was immersed in a constant battle to conquer new terrain. Artistic creation was an ever-unfolding drama, consisting in the exploration of the visual possibilities of a vast range of mediums and techniques. Our focus in this Exhibition is Souza's works on paper, defined as anything not done on canvas or masonite (board). These works form a substantial portion of his overall creative output and they include work on conventional drawing paper, paper napkins, pre-printed newspaper and magazines as well as gift-wrap paper.1 This Exhibition spans Souza's artistic career from the 1940s to the 1990s and marks its systematic movement away from the strictures of realism towards the construction of a Modernist aesthetic.

Souza's oeuvre has never been preoccupied with an accurate representation of physical reality. Ever the rebel, he formulated a unique style that sought to break with the Academic Realism identified with the artists of pre-independence India. For Souza, the prevailing attention to chiaroscuro and the scientific awareness of perspective was no more than an obsolete relic of British domination, a game for "English memsahibs…who painted to pass the time between playing with tea cups and chaprasis…"2 It was in the most progressive of the Western schools that Souza found the fulfillment of his desire to move away from the constraints of the Academic style.

Ironically, Souza's interpretation of the work of Modernist masters such as Picasso, Gauguin and Matisse, brings back to Indian art a unique sense of its own lost identity. For, just as the French Modernists ransacked the traditions of the East for creative inspiration, Modernism in Souza's terms was a re-investigation of India's cultural heritage. Souza writes, "If modern art is hybrid, what is the School of Paris? …Indian artists who borrow from the School of Paris are home from home."3 It is for this reason that the colors and folk art of Goa are integrated into the formation of Souza's unique visual language. Modernism in Souza's hands achieves a sense of 'home-coming'.4

An Interpretation of the Human Form

A pervasive feature of Souza's creative endeavors is his unique exploration of the structural implications of the line. He says, "The outline is the scaffolding on which you hang your painting. It is the structure without which art cannot exist and becomes wishy-washy."5 Souza's differing uses of the line are sharply indicative of the implicit preoccupations of his oeuvre, mapping the contradictory poles of his aesthetic. It veers from the fluid tracing of the delicate complexities of figuration to a fierce, chaotic cross-hatching through which the tortured image arises. This back and forth shift from supreme finesse to unsettling roughness underscores Souza's seesawing movement from rebellion to affirmation, from destruction to creation and from angst to joy.

Souza's primary interest has always been the human form and it haunts the subject matter of his work. He uses it to expose the most primitive aspects of human nature. It takes centre stage in his flagrant exploration of female nudity and in his famous depiction of 'Heads', known for their patently confrontational aspect. The 'Heads' are composed of taut, daring strokes, displaying an Expressionistic ability to trace the contours of psychological tensions and private emotional turmoil. With a paradoxicality typical of Souza, these Heads are both unnervingly brutal and oddly vulnerable. Souza says of himself, "I have created a new kind of face…when you examine the face, the morphology, I am the only artist who has taken it a step further."6

Modernism or Post-Modernism

Souza began to use paper in a radical manner largely unprecedented in the fine art tradition. He called these artistic experiments "chemicals". In these works special chemical solutions, paints, colored pencils and ink markers are used to alter the images on pre-printed surfaces such as magazines and newspapers.

With these "transcreations" Souza opened the door to a new kind of artistic practice. For these works on paper are two tiered in their significance, gesturing towards both aesthetic and socio-economic concerns. They challenge assumptions of what constitutes artistic creation in contemporary society, underscoring the advent of mass communication and the resultant possibility of industrializing the production of art. In particular, these altered "ready made" images cast a questioning light on conventional aesthetic notions of the role of the artist. It is unclear, in these works, what kind of space the creative mind occupies or even if its necessity is a thing of the past. Although a self-styled Modernist, Souza's re-assessment of the centrality of the artist within the changing context of modernity touches the core of Post-modernist discourse.

Not surprisingly, the "chemicals" are highly ambiguous works and prove virtually impossible to pin down. Do they pose a challenge to Capitalist consumer society, with its mass production and circulation of stylized images, or are they Souza's attempt to exploit the potentials of a new visual language on his own terms?

written by
zehra jumabhoy

2. Souza, F.N, Patriot Magazine, 1984
3. Souza, F.N, 'Cultural Imperialism', Patriot Magazine, 1984
4. p. 97-98, Dalmia, Y, 'A Passion for the Human Figure', The Making of Modern Indian Art, OUP, 2001
5. p. 93, Dalmia, Y, 'A Passion for the Human Figure', The Making of Modern Indian Art, OUP, 2001
6. p. 92, Ibid.


Souza, F.N, Words and Lines, Nitin Bhayana Publishing, 2000
Dalmia, Y, The Making of Modern Indian Art, Oxford University Press, 2001

Need help? For more information on Indian Art, please see our Art Guide. For help with buying through Saffronart please click here. If you have any other questions, please contact us.