F N Souza: Morphology of The Face

“If he was creating monsters, probably no one would be troubled; but because his images are clearly intended to be human, one is compelled to ask why his faces have eyes high up in the forehead, or else scattered in profusion all over the face; why he paints the mouths that stretch like hair combs across the face, and limbs that branch out like thistles. Souza’s imagery is not a surrealist vision- a self-conscious aesthetic shock- so much as a spontaneous re-creation of the world as he has seen it, distilled in the mind by a host of private experiences and associations.” (Edwin Mullins, Souza, London: Anthony Blond Publishers, 1962, p. 39)

F N Souza’s striking imagery was the inevitable expression of his scepticism towards society and the hypocrisy of the Church. This is noted in his popularly known ‘Head’ series which is a representation of his critique of the face of our society. Energetically experimental, the series comprises portraits with thick virulent lines and mutated forms. Unlike portraits that are recognisable and give the viewer an understanding of the subject’s character, these heads are a satirical take on the hypocrisy of human society in general. He illustrated them in the manner of his developed visual language of symbolic imagery, bold strokes in a dark palette, as well as distorted forms and figuration. “With these distortions Souza was able to create a forceful denunciation of power and corruption.” (Yashodhara Dalmia, The Making of Modern Indian Art: The Progressives, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 31)

F N Souza, Broken Head, 1957
Image courtesy of Saffronart

The ‘Head’ series has become very popular amongst collectors and admirers alike and is a testament to Souza’s tormented genius that is at once individualistic and appallingly honest. Broken Head, 1957, part of Saffronart’s Evening Sale this year, is a telling example of Souza’s artistic inventions of masterful planar modifications and distorted forms, where deep pain is expressed through lines that jut across the face. These heads are not only a breakthrough in the genre of portraiture, rich with layered connotations but also seminal for their unique formalistic breakthrough. While they display an allusion to Picasso’s portraits on the surface, they remain much farther from them in reality.   

Souza’s heads can be compared to Francis Bacon’s portraits for the similarity in their disfiguration of the face and exploration of the grotesque. Souza and Bacon were contemporaries who displayed their artistic temperaments through similar gestural strokes, dark palettes, malignant subjectivity, and the metamorphosis of expression and anatomy. Another commonality is rightly pointed out by Aziz Kurtha: “It is well known that both Bacon and Souza held the Russian painter Chaim Soutine, who lived in Paris, in high esteem and they both followed Soutine’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1950. Even a casual observer could see Souza’s debt to Soutine as well as Rouault, especially in the figures drawn with heavy lines and exaggeratedly distorted human figures.” (Aziz Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad: Mapin Publishing, 2006, p. 42) Another interesting parallel can be drawn in reading the artist’ insights about their portraits where they both assert a need to express inner emotions – Bacon intended to reveal his subject’s personal damage and referred to it as ‘fact’, and Souza, on the other hand, employed the grotesque to symbolise what he called ‘affliction’.

Francisco de Goya, Los Caprichos No. 54: El vergonzoso (The Shamefaced One), 1799
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Souza’s art also resonated with the post-war anxiety and disorientation displayed in the works of Expressionist artists such as Edvard Munch. His inclination towards European art movements strengthened upon his move to and subsequent stay in London, from about 1949 to 1967. This period also coincided with Souza’s execution of a number of heads which later became a hallmark of his artistic journey. Francisco Goya was one amongst the other Old Masters who inspired Souza and this admiration surfaced in his series of ‘Black Paintings’ whose formalistic quality is especially similar to Goya’s Pinturas Negras. Like Souza, Goya too bore an anti-clerical outlook, painting images as an exposé of the hypocrisy, bigotry, and cruelty of the Church as seen in his series called Caprichos. The “satirical ferocity of Goya may well have led Souza to revere him even more as an artist and to follow and to sharpen his own anti-clerical inclinations.” (Kurtha, p.40) It is more in Souza’s satirical reflections on society than the style in which Goya’s influences can be felt.

