'Souza Painted Hell': A Review of his Legacy

 By Jugneeta Sudan

Souza painted ‘Hell’.  

Sartre said, ‘Hell is other people’, but Souza’s art laid bare the hell inside human beings that makes individual lives hell, which in turn is then visited on other people.

No doubt the world today is mired in war, terrorism and hate. Animal instinct versus human intellect has dogged the human race all along its evolutionary history. Human history started with Stone Age man devising methods to overcome his animal nature for better living. Using his brain, man has come a long way. Overpowering land, sky and earth, he has performed unimaginable feats. But the duality of his inner landscape, source of his intellect, as also his irrational energy catches him unawares, rendering him miserable and powerless.

Souza spent his childhood in this house in Saligao, his mother Lilia Souza e Ribeiro's ancestral house, where he was often left in the custody of his grandmother Leopoldina Saldanha Antunes. It was a household dominated by women and Souza felt adrift in it.

Souza spent his childhood in this house in Saligao, his mother Lilia Souza e Ribeiro's ancestral house, where he was often left in the custody of his grandmother Leopoldina Saldanha Antunes. It was a household dominated by women and Souza felt adrift in it.

The human brain still remains largely unmapped, but illuminating studies by Sigmund Freud, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and the art of Leonardo da Vinci, Van Gogh, Egon Schiele, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Francis Bacon and F N Souza is a revelation into the dark recesses of the ‘Walnut’.  

“I have made art my metabolism. I express myself freely in paint in order to exist ...” wrote Souza of his credo as a painter in the 1940s. “When I press a tube I coil. Every brush stroke makes me recoil like a snake struck with a stick. I hate the smell of paint. Painting for me is not beautiful. It is ugly like a reptile …”

The controversial alter ego of Souza pulls and repels in equal measure. His first persona of a Goan-born Indian artist and a pioneer member of the Bombay Progressive Artist Group (PAG) is regarded well in the art world. He led Indian art after independence and imparted it a modernist idiom. A good writer with a powerful language, he became the spokesman of the PAG. He worked on a manifesto in which he stated, “They wanted to take art away from the sophisticated arty-arty crowd”.

But his sojourn in Britain regressed from being a bright star of the British art scene in the 50’s to an experimental artist mired by scandal and the wrong colour of his skin. “Was the scandal that rocked the art establishment in London in the 60’s one where Souza became a scapegoat for artists' wayward lifestyles or was it racism?” wrote Conor Macklin, the director of Grosvenor Gallery, London, referring to his marriage in 1965 to Barbara Zinkant, just 17 years old at the time. Soon after, Souza migrated to New York and lived long years in obscurity interspersed with few surfacing expositions.

“The 1976 Dhoomimal Gallery exhibition of FN Souza art, inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sold just one painting by Souza,” says Uday Jain, the director of the gallery. European art critics at best called his art derivative and  Jassawalla lamented, “the near indifference to his death - the mealy-mouthed praise” in an obituary.  

What is it about his painting, that he scaled just a couple of peaks during his lifetime? What makes viewers and art collectors uneasy when confronted by his art ? 

"Unlike other artists, his nudes showed no restraint. We did a specially curated booth at the India Art Fair in 2013, and even then many collectors said they were not comfortable hanging his work at home," says Jain. “No one wanted to hang a painting in their dining room whose figures looked as if they were about to leap out of their milieu and throttle you while you were eating dinner”, said Souza's daughter Shelley.  

No doubt, his work is grotesque, giving a free rein to the beastliness inside humanity. It is this second persona of his, etched in bold dark lines, a flat brush stroke and vivid colours, in distorted nudes and disfigured heads that people reject. It greatly troubles them. 

MF Hussain went on record and called him the most intelligent artist of PAG. He led a life of the mind, completely immersed in writings by Darwin and Freud. He closely studied ancient ‘Indian temple art’ and Western art titans of the Renaissance and Baroque period.

