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Last Supper and Other Tales.

Francis Newton Souza was a pioneering contemporary artist from Goa, and one of the fimnders of Bombay's Progressive Artists' Group. Shortly before his death, the veteran artist shared studio space with Baiju Parthan during a residency at Seven Degrees Studios and Gallery Combo in Laguna Beach, southern California. Remembering the days he spent with Souza and their discussions on his life' and work, Parthan narrates their conversations on various subjects--from the strong Catholic influences of Souza's childhood to the developments of his style and the controversies that have surrounded him.

In August 2001, exactly eight months before Francis Newton Souza passed away, I had the good fortune of spending some quality time with him while sharing studio space and working together.

As it happens often, the sudden change of environment, a dislocation of moorings, though discomforting can bring about a much clearer view of priorities and the various modes of one's self as it grapples with the world around. For me in the year 2001, to be transported across the Pacific from the smothering steaminess of post-monsoon Mumbai to the super-wide highways and the gasoline-tinged dry air of southern California qualified as a major dislocation.

But this was a change of environment I had been looking forward to, as I was going to spend my time in a residency programme that would allow me, as one of the younger Indian contemporary artists, to interact with a prominent artist belonging to the earlier generation of modern Indian masters. The residency was conceived and implemented by Saffronart, a leading art auction house in Mumbai, and Apparao Galleries of Chennai, with Seven Degrees Studios and Gallery combo in Laguna Beach, southern California as the location.

As it turned out F.N. Souza was the senior artist chosen for the residency, which made me a little apprehensive, him being the mastermind and the architect of the historically significant Progressive Artists' Group, and also because of his reputation as a rather mercurial person and a temperamental artist. So it was with some amount of trepidation that I waited for "Souza" as he is referred to within the artist community, while trying not to sink deeper into a feeling of disconnect and anxiety.

But as it turned out my fears were misplaced, because the person I met did not exactly fit the image of the enfant terrible, the maverick iconoclast painter featured in all those anecdotes circulating within the art world. There in front of me at the arrival lounge of Los Angeles International Airport was a diminutive elderly gentleman with a slightly lost expression. Probably age had mellowed him, I thought, but as we negotiated by road the thirty-odd miles to Seven Degrees Studios, I could see that his incisive wit and sharp intellect were still very much active.

It took me a while to grasp the secret behind Souza's characteristic outrageous statements which are often laced with graphic sexual content. I found that this was his technique for gauging people around him instantaneously. He would loft one of his colourful and spicy statements into the conversational space and study the response of the person or persons at the receiving end. Having fine-tuned this awesome technique through years of regular use, he could get a full picture of the emotional and intellectual makeup of his target in a jiffy by evaluating the response. I also noticed that if one managed to pass this test, then his attitude would change and he would instantaneously transform into a very amiable and witty person. And from then on he would be an open book, you could ask him the most embarrassingly personal question, and he would graciously answer you, not withholding anything at all. I guess I must have somehow passed this test, and we became buddies, with him insisting that I call him "Francis" from then on.

"Enroll in the damn it school!"

Almost as an act of initiation into friendship, Souza revealed to me his "Damn it school of thought". In his words: "I originated this school of thinking. It dismisses everyone and everything which are disagreeable! You have no idea how well it works! Just say, 'Dammit' or 'Damn it', and you are in the clear, no hassle, no recrimony, no guilt, no problem. Life is not for brooding. ..."

As such there were a multitude of areas of interest where Souza and I could have disagreed vehemently, and once in a while we did indeed. For instance he would argue, "The word 'post modern' is a misnomer. Modern Art is not over as yet. Modernism has extrapolated into globalization ...", and I would disagree. At the level of actual practice my art revolves around media and processed imagery that are fields of information, while Souza's practice adheres to modernist formal devices. Yet, those differences never mattered.

"Infinity is ubiquitous!"

We spent time together discussing everything under the sun, not as artists talking shop but as individuals attempting to comprehend the "real" that exists beyond the ambit of the socialized reality. Though we did disagree on the finer details of what exactly defines human existence and what is the place of art in it, we would agree that in reality our experience is confined to the limits of human reasoning and perception. His favourite observation was "Infinity is ubiquitous!" He seemed quite proud of the way he was able to resolve the inherent contradiction of our experience of time and the timeless that is infinity in one comprehensive formula, and I heard that statement coming forth on many occasions. In some ways it reminded me of British artist and poet William Blake's statement "Once the doors of perception are cleaned, there is only infinity."

The fact is today we have got accustomed to gauging the importance or relevance of a contemporary artist from the degree of social awareness and commitment he or she can display through their work. But as existential beings striving to inject life with significance, artists in their private reality tend to invoke metaphysical constructs such as Infinity, Nature, or communion with a Platonic numinous space where ideas and inspiration dwell, or something in a similar vein, as their raison d'etre and source of motivation.

"Fame, recognition, and money are all incidental to that core concern."