F N Souza, Untitled, 1974
Image courtesy of Saffronart

While Souza’s debt to artists such as Titian and Rembrandt is direct as he often quoted them through the imagery and titles, his affinity with the language of Goya and Bacon can be ascertained through the comparisons mentioned earlier. As Souza’s language matured, his heads progressively became more abstract, e.g., Untitled, 1974,  “with what looks like reels of material or brain tissue bursting out of it.” (Kurtha, p. 117) They also displayed experimentation with colour to invite pastel pinks and blues that gave his palette a vibrant edge. These portraits usher the viewer into a space of contemplation and introspection. “Their impact is immediate and disconcerting. Here is an obviously gifted artist with considerable abilities as a draughtsman who has developed a very personal manner.” (Terence Mullaly quoted in Kurtha, p. 1910)

Bid on F N Souza’s works at Saffronart’s Evening Sale on 17 September 2022.

Watch Saffronart CEO Dinesh Vazirani as he discusses F N Souza’s ‘Broken Head’ from his iconic series of ‘Heads’ from 1957.

Two of a Kind: F N Souza and Lancelot Ribeiro

F N 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.

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A Morning with F N Souza’s Daughters

In conjunction with Saffronart’s Francis Newton Souza LIVE Auction on September 11, Elisabetta Marabotto shares an article on Souza by Selma Carvalho

F.N. Souza: Live Auction, September 11, 2013, Saffronart

F.N. Souza: Live Auction, September 11, 2013, Saffronart. Image Credit: http://www.saffronart.com/auctions/fn-souza-sale-2013-3609

F N Souza was born in Saligao, Goa, in 1924. He achieved world-wide acclaim as a modernist artist proclaiming, “I leave discretion, understatement and discrimination to the finicky and lunatic fringe.” He died in 2002.

The house in Belsize Square where Souza and Lisolette lived, as it is today.

The house in Belsize Square where Souza and Lisolette lived, as it is today. Image Credit: Selma Carvalho

As I turn the corner into the leafy suburb of Belsize Square and walk past the quiet of St. Peter’s Church, I hold my breath. Row upon row of neatly tailored period houses stand to attention on either side of a narrow, well-disciplined road. I can’t see protruding flower-beds, tangled bushes, creeping vines, restored pubs or any hint of disorderly Bohemian irreverence, which might have attracted Francis Newton Souza. And yet, this is where the anarchist of the art world, F N Souza and Liselotte de Kristian spent much of the fifties.

I glance up and see Anya, Souza’s youngest daughter by Liselotte waving to me. Francesca, his second daughter by Liselotte joins us. The apartment has an old-world East European feel to it; walls bear the brunt of photographs creeping like vines into every available space.  A pair of ‘Liselotte’ paintings hang on the walls; this is Souza at his most vulnerable, naked self. Smooth, clean lines, no distortion of body parts, no disfigurement of the face, just one line joining another, seamlessly recreating the woman he loved onto canvas.

There is something cherubic about Anya. Francesca’s black hair is coiffed back and her beautiful cheekbones slightly flushed. Somewhere in these women, I can detect steely Konkan determination mixed with the courage of the East European Jew.

“My mother used to have her Progressive League meetings here,” Anya says. “A sort of meeting-up of old-world socialists,” Francesca adds.

Liselotte de Kristian was of Jewish descent, born in 1919 in Prague, Czechoslovakia, to a journalist father and a controlling mother who covered up all the furniture with dust-sheets. Her father died when she was six and her mother’s decline into very bizarre behaviour and constant mood-swings meant a childhood of bribery at times and beatings at others, a childhood which Liselotte knew was not normal. Her entire adult life, in a way, came to be defined by this need for normalcy, which she seldom found. She left Prague, a few days after Hitler’s army marched in and made her way to England where she took up odd jobs. Winning a part-scholarship to RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) changed her life. Two relationships followed, both equally bereft of love.

I ask about Souza.

“He was actually acknowledged as a writer in this country before his art.” Francesa says.

Souza's house in Goa. This is his maternal house in Saligao

Souza’s house in Goa. This is his maternal house in Saligao. Image Credit: Selma Carvalho

Souza arrived in England, in 1949, by his own accounts “almost penniless.” England took little notice of this newcomer. Multiculturalism may have been the new Londonism, but it was still a time when landladies put out signs saying, “No dogs, No blacks.” A curious mix of artists, writers, booksellers and gallery owners had established themselves around London’s West End; they congregated, almost like a cult, in Soho. Pasty British poets enjoying the exquisite pain of displaced Jews. They spent much of their time at the French House and Colony Room, watering-holes in Soho, drinking, brawling, dancing naked on table-tops, flitting between squatting and homelessness, fashionably poverty-stricken and flirting dangerously with the law. One of those afflicted with this Sohoitis was the deliciously handsome English poet, Stephen Spender, editor of Encounter magazine who was to form a friendship with Souza.  Souza’s autobiographical essay, Nirvana of a Maggot appeared in Encounter (1955) and was immediately applauded.

