Keren Souza Kohn is the eldest of three daughters born to Francis and Liselotte Souza. Francis met Liselotte in 1954, and their marriage that spanned over a decade is known as the ‘Belsize Park years’.

Liselotte Kristian (once Kohn) was a Czech actress from Prague who had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA) in London. She worked on both stage and film productions, including the wartime spy film ‘Odette’ alongside a cast of Marius Goring, Trevor Howard, Anna Neagle and Peter Ustinov. After Francis and Liselotte met, she worked for BBC Radio, German-language service.

As a young Jewish woman, Liselotte had left Czechoslovakia for England in 1939 to escape the Nazi occupation of her homeland, arriving with seven shillings in her pocket. After the war, she set up home in Belsize Park, a district of Hampstead in London, famous for its white stucco fronted houses and trees, so often painted by Souza during the 1950s and 60s. The area was also a hotbed for intellectuals, artists and Jewish émigrés from Central Europe, a place of immense and irresistible attraction to Souza. Moreover, the artist had fallen utterly and hopelessly in love with Liselotte. As he described it, “it was love at first sight”.1 He went on to make a testament of this feeling in his astonishing autobiographical work Words and Lines, first published in 1957, and dedicated “To the two L’s, one who gave me life that is birth and the other who gives me love” (Lily being the name of Souza’s mother).

Liselotte and Francis made a curiously contemporary couple, epitomising all that was new and hopeful after the dark years of the war, bridging racial and religious divides. Liselotte was a light blond and fair skinned Bohemian, and Jewish; Francis, a dark skinned Indian Catholic. United, they represented a progressive humanity, where it was their intellectual and cultural compatibility that shaped the passion and intensity of the relationship. They formed part of the Bohemian set in London, frequently entertaining poets, artists and musicians at their home in NW3. The renowned photographer Ida Kar was part of this group, and her photograph of Keren and Souza is reproduced on the cover.

The impact of artistic and creative forces on Souza during the Belsize Park years with Liselotte are reflected in the remarkable paintings that he produced during the time, coinciding with a period of huge critical acclaim. His daughters, Keren and Francesca both went on to train in London as artists; Anya, who has Down’s Syndrome, is a stained glass artist. Talking of this, Souza has written: “The Souza lineage appears to be carried through the Kristian side more than from my other wives and that’s a good thing. The survival of the fittest really means procreation and family. We are also artists and that’s a quality, which sets us apart…[from]… ordinary people.”

Reminiscing about the time she acted as her father’s assistant, with reference to ‘The Game’ (1987), exhibited in ‘The Other Story’ at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1989, Keren Souza Kohn notes, “Working with my dad FN Souza was a lot of fun and a big honour (one which I didn’t fully appreciate until recently). The fun was Francis and Francis was fun, so giggly it became infectious till we cried with laughter. Such a sense of humour, always seeing the amusing and the ridiculous which protected him from his knowledge of mans’ darkness. But at the same time a live wire of a very rare seriousness. So serious he felt he had Satan the devil on his back jeering at him, and that he was fending off reptiles in order to paint.

He was never just a recorder, a reflection, a mirror, a reporter of life; he always had a take on it, something to say that was so different from anything you’d ever heard that you had to grow new ears to hear it! For example, he described the black heads on his nose as crushed dinosaurs, explaining that they developed because New York was so polluted with car fumes from burning petrol, which is liquid dinosaur!

He was passionate about equality, about the haves and the have-nots. He was passionate about justice, peace, and man’s inhumanity, but because he came to believe in the power of Prakriti, 4 he saw man as a laughable puppet, like a musician in a conducted Orchestra.

Souza’s hand, his view, his line, his strokes, his colour, his voice was unique; original was his first name.

I arrived at his flat on his request and invitation to help him make some pictures for a Hayward Gallery Show in London (The Other Story, 1989) for which he had been selected. I set about finding the floor, clearing a space for us to work and putting up a shelf to hold all the magazines and books piled up everywhere amongst tubes of oil paint, tarps and brushes. We made our shopping list of rolls of unstretched primed canvas and colours missing from his collection, new brushes and a radio cassette player. Dad loved to listen to classical music (as did Mum) including Beethoven, Mahler and Brahms while he worked, and he could whistle all the tunes beautifully and completely with exquisite musicality.

