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Francis Newton Souza

by Ben Antao (1963 & 2002)

Introduction :

When I learned that Francis Newton Souza died last week, (he would have been 78 on April 12, 2002) my mind traveled back to the Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay in February of 1963 when Souza held a successful exhibition of his paintings.

I had interviewed him there for a feature article for The Navhind Times, the new English dail started in Panjim that very month. I grew curious to read what I had written about him, and wondered if I might be able to retrieve that article from the paper.

I sent a request to my good friend Dr. Jose Colaco of Nassau, who relayed the message to Gaspar Almeida of Kuwait, who in turn contacted Cecil Pinto of Panjim. And through this network via email, my curiosity has been satisfied within a week. I express my deepest appreciation to all the
principals involved, Ms. Lynn Pereira who copied the article by hand in the Central Library and then typed it.

I was 27 years old when I wrote that piece. Having reread it today, I feel there are two words in that 1000-word article that need clarification and explanation.

The first is the word 'genius' in the headline. In my studies in literary criticism, I'd discovered that the word genius carried a rare connotation. It's a word that I might use to characterize James Joyce and his novel Ulysses or Marcel Proust and his autobiographical novel In Search of Lost Time. This is because of the formidable breadth and depth of Proust's perception and of Joyce's narrative style.

I couldn't cope with the staggering genius of either of the twentieth century's celebrated novelists.

Something similar happened to me when I viewed Souza's paintings. Now I don' t pretend to understand his art at all. My knowledge of art was gleaned from readings in the university library-Renaissance painters, the Dutch Masters, French impressionists, English landscapes, and modern abstract and surrealistic art, as practised by Picasso and Dali.

So I decided I would try to understand the artist and thereby gain some insight into his art. I found Souza's work extremely difficult to like; it seemed to dwell beyond the pale of surrealism.

Souza, going on 39, was clad in dark trousers and a gray tweed jacket, without a tie. I watched him from a distance inside the Taj gallery, as he spoke to art aficionados and curious visitors. There was one huge canvas resembling a crucified Christ except that this figure had a third eye at the top of its forehead. The color of blood was dominant in all his paintings. With cautious hesitation, I went over to ask the man at the desk about the price of that oil painting. "Oh that," he said, "It's thirty thousand
rupees." Since I didn't know any better, I thought Souza must indeed be a genius.

The second word that needs clarification is amiable. From my readings I'd gathered that Souza was a hothead and an egotist. Later, after the gallery closed, Souza invited me to his room-a spacious drawing room worthy of the Taj Hotel. I became nervous and focused my questions on his Goan heritage.

He kept his voice soft and friendly, but his dark eyes were sharp and probing. "Your roots are where you plant them," he told me. And I was immediately convinced. During the interview, he treated me with a graciousness that celebrities bestow upon the young and the untalented.

My article was published in the Sunday edition of Navhind Times, April 28, 1963. Two months later, I resigned from my job at the Bombay Port Trust and came to Goa. Lambert Mascarenhas, co-editor, hired me as a reporter.

I sent a copy of the article to Souza at his London address. Souza replied, complimenting me. He ended his letter with this sentence in his carefully formed handwriting, "I am not a megalomaniac by nature, but do you think that an art gallery could be opened in Panjim displaying my paintings and
bearing my name?"

I showed the letter to Lambert. He grinned and laughed, and I chuckled Souza's irony did not escape me.

This has been a long introduction, but I felt I wanted to bring some sort of closure to the life of this Goan artist who dared to dream his own way and make a good living at it.

Ben Antao

Toronto, April 6, 2002

Francis Newton Souza :
Genius in the field of modern art

Bombay last month went into raptures over a Goan artist. He is 39 years old, Saligao-born, bearded Francis Newton Souza, whom art critics here and abroad have acclaimed a genius in the field of modern art. But there is nothing abstract or three-dimensional in the work of Souza, who is essentially original and individualistic, very much as he is in real life.

