Guest blogger, Sabah Mathur reports on a recent lecture at the British Museum on the Drawings of Souza and Picasso
London: One of India’s foremost modern artist, Francis Newton Souza, has often been compared to the twentieth-century giant, Pablo Picasso. A recent lecture held at the British Museum (BM), London, as part of the event, Asian Art in London, re-visited the similarities between Picasso and Souza. Sona Datta, curator of Ancient and Medieval South Asia at the BM, explored the relationship between the two artists by juxtaposing their drawings in order to demonstrate the impact of Picasso on Souza.
The talk began by setting the stage for understanding modernity in the Indian context. Being a colonial country, Indian artists were faced with an inherent paradox – a contradiction between the sense of alienation of the individual artist and the cultural cohesion expected of a nation engaged in an anti-colonial struggle. It is important to address what it meant to be both Indian and modern in the Post-independence period. The latter demanded an expression of the universal, while the former called attention to the local.
Tracing the growth of modernism from academic art as taught in the schools set up by the British in India, and the Bengal School to the Progressive Artists Group (PAG), of which Souza was a founding member, Datta discussed the role of the PAG as an important group of modern artists who together formed a brave new world. However, modern Indian art was often regarded as an attempt to play catch-up with European art. It was widely considered to be derivative.
Datta argued that art has always been informed by other cultures. For instance, direct influences were drawn from African and Oceanic art by Picasso, Persian art by Henri Matisse, and Polynesian art by Paul Gauguin. It is by now well established that art does not exist in isolation but always arises out of influences. It would be more fruitful to examine in what sense art is borrowed and how it is invested with meaning.
Souza rejected his art school teachings and educated himself through books, reproductions, and actual works of art to which he could find access. He wrote that he had to teach himself about Western art. Many of his paintings show strong influences of Old Masters such as Titian as well as modern artists, most notably Picasso. Souza’s bold colours, geometrical compositions, and distorted faces are evidence of the inspiration he received from the latter. Man with a Dribbling Nose shows Souza’s mature style with highly distorted features – eyes in the forehead, elongated nose, exaggerated mouth and teeth, and bulging veins. Such heads were a unique invention of Souza’s and they communicate emotions with brute force.
Like Picasso, Souza also conveyed messages about politics, society, sex, and religion through his art. Souza’s Six Gentlemen of Our Time is a triumph of his capacity to probe emotion through significant form. The heads depicted are of men who represent the terrifying post-war atomic civilisation. Datta stated that their structure resembles Synthetic Cubism as practiced by Picasso.
A more direct inspiration can be seen in Souza’s Young Ladies in Belsize Park which is a reverberating echo of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Souza’s adaptation is essentially a brothel scene. He actually lived in this area of London and the nearby red light area afforded an interesting inspiration for this work. While Souza’s colours are much darker, the structure and thematic similarities to the original are clear.
Datta pointed out that both Picasso and Souza had a tremendous fluidity of line. This is clearly visible in the following drawings. Both artists were excellent draughtsmen and were aware of the importance of line in their work. Souza said, “The outline is the scaffolding on which you hang your painting. It is the structure without which art cannot exist and becomes wishy washy. Cezanne is nothing but structure. Within the structure you add paint and paint and structure are one and the same. There is a totality about it.”
The distinctions and similarities between the two artists become clearer upon comparing Picasso’s Femme au Chapeau and Souza’s Untitled (Head of Picasso). The influence on Souza’s work is obvious, but in his work the facial features are more visible whereas in Picasso’s work they are tending towards the abstract.
Souza was a dominant force in developing modern Indian art and created a new artistic grammar for India. He was also an inspirational figure during the 1950s in the London art scene. Picasso meanwhile, is widely acknowledged as the most influential twentieth-century artist who created Cubism along with Georges Braque during the early 1900s. Both artists were inspired by their predecessors but reworked the art of other masters to create their own idioms. Their results were original. For instance, although Souza was influenced by a number of Western artists he mixed his art with his knowledge of Indian styles and motifs.
Both Souza and Picasso were artistic geniuses in their own way and they believed in their work. Souza, like Picasso, stood outside the regular society in a way. Born in Portuguese occupied Goa into a Roman Catholic family, he struggled against adversity from the very beginning. His father died when he was just three months old and the following year, his sister aged two, also passed away. In 1929, when Souza was only four, his widowed mother, heaped with debt, fled with him to Bombay. There Souza contracted smallpox and was sent back to Goa to be looked after by his grandmother.
Souza was fascinated by stories of tortured saints told to him by his grandmother and the grandeur of the Church had a profound effect on him. He was influenced not by its dogmas, but its architecture and the splendour of its services. Souza developed a strong anti-clerical streak. His denunciation of the clergy with all its vestments of religiosity and an underlying manipulation of power was expressed in a number of works. A characteristic example of this is Souza’s Death of the Pope where the dead Pope is a skeleton of a man rather than a grandiose figure, and the priests with their ghoulish heads, stand before him. Datta pointed out that Souza’s Catholic guilt and tragedy left him feeling alienated as an individual and in a way this was like fodder for his creativity.
Deviating from the discussion about Souza and Picasso, a member of the audience also put forth an interesting question regarding Souza’s relationship with another master of modern Indian art, MF Husain. In response, it was pointed out that it was Souza who had recognised Husain’s genius during the 1940s and had brought him into the fold of the art world, selecting him to join the PAG. Later during the 1980s Husain invited Souza to open his retrospective held in India. Interestingly, Souza once said that he had taught Husain everything he knew!
This highly confident attitude was typical of Souza, a characteristic that he shared with Picasso. Each of these artists tore the rule book and produced art that was full of emotion. Although Souza does not have any direct descendants in the sense of artistic style, he certainly left a very powerful influence on many other Indian artists with his intense personal vision and eclectic body of work.
A trained lawyer, Sabah Mathur has a keen interest in South Asian art. She recently completed an MA in Fine & Decorative Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London. Her MA thesis was titled “Monochromes and Chemicals: Understanding Francis Newton Souza’s Avant-Garde Experiments with Black Paintings and Chemical Paintings”. She has worked with Saffronart as well as the Modern & Contemporary South Asian art department at Bonhams.