“Good writers, even if they show every variety of human depravity, are still good human beings,” said Virginia Woolf. Applying the paradigm to artists, then Egon Schiele, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso and FN Souza were creative minds who lived more than other people in the presence of reality. Though their personal lives were mired by socio-moral controversies, they culled from life and circumstance what  others overlooked, curbed, or punished and communicated it in their art as best as they could.

This kind of art seems to perform a covert operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world stripped of its hypocrisy and given a more intense life. People see their psyche mirrored in the disfigured morphology of a ‘Souza Head’. His ‘Passion Series’ exposes punishment, injustice and cruelty behind altars of worship. His works on women echo Schiele’s female forms - no more demure and downcast – they mirror the psychological outlook of a masculine human mind.

Souza’s ‘Passion Series’

Inside the Mae de Deus Church in Saligao. This would have been Souza's first brush with Christianity. He was baptised in this church. The richness of its interiors no doubt would inspire his Passion art.

Inside the Mae de Deus Church in Saligao. This would have been Souza's first brush with Christianity. He was baptised in this church. The richness of its interiors no doubt would inspire his Passion art.

Brought up in a Catholic family; he was exposed to Christian iconography from early  childhood. When he moved to Europe in August 1949, he saw the grand scale of art and sculpture mirroring Christian religious myths. He went on to paint the complete ‘Passion Series’ from the ‘Agony of Christ at Gethsemane’ to ‘Christ at Emmaus’. The critically acclaimed painting ‘Good Friday at Goa’ also forms a part of this series. “Souza died on ‘Good Friday’ and he got the pain and agony of crucifixion”, says Julian Hartnoll, art dealer and Souza’s contemporary.

Souza etched Jesus not as a divine figure, but as a human - fearful, sad and anguished. He made the scenes palpable with tragedy and trauma. People can identify with the tragedy, based on their own experiences in life. ‘Art reflects life, life reflects art’ paradigm brings them closer to Christ’s story. God is no longer distant, divine, and majestic. He is like us. He suffers, His spirit fights with His weak flesh. He goes through torment and battles to rise above His emotions, to meet His destiny. Here besides the other ‘Passion Artists’ of the 20th century, parallels can be drawn with the religious paintings (Christ riven with thorns and nails) of Bernard Buffet, whose fame dipped in the 50s’ as Souza’s rose to acclaim.

On the other hand, Souza’s paintings also indicate human apathy and cruelty. As Plato said, the analogy with Christ is that the best amongst us, the wisest, the noblest, the purest, the most righteous, we put to death.

Souza Heads

Souza’s ghoulish heads go back a long way in artistic history to Leonardo da Vinci’s mutant heads. The renaissance artist who constantly ‘doodled heads’ to comprehend the irrational in there. A raging storm prevails - the psychic terror, dread, fear – its dark – the unknowable. Uncertainty, aggression and lust born out of this unconscious scape drives men to violence and cruelty.

Francis Bacon’s ‘heads’ are legendary. Diego Velázquez's Portrait of Innocent X and three heads at the base of crucifixion are examples that create a context for Souza’s heads – be it in his ‘Passion Series’ or self-portraits. His sketch ‘Head (Angst)’ 1968, embodies alienation and anxiety echoing the existentialism and absurdism of Sartre and Camus in post-war world.

Souza’s ‘Futuritic/Mutant Heads’ may also have been influenced by his study of the American Scientist, Sanford Redmond’s thesis of ‘Nature in an Altered Perspective’. The scientific climate in the 60s to the 80s (spaceflight, landing on the moon, study of DNA) greatly impinged his mind – “It progressively turned me upside down and inside out.” (F.N. Souza, Diary, 4 June 1984).  

Thereby nature became his ‘Sole Principle, the principle of Life itself.’ His narrative became allegorical, imaginative and expressed altered energy patterns in head and body morphology. He synthesized ancient Hindu Sankhya Philosophy with Modern Scientific Theory. Further his sketches (especially the later chemical drawings) seem to indicate evolvement of the human head from ‘chaotic mass’ to ‘alternative energy patterns’.

