Francis Newton Souza, the “enfant terrible” of modern Indian art, hardly needs an introduction. His less known half-brother, Lancelot Ribeiro, might. As two paintings from important phases in their artistic careers go on auction in June, we look at intersections in their life and art.
A Tale of Two Cities
Lancelot Ribeiro was born in Mumbai in 1933. His mother, Lilia, had moved to Mumbai with Souza (b. 1924) following the death of her first husband. Ribeiro’s intellectual curiosity was boundless; he developed interests that spanned art, literature, philosophy and science. He and Souza debated fiercely on a range of topics. Despite their varied viewpoints, the half-brothers were extremely close. “They exchanged letters throughout their lives and the two were loyal to one another,” David Buckman recalls in Lancelot Ribeiro: An Artist in India and Europe.
Souza’s (dis)reputation as an artist from a very young age is well-known. He was expelled from St. Xavier’s for drawing “obscene” pictures, and from the Sir J J School of Art for his participation in left-wing activities. He was disgruntled with what he considered the stale, affected art scene in Bombay and sought out like-minded artists, founding the influential Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group in 1947. Two years later, looking for greener pastures, he moved to London.
Ribeiro was witness to all this. In 1950, on Souza’s insistence, Ribeiro moved to London to study accountancy. It was here that he began pursuing art as a vocation. To hone his technique, he studied at the St. Martin’s School of Art from 1951-53. At the same time, he helped Souza as his studio assistant, and was strongly influenced by him. Ribeiro used the opportunity to travel across Europe and immerse himself in the art scene there. Soon after returning from his travels, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force.
The Making of the Artists
For the first six years, Souza struggled to make a living. He was rejected by one gallery after another, being told that his work wasn’t “good enough”. In 1954, he had a stroke of luck when his autobiography, Nirvana of a Maggot, was published by Stephen Spender in the magazine Encounter. Souza was suddenly an overnight sensation. It was only a matter of time before gallerists recognised the razor-sharp wit of his writing which translated seamlessly into his art. In 1955, Souza was introduced to Victor Musgrave, a leading art dealer and owner of Gallery One. Musgrave organised Souza’s first solo exhibition the same year. It was a sell-out and proved to be a turning point for both Souza and Gallery One. Musgrave subsequently held several successful shows, including one in 1961 where Souza’s powerful portrait, The Herald, was displayed. Souza’s biographer, Edwin Mullins, called this show the “most impressive of all”.
Ribeiro was quicker in his ascent to critical acclaim. It came to him with his first exhibition in 1961 at the Bombay Artist Aid Centre, inaugurated by Rudy von Leyden. Critics with The Times of India and Design saw Ribeiro as an artist with great potential. Following this, he was commissioned to make a 12-foot mural, Urban Landscape, for the offices of Tata Iron and Steel. His exhibitions over the next few years were met with more praise. In his account of the 1961 exhibition, the distinguished poet and playwright, Nissim Ezekiel, wrote that critics in Bombay “found it impossible” to review Ribeiro’s work without referring to Souza. What, then, set the work of the two brothers apart?
Themes and Techniques
A superficial look at the paintings of Souza and Ribeiro would make one think that they employed similar techniques. This is an oversimplification. Ribeiro did use thick black outlines, dark colours and heavy impasto, which were favoured by Souza. Both were influenced by the Roman Catholic Church, and the landscapes of Goa and Mumbai. But they approached their art very differently. Souza channelled into his art his childhood traumas—an attack of smallpox, his awe and fear of the Church, and his bitterness towards the pretentiousness of those in power. Their lasting impact on him showed up throughout his artistic career as distorted faces with gnashing teeth, arrows and stars for scars; still-lifes with spiky, angry lines; and apocalyptic landscapes. He remained preoccupied with these themes for the rest of his life.
Ribeiro’s approach was more experimental. In addition to still-lifes and figures, he produced a series of abstract sculptures. His paintings of landscapes were not of “actual places,” but stemmed from his imagination. “Some of these cities are bright and even comical… many are sombre, dark, empty and jagged,” writes curator Katriana Hazell in her catalogue note to Restless Ribeiro. But Ribeiro’s style of painting landscapes changed dramatically over the decades. His abstract paintings from the 1960s – 1980s were filled with gently curving bands “of what appear to be geological strata,” says Hazell. In the 1980s he created cheerful, luminous landscapes of what Patrick Boylan believed to be the Yorkshire Dales. In the 1990s, cities or towns in his landscape paintings occupied a narrow band at the bottom of the picture, and the sky was a vast expanse filled with flying objects. Ribeiro also pioneered the use of polyvinyl acetate, a binder for artists’ pigments.
“I twist and turn, curve and straighten often without aim or result. Just an escape, an escapist thing into painting impulsively, compulsively, endlessly, tired, tirelessly with or without joy,” Ribeiro wrote in his diary, discovered by his daughter Marsha following his death. These words summed up his restless spirit and impulsion to create.
Recent years have seen an increased demand for Ribeiro’s paintings, following major exhibitions that have heightened exposure to his work. In 2013, Asia House held its acclaimed retrospective exhibition, Restless Ribeiro, in London. A comprehensive exhibition of Ribeiro’s work, organised by Grosvenor Gallery, was held at Saffronart New Delhi and Mumbai, and the Sunaparanta Centre for the Arts in Goa in 2014.