31 Mar 2024  |   05:27am IST

Souza, Again

Vivek Menezes

Just in time for his 100th birthday on April 12, the brilliant one-of-a-kind son of Saligao and all-time great artist Francis Newton Souza is back in the headlines. On March 20 at Christie’s auction house in New York, 36 of the late master’s artworks sold for almost 20 million dollars, with a new record set by the 1960 oil on board The Lovers at $4,890,000. Even as his centenary is being disgracefully overlooked by both state and country – this is nothing new – the vast sums of money Souza’s paintings continue to attract only further underline his singular importance to Indian art in the 20th century and beyond. 

I was lucky to get to know Souza in the 1990s, in New York City. He entered my life an irascible, twinkling-eyed, highly compelling shamanistic figure who lived an almost derelict existence, surrounded by stacks of paintings that only he believed were an inestimable treasure. Lit from within by pure genius – I recognized it immediately – he also exuded a distinct noble pathos that lingers in my mind very strongly. It is as the great John Berger wrote in memoriam: “After 40 years, I still have a vivid memory of Souza’s presence, as embodied in both his paintings and his person. If I had to sum up that presence, I would say it was that of a martyr. The confrontation within him between pain and voluptuousness, fury and calm, are comparable, I believe, to those often discovered in martyrdom.”

Berger witnessed what I think is Souza’s high point in his high-strung journey of sheer determination from Portuguese Goa in the 1920s to chief instigator of the Progressive Artist’s Group in Bombay in 1947, directly towards the global nerve centres of modern art in the West and the annals of art history. They met in London, where the young artist migrated with the support of his first wife Maria, who was a decade older and one of his original collectors. It was hard going for some time, but lightning struck in 1955: Souza left Maria and their young daughter Shelley for Liselotte Kristian, an actress who had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. The disruption also opened up another world for him in bohemian London (where the poet Dom Moraes was another fixture), and he soon published an essay that would make him famous called ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’ in an important magazine called Encounter, which was edited by the famous English poet Stephen Spender. A few months later, this pioneer from Goa had an historic sold-out exhibition at Victor Musgrave’s seminal taste-making Gallery One. The first great modern artist of India was born.

The Lovers comes from that Gallery One show in 1955, and appeared in an oft-cited monograph by Edwin Mullins in 1962, which represents impeccable provenance in the veritable ocean of dubious and fake Souzas that otherwise plagues the marketplace, especially but not exclusively in India, and including from what you might be given to think are respectable art galleries, dealers and auction houses. Given this rare opportunity to handle an unquestionably major work, however, it is extremely disappointing to see how much of Christie’s lot essay is pure drivel, which is just another indicator how badly scholarship about this most important artist continues to lag far behind his sale prices. To my mind, for just one example, it’s quite absurd to claim about the painting you see on this page that “The present lot spectacularly combines the artist’s fascination with religion and sex, his commentary on the Church and his exploration of the theme of lovers, into a single harmonious composition.”

There’s no point on further picking on Christie’s of course, even if there is lots more that is equally hapless in their text, because it was swallowed up eagerly along with the painting for nearly five million dollars, which is the only thing that really matters to them and their clients. 

But what about Souza’s interests? I often think about how my friend would have been considerably richer if he had survived to celebrate his centenary alongside his equally amazing friend Libby Lobo Sardessai (they were neighbours while growing up at Crawford Market in Bombay) but I doubt very much that he would recant what he wrote in A Fragment of Autobiography, published in Words & Lines by Villiers in London in 1959: “Better had I died. Would not have had to bear an artist’s tormented soul, create art in a country that despises her artists and is ignorant of her heritage.” 

By the time I met him in his 70s, in the pattern of so many other great self-exiled Goan artists and intellectuals – the close friends Bakibab Borkar and Angelo da Fonseca in Poona in the 1950s comes to mind – Souza had long since liberated himself from the expectations of others, and worked directly to the impress of history. He told me in one of his characteristically ebullient letters that “I am doomed to paint” but in fact it was his very being. As he wrote in Words & Lines: “I have made my art a metabolism. I express myself freely in paint in order to exist. I paint what I want, what I like, what I feel. When I begin to paint I am wrapped in myself, rapt; unaware of chromium cars and decollete debutantes, wrapped like a foetus in the womb, only aware that each painting for me is either a milestone or a tombstone.”

Souza and I knew each other in the period when Indians were just getting their foothold into the senior ranks of corporate America, and it was that fraction which started modern and contemporary Indian art prices on the upswing by powering a series of high-profile auctions into the first decade of the 21st century. When that process began, Souza’s prices were way behind even younger artists like Satish Gujral and Anjoli Ela Menon, but the more worldly NRIs – sensitised to art by the great museums of the West – immediately pivoted to him. Two decades later, nothing has changed.

(Vivek Menezes is a writer and co-founder of the Goa Arts and Literature Festival)


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