So we headed down to Canal Street on the subway and returned a couple of hours later in a taxi with our materials to set about working. He had his overhead projector to view any image from newspapers or magazines that took his fancy and aroused his sense of justice, his comment. Dad had selected his images, so we cut large pieces of canvas and tacked and pinned them directly to the wall. Dad drew his figures with a black felt-tip pen confidently onto the canvas, mapping out his composition. My job was to fill in the flat shapes with colour. Then Dad elevated the whole picture with his articulate brushwork so that it spoke eloquently, hummed and resonated with his extraordinary colour and touch.

He knew exactly where to begin and when to stop. So he just danced all over his composition with brushwork so no one area was laboured or muddled. All was lucid, clean and metamorphosed from mundane physicality to a work of pure sublime ‘Art’.

He had the vision to take a picture of an American baseball game in an arena with spectators and a referee and transpose it into an indictment of human society which he called ‘The Game’, where the unthinkable horror happens and humans look on helpless.

He was always amused and disgusted at the same time by humans. But he was also amazed by human invention, architecture, science, and the interface of physical with spiritual. This was his redemption, his personal sanctuary, which he generously shared with his fellow earthlings.”

Andrew Barklem, a photographer, a friend of Souza’s and a family relation who photographed and catalogued the artist’s entire estate after his death recalls a note the artist scribbled on the back of a hotel telephone pad. Dated 03.12.1989, it read, “Ego and guilt are products of the erroneous concept of free will: ‘I have done this! I can do that! I am so and so! I am able to do anything!’ This proves that egotism is a product of free will. Guilt is also a product of free will: ‘I have done wrong! I have made a mistake. I should have done it differently. I feel guilty!’ Sin is a product of free will. Both pride and guilt start where the Bible begins, in Genesis.”

To expound where Souza’s note-paper ran out of space, Souza’s art represents the workings of the naughty soul – the serpent. The temptation of the flesh, stigmata, the scars of our injured self, pin-cushion of our devotion, the wild animal in the Garden of Earthly Delights. The artist described this process to his first biographer Edwin Mullins, in his celebrated 1962 monograph, saying, “Painting for me is not beautiful. It is as ugly as a reptile. I attack it. It coils and recoils making fascinating patterns. I am not, however, interested in patterns. Otherwise I’d have spent my days watching clouds or women’s fabrics. It is the serpent in the grass that is really fascinating. Glistening, jewelled, writhing in the green grass. Poisoned fangs and cold-blooded. Slimy as squeezed paint. Green hood, white belly from chin to tail, yellow eyes, red forked tongue, slimy; careful not to put your foot on it treacherous like Satan yet beautiful like Him.”

As a working artist, Souza writing in 1983 compared himself with the element of Fire. “My own art, like my temperament, is fire. I am very modern in my thinking. I know that my art is energy altered from Cosmic Energy. Fire is Energy. Art is Altered Energy. Fire is the symbol of our times. Men have produced electricity, firepower and the atom bomb in our era. Therefore, the aesthesis of Modern Art, to reflect our times, must belch fire.” 6 The initiator of calcination, the process of purging our bodily desire, Souza’s Art is rooted in the Soul.

Conversely, Keren Souza Kohn’s Art is a departure from the earthly to the domain of the divine spirit where Wisdom, Understanding & Knowledge reside. And so the hackneyed Souza quotation, which now evolves to the altered state via the Sole Principle of Nature: “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.” Keren paints men and women conversing with the angels in order that the divine spirit be at one with G_d.

The works of Keren Souza Kohn and her son the artist Solomon Souza Kohn can be by viewed by visiting Proceeds from this sale will be used to expand the Souza Kohn Gallery and Studios, supporting the next generation of Souza artists in memory of Francis and Liselotte.

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