Souza’s Figurative Art  

Souza’s deconstructed  images  are controversial and deny its viewers a precise  interpretation. Bitterness, misogyny and masochism bind his couples in an agonizing dance. He explores the sadistic play at work in these so called clichéd happily-ever-after love unions. The pain and torment explicit in the facial expressions and body language of the figures is indicative of the inner struggle with ego and demonic sexual energy.  

However, there is no denying the fact that the irresistible, irrepressible and incorrigible Souza, began his career by sketching his mother and himself in the nude in different episodes. His nudes were revoked by the public from the very beginning. The Bombay Art Society exhibition (1949) displaying his nude self-portrait was jeopardized by a protest. What people associated with shame, disgust, guilt and sin was being displayed in a bold colourful palette on his canvas. It was highly provocative and aggravating to the senses of a people brought up on a certain value system.

Here a comparison with Egon Schiele’s figurative art work would be most appropriate. His twisted body shapes etched in expressionistic brushstrokes relayed intensity and raw sexuality. Schiele, too, began with nude portraits of family first - of himself and his younger sister, Gertrude. Like Souza, he had been brought up in a family of women and was very close to his sister. His brushstroke is radical, and sketches open sexuality of human form with confidence. It’s as if he recognizes this potential energy very well, and paints it the way he perceives it, its power, eminence and despair.

Similarly Souza venerates sexual language of men and women in his portraits. His earlier nudes are voluptuous and erotic like the figurines in Lakshmana Temple in Khajuraho. Presently in light of scholarly studies by Vidya Dehejia and Cristin Mcknight on temple art and Dehejia’s writings, ‘The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries Between Sacred and Profane in India’s Art and ‘Reading Love Imagery on the Indian Temple’, Souza’s nudes acquire an interesting perspective.

Later works of his evoke the posture and style of Lajja Gauri, the Goddess of Shaktism cult, invoked for her auspiciousness, fertility and prosperity. An example in case, the pregnant nude in the painting ‘Birth’ is said to be Souza’s then partner Lisolette who bore him three children.

Souza seems to have internalized Freud and his Theory of Sexuality. There is a frontal thrust on the libidinous drive of humans in his work. Souza lived for the autonomy of art: 'A true artist can never be pressurized by society. His compelling art shirks off all pressure, except the pressure of Art. The main purpose of the artist is to evoke an elevated response. Then only is the work meaningful and not a daub.'  

His relentless energy fuelled and fired him to lay nature bare in all its truth. Many a times his works made the faces of women recede, and made their sexual body parts prominent, which in itself is a vociferous commentary on human perspective on women, as solely sexual subjects. His intense, distorted figurative art first portrays the length, breath and height of human sexual drive, so that knowing what one harbours, one may devise ways of dealing with it best. Moreover, we cannot overlook the fact, that Souza is expressing his own energy, that of the male species. It’s out and out a man’s point of view.

A woman on the other hand may have the same sexual drive as a man, but a major part of it may be mitigated  through the  biological process of childbirth, nursing and nurturing babies. Not to forget her monthly discharge of heat and bloody fluid, which in a natural form dissipates her sexual energy safely. But what of the man who is culturally conditioned to project his masculine self – powerful and forceful with balls of fire - repressing his feminine side altogether. What of him and his reservoir of sexual energy?

Shankar Vedantam puts it beautifully, “Good people are not those who lack flaws, the brave are not those who feel no fear, and the generous are not those who never feel selfish. Extraordinary people are not extraordinary because they are invulnerable to unconscious biases. They are extraordinary because they choose to do something about it.” And Souza’s work completely orients the viewer towards this construct.  

Jugneeta Sudan.png

Jugneeta Sudan is a writer and literary critic based in Goa. She writes a column, 'Art and Culture,' for the Navhind Times. She also contributes to Daily O', India Today Group. She keeps herself occupied with literature in dialogue with music, art, philosophy and theology. She is learning to live a poetic life with a marvellous kind of negative capability. Follow her blog here.