I could fully relate to this sentiment, because at a point in my life I came to believe, very much like Bruce Sterling, the American cyberpunk author, that all those who have made the pursuit of artistic or creative expression their way of life are haunted by a numinous but moody sense of their potential. It is an intangible opaque presence that dangles a tantalizing promise in front of your eyes, without ever revealing its true scope. And you are given just one choice, to lead a life driven by the need to explore this occluded presence and the terrain it occupies, or to ignore it and live a life saturated with regret, constantly wondering what could have been if only one had had the daring to pursue that veiled presence. I think I chose to pursue art only because I feared that otherwise I would be wallowing in a life filled to the brim with regret. Also art was an act of rebellion as well of not wanting to conform to the tried and tested and readily accepted ways of life I could see around me. What really forged my friendship with Souza was that we fully agreed on this particular facet of art making, of haying a sense of destiny and art being a rebellion. He would assert that all else--the fame, recognition, and money--is incidental to that core concern.

I would assume that it is this particular drive to rebel and to question and demolish established norms and dogmatic structures that prompted him to draw up the manifesto for the Progressive Artists' Group or PAG in 1930. The artists who belonged to the PAG went on to transform the Indian art scene. They prepared the stage and provided the impetus for all the experimental and iconoclastic art activity that came into being post-Independence. Also his success in forging a visual language that had universal appeal and acceptance made Souza the first modern Indian artist to get mainstream international exposure within the British art scene along with giants like Francis Bacon and Donald Sutherland.

Suffering and Faith

Souza's paintings do show a range of influences including the folk art of his homeland Goa, the expansiveness of Renaissance art and 18th- and 19th-century European landscape painting. But his core pictorial language is a composite of Pablo Picasso's neoclassical period and the work of French Fauve painter Georges Rouault. Souza probably felt a certain affinity and kinship towards Rouault's work due to its resonance with his own personal history as well as preoccupations. Raised as a Catholic, Rouault worked mostly with allegorical and biblical images and themes, reflecting human suffering and the struggle to hold on to faith.

Souza's own past of being born in a Goan Catholic household, then facing a sequence of traumatic events (including losing his father and being stricken with smallpox at an early age) which shaped his attitude towards religion and faith, surely resonated with that of Rouault. The fascination with the suffering of Christ and the struggle to understand faith was something Souza shared with Rouault. Consequently, the signature colour application of Rouault, where pure pigment is placed within sturdy lines and contours reminiscent of the translucent stained-glass tesserae held within the black lead grid, was co-opted by Souza and made his own.

Eros and Thanatos, Life and Death

Being the most visible artistic phenomenon of the time, Picasso did cast his influence on Souza as well. For Souza, Picasso's neoclassical figuration became the answer to his quest for a universally acceptable pictorial language. It was a very judicious and deliberate choice of adopting a recognizable formal language that would take his art further out into the world. Also, it provided a ready visual vocabulary of sorts which Souza explored and expanded through his own work.

Picasso's neoclassical period which came into being following the upheaval of World War I, is generally considered to be his most expressive phase. It was during this period that the Minotaur figure replaced the Harlequin as a common motif in his work. The Minotaur is a mythic figure from Greek mythology, a composite creature with the head of a bull on the body of a man, basically a chthonic entity belonging to the nether world.

Most of the male heads which Souza painted throughout his career apparently contain a reflection of the Minotaur in the extreme distortion and an almost surrealist deformation of the visage, making these representations hover somewhere on the borderline between beastliness and pathos. By contrast the majority of female torsos and feminine personages abundantly present in Souza's oeuvre are voluptuous to a fault and simultaneously ethereal in their demeanour. The probable reason for this deliberate staging of gender differences could be Souza's personal philosophy that came to light as we spent time together. It derived from the classical Greek notion of the world as strung between the struggle for supremacy between Eros (Life) and Thanatos (Death). At a very personal level he was convinced that Eros would always triumph over Thanatos, else the world would have ceased to exist long ago, simply because death would have overrun it. And his own personal life, where his notorious amorous disposition played a significant role, was him deliberately championing the cause of Eros.

The masculine Minotaur-like figures in his paintings seem to embody the principle of Thanatos while the erotic feminine evidently reflects Eros. The numerous paintings depicting couples where the Aphrodite-like feminine is confronted, scrutinized, observed and coveted by the distorted Minotaur-like male figures depict the tension of' the confrontation between these eternal adversaries--Eros and Thanatos, life and death.

There are quite a few self-portraits which too bring out this particular presence by peeling away the facade of socialization and civility to reveal the primeval force that battles with all life. Interestingly the last self-portrait Souza produced in 2001, while at the residency, is significant as it is purged of any hint of distortion or the Minotaur alter-ego. On the contrary, it is an uncharacteristically beatific depiction of himself. In retrospect, it appears as though he had finally resolved the contradictions in his life and was totally at peace. I clearly remember that he was pleased with what came across in that particular self-portrait.

Once the residency was done, we parted with the promise of catching up again, and I met Souza in Mumbai in March 2002 along with his companion and muse Srimati Lal. And we had a wonderful time, having lunch and sharing a few laughs together. That turned out to be our last meeting.

Francis Newton Souza with Baiju Parthan
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Title Annotation:Conversation
Author:Souza, Francis Newton
Publication:Marg, A Magazine of the Arts
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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