“Ida Kar was a great friend of both my mother and father. You must visit the National Portrait Gallery. There is an exhibition on,” Francesca urges.

A few days later, I find myself outside the imposing National Portrait Gallery, the fine streets leading up to it are lined with bookshops. A picture of a young Souza snapped up in black-and-white by Ida Kar takes centre stage. He looks unassuming and unsure.

The Church where Souza was baptised in Saligao

The Church where Souza was baptised in Saligao. Image Credit: Selma Carvalho

Ida was an Armenian, dark-haired and loud-mouthed. She met her husband, Victor Musgrave, twelve years her junior, while in Cairo and they moved to London in 1945. Their house at 1 Litchfield Street, from where Victor ran Gallery One, saw a steady stream of squatters and lovers come and go. Taking lovers never proved to be a conflict of interest. Stephen Spender knew Musgrave, who gave Souza a solo-show at Gallery One in 1955. The show was a sell-out and if it established Souza, it also established the reputation of Musgrave, as a sort of champion of the art world’s voiceless and defiant avant-garde artiste. Musgrave and Ida had a curious interest and sympathy for the inner-city underbelly, keeping close company with prostitutes. Souza was now firmly entrenched in London’s high Bohemia; untethered from middle-class values, spurred on by leftist leanings, sexually unconstrained and seminally creative. This world was very different from Bombay, and one in which no doubt, he came alive.

“Your mother was the love of his life,” I venture into more disquietening territory.

“There’s a quote in Words and Lines, a dedication to her. I think they were just very intellectually compatible,” Francesca says finally.

Liselotte met Souza in the December of 1954. He was unimpressive, wearing a suit three times his size with intensity to his eyes and a persistence which scared her. He asked her why she didn’t have children and told her she must be barren. When she said she hadn’t wanted children, he replied, “I want you to be the mother of my children.”

The narrow road across from Souza's house in Saligao, a road he would have walked on and the neighbourhood he would have known quite well.

The narrow road across from Souza’s house in Saligao, a road he would have walked on and the neighbourhood he would have known quite well. Image Credit: Selma Carvalho

Ida Kar, Victor Musgrave, Liselotte Kristian, F N Souza; all these disparate lives had serendipitously intersected in London, only to discover they weren’t disparate souls. They shared a sense of dispossession and a reformer’s zeal, which at times bordered on the anarchic. Both Musgrave and Souza were deeply disturbed by race riots in fifties Britain. In a departure from his usual subject matter, Souza painted Negro in Mourning, 1957.

Negro in Mourning, F.N. Souza

Negro in Mourning, F.N. Souza. Image Credit: http://www.bmagic.org.uk/objects/1999P10

Souza was married to Maria Figueirado. Liselotte had never technically divorced from her marriage to Richard. Souza and she proceeded to Paris, in what was to be their honeymoon, living for 2 months on £100 between them, cooking on a spirit-stove in their hotel room. Liselotte had worked in television and had played a small part in a film. She fell pregnant while in Paris.

Do you remember him as a father or an artist? I ask.

“He was very affectionate… There are certain artists,” Francesca says to me, “their entire life and their work, their life’s mission, it’s inseparable.”

Souza was totally consumed by his art. His relationship with Liselotte swung between euphoria and despair. Almost overnight and unannounced, he sunk into the oblivion of alcohol. The normalcy of family, which Liselotte had so craved for, dissipated into an unpredictable and often violent relationship.

Despite the drinking, the next few years proved to be enormously successful for Souza. He had five shows at Gallery One. The last one in 1961 at North Audley Street, where Musgrave had shifted the gallery, was hugely successful and in many ways marked the pinnacle of his career. But his relationship with Liselotte had all but collapsed. (Although in a 1958 letter to Victor Musgrave, he still writes lovingly of her). Shortly afterwards, Souza married Barbara Zinkant. In 1967, he left for America.

I bid farewell to the sisters and climb down the old-fashioned stairwell, contemplating what Francesca said, “He was a genius…what he will end up being remembered for is his work, that’s what will stay.”