Souza came to Bombay with a high reputation as an artist. His last visit to India was in the year of grace (1960), after eleven years of trial and hard work in London. The exhibition of his paintings for the first time in Bombay at the Taj Art Gallery last month was very well received. It immediately placed Souza above all contemporary Indian artists, both in the matter of form and medium.

Indian art critics, who would not touch his paintings with a barge pole a couple of years ago, and who even passed him for a crank or charlatan, now hastily revised their opinions, showering on him paeans of praise.

Souza's depiction of the human form is not pleasing to the eye. Dark conceits and stark imagery are his stock-in-trade. He appears to distort the face deliberately in order to achieve grandeur through ugliness.

Drawing a contrast between Renaissance painters and his own method, he says "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."

His nudes convey the impression of disillusion and despair, the sad satiety that seems usually to accompany violent delights and excitements.

The viewer is at once awe-struck and forewarned. "I often try to paint a bad picture, and I bloody well succeed," says Souza and goes on to describe: "I started using more than two eyes, numerous eyes and fingers on my paintings and drawings of human figure when I realized what it meant to have the superfluous and so not need the necessary. Why should I be sparse and parsimonious when not only this world, but worlds in space are open to me? I have everything to use at my disposal. I leave discretion, understatement, discrimination to the finicky and the lunatic fringe. In any case, I have never counted the number of teeth I've drawn in grinning mouths. So what of a few extra eyes, fingers, etc...?"

Souza is one of the few amiable men I have been privileged to meet. Obviously irritated by the suggestion made at a function that he should recognize his roots and fall back upon them, Souza minced no words when he told me that there was no such thing as having roots in one country.

"Roots need water from clouds forming over distant seas, and from rivers having sources in different lands," he said and added that one's roots lay where one's home was.

"I have a house and property in London, but not a square inch of land in Assolna," he stressed. With the space all but conquered a time might come when we would have to take our roots in space, he argued, and deplored the tendency among Indians to think in terms of province, caste and languages.

Souza is pleased with his work and its reward. He said he was one of the highest paid artists in London today, perhaps the highest. People considered it a `sound investment' to buy his paintings. Culled from his notebook: "I make more money from my paintings than the Prime Minister makes from his politics."

Souza learned the elements of painting and drawing in Sir J.J. School of Art, Bombay. In September 1945, before the completion of his course, he was expelled from the school. Far from discouraged (he said he felt 'free') he kept on painting and the very first painting he did after his expulsion was bought by Dr. Herman Goetz, an authority on painting, for the Baroda Museum.

The following year he entered pictures for the Bombay Art Society's annual exhibition, only to find them rejected. In 1947, however, the same Bombay Art Society not only accepted his painting, but awarded him a prize as well. In the same year, he founded the Progressive Artists' Group, of which the first members were Ara, Bakre, Gade, Husain and Raza.

Arriving in London in July 1949 to make his mark as a painter, Souza, like most artists, found the going tough for a while. Here he met the poet Stephen Spender who, Souza writes in his book Words and Lines, helped him find his bearings, and also bought his paintings, Incidentally, Spender has helped and encouraged many budding Indian writers and artists. One such is Dom Moraes who is now settled in London.

Since 1953, he has had exhibition of his paintings all over the continent, the U.S.A and Brazil. In 1957 he won a prize at the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition. Art critic David Sylvester wrote in the New Statesman in 1957: "The importance of Souza, the young Goan painter, is that he has crossed the Indian bazaar painting with the Picasso style to produce a manner that is at once individual and consistent."

Edwin Mullins, in his book F.N. Souza has this to say about him. "Souza's treatment of the figurative image is richly varied. Besides the violence, the eroticism and the satire, there is a religious quality about his work, which is medieval in its simplicity and in its unsophisticated sense of wonder. Some of the most moving of Souza's paintings are those which convey a spirit of awe in the presence of a divine power--a God, who is not a God of gentleness and love, but rather of suffering, vengeance and terrible grandeur, which even Rouault and Sutherland have not equaled in this century".

His immediate plans are to hold two exhibitions--one in London and the other in Bombay, which will be eight months hence.

© 2002 Ben Antao




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