Selma Carvalho is the author of Into the Diaspora Wilderness, and Project Manager of the Oral Histories of British-Goans Project.

Black on Black: F. N.Souza, Race and Creativity in Post-War Britain

Ambika Rajgopal of Saffronart shares a note on the panel discussion centered around F. N. Souza’s Black on Black Paintings at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

London: The frenetic, art enriched environment of the Frieze week bought with it an intensely engaging evening at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. The panel discussion drew together three different academics; all tied together through their knowledge of the prolific Indian artist Francis Newton Souza. The speakers: Gilane Tawadros, the Founding Director at Iniva, London; Zehra Jumabhoy, PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art; and Philip Vann, an art historian from Cambridge analysed how Souza’s paintings fit into debates about Black-ness in British Art from the 1960s onwards.

This discussion was timed to coincide with Grosvenor Gallery’s exhibition, F.N Souza: Black on Black Paintings, which was on view till 28 October. A selection of the Black on Black Paintings were also featured in their gallery’s booth at the Frieze Masters. The exhibition attempts to resurrect Souza’s 1966 exhibition Black Art and Other Paintings at Grosvenor Gallery. Since then, this is the first time these black monochromatic works have been presented together. Created in London, between 1964 and 1965, these artworks marked a significant period in Souza’s career.

Black is the most mysterious of all colours. Renoir found it impossible and said a spot of black was like a hole in the painting. I cannot agree: colour is now disturbing in a bad way. –F. N. Souza, Paint it Black, Review of Black Art and Other paintings, The Observer, May 15, 1966

The panel discussion discussed Souza’s amalgamation of Indian modernism with the Post-War climate of grimness as the source of inspiration of his Black Paintings. Souza’s time in London, from 1949 to 1967, involved spending a great deal of time at the National Gallery, confronted by works of European masters, most notably Rembrandt, Vermeer and Goya. Some critics think that Francisco de Goya’s Pinturas Negras or black paintings, painted in the final years of the Spanish artist’s lifetime, had an enormous influence on Souza’s Black Paintings. Other critics argue that it was Ad Reinhardt, who also did a series of black works, who influenced Souza. Though the source of inspiration behind these works is disputed, one thing that stands clear is Souza’s intention to jolt the consciousness of the viewer.

Another important aspect of Souza’s work that the discussion brought to light was the role that race played in the creation of his Black Paintings. Souza’s work existed in the structural framework of Post-War British politics. At this time incidents like the Notting Hill race riots of 1957 and general discriminatory attitudes towards non- British perhaps played in the mind of Souza. His paintings could be seen as the culmination of his interest in the politics of colour.

Stylistically difficult to execute, as well as view, these works provide a dimension to the artist’s own troubled life which was filled with financial difficulties and personal problems. This body of work requires a lot of participation on part of the viewer in order to reveal itself. The interaction between the light and the textured brushstrokes require a certain angle, which can be caught by the eye only when viewed from certain positions. Souza’s partner at the time, Barbara Zinkant wrote, “Souza would place lamps around the paintings and would view them from different angles”

The talk provided a structural framework through which Souza’s Black Paintings could be viewed. The discussion was followed by a question and answer session, which was led by the Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Professor Deborah Swallow. The audience engaged in the discussion by providing alternate points of view to the discussion.

The Drawings of Souza and Picasso – a Meeting of Two Artistic Giants

Guest blogger, Sabah Mathur reports on a recent lecture at the British Museum on the Drawings of Souza and Picasso

The British Museum, London

The British Museum, London

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.

Francis Newton Souza Six Gentlemen of Our Times

Francis Newton Souza, Six Gentlemen of Our Times, 1955
Image credit: WORDS & LINES , by Francis Newton Souza (First published in 1959)

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.

Picasso & Souza Talk_1

Les Damoiselles D’Avignon by Pablo Picasso Young Ladies in Belsize Park by Franic Newton Souza

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.”

Souza's drawings

(Left) Two Women Seated by Picasso, 1970 and (Right) Souza’s Woman on a Sofa, 1962
Image credit: Francis Newton Souza Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art by Aziz Kurtha, Grantha Corporation, 2006

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.


Picasso’s Femme au Chapeau and Souza’s Untitled (Head of Picasso).
Image credit: http://www.vadehraart.com/exhibition/viewDetails/76/1843?pages=2

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.

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