Francis Newton Souza was born in Goa, India, in 1924. He is one of the most influential artists in the Indian art world. In his childhood he attended St. Xavier’s High School then runs by Jesuit priests. It was the time when he learned about paintings, drawings and explores the oleographs, prints, and pictures imported from Europe. He was expelled from the school for drawing pornographic images in the school lavatories.
He later enrolled at Sir J.J. School of Art in Bombay. Here, he was suspended with other 21 students for joining Gandhi’s Quit India movement. On the day of his suspension, he produced The Blue Lady (1945) it was the work that was completely different from his other previous works. He painted this masterpiece with a palette knife while squeezing paint direct from the tube to the canvas. He chooses not to return to college school for further study.
When we look back in 1947 when India got freedom from the British, Souza joined India’s Communist Party and co-founded Progressive artists’ group. However, the other five members of the group were having different artistic and work styles; they became able to develop a language for modern Indian art. All the six members including Souza, M.F. Husain, S.K. Bakre, H.A. Gade, and S.H. Raza have created artworks that are compositions of Indian classical works and western innovation techniques.
In the late 1940s, Souza was involved in watercolors and Goan landscapes paintings. He was also illustrating the plights of the Indian poor. One of the most important paintings of that time is the Indian Family (1947); it is a painting depicting a family of four outside of a house with empty bowls at their feet, while fish and fruit sit atop a table inside the house behind them. He painted Pieta (1947) an oil painting featuring Virgin Mary.
Most of his paintings of this period were deeply influenced by the church. Souza exhibited many of these provocative paintings in the working-class colonies of Bombay. As he was a communist party member; he was hailed as a patriot and revolutionary in the Communist Party Paper- People’s Age. Despite this, he quitted Communist Party in 1949.
Struggle in London
It was 1949, Souza left Bombay for London for the more liberal audience and patronage for his works. It was a hard time for him (1949-1954) because it was the time after the Second World War and England was not the same. The economical and social fabric of the country was changed. He struggled a lot for the establishment of his works in the literary and artistic circle of London. His works were exploring controversial themes such as sex and religion which was not helping him in any good ways.
His early works failed to attract the attention of key London galleries and patrons. He decided to travel around Europe and to Paris. He reunited with S.H. Raza and Akbar Padamsee and met Pablo Picasso for the first time. His meeting with Picasso influenced him to do many freestyle works. Picasso’s works and personality inspired him and prove to be a defining moment for his career.
Meeting with Pablo Picasso
He painted Young Ladies From Belsize Park (1962), which was hugely influenced by Picasso’s style and African traditional art. It was one of the first times when he used cubism in his artworks. It was supposed to be inspired by Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) by Pablo Picasso.
Souza’s signature style
In his early years in Europe, he was deep inside his signature style of composition including eastern and western style, and motifs. During this period of F.N. Souza’s life, he was influenced by the eclectic array of sources from South Indian bronzes, Mathura’s Temple Sculptures, Khajuraho, Spanish Romanesque paintings, European old masters works, African Tribal works, Modernism, expressionism, and cubism.
First solo show in London
In Europe, it was hard for him to earn livelihood in his early 6 years. His first wife Maria was the only breadwinner for the family. He was struggling to support himself financially with his art and commission. He used his writing and journalism skills to help himself to fulfill his financial needs. In 1955, he published his semi-autobiographical essay, Nirvana of a Maggot. It was published by poet and influential editor Stephen Spender, in Encounter magazine. He also exhibited 3 of his paintings with Henry Moore and Francis Bacon in the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
This exhibition leads to many other exhibitions such as the exhibition at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One, which together with New Vision Centre, Signals, and Indica. These exhibitions helped him to be a defining artist in London. This leads him to the patrons and art critics who helped him to not only survive but fulfill his life as an artist on a grand scale. He got Bacon as his friend and even they share the model Henrietta Moraes and they started hanging out together at the Colony Club in Soho.
In July 1959, he published his semi-biographical essay Words and Lines. By the end of the year, Souza was considered among the most exciting painters in the city. Almost a decade of success and patronage followed.
After the 1950s, he got professional success in the art world although he started developing a reputation as a reprobate and a lothario. It was the time when he started drinking too much. Drinking was becoming one of the most prominent problems in his life. He increased his alcohol intake regularly.
While he had decreased his alcohol intake in 1960 but his career turned south. It all started with his second affair with a seventeen years girl Barbara Zinkant. She witnesses his split from Liselotte de Kristian with whom he has three daughters as well as his divorce from his then-wife Maria Souza. Commissions dried up, and in 1967 Souza immigrated to New York with Barbara, she had become his second wife in January 1965. In 1971, she gave birth to his son.
Souza’s years in America were arguably the most technically innovative of his career. He painted colorful cityscapes and landscapes of the places he visited. This new contemporary form of expressionism involved painting over or drawing onto pages torn from color magazines, catalogs, printed photographs, and newspapers, he was using chemicals to dissolve and manipulate the printer’s ink.
He was living in a small apartment in Manhattan. in 1977, his wife Barbara divorced him to marry her own extra-marital lover. In his mature years, Souza revisited his old style and motif. Souza returned to India after his second divorce and Srimati Lal was his mistress from 1993 till his death.
M.F. Husain recognized him as his mentor. In recent years, Souza’s paintings have been sold for over a million dollars. His painting Birth (1955), which was depicting Liselotte Kohn posing naked while pregnant was sold for US$2.5 million. In 2015, it was sold to the Kiran Nadar for US$4 million.
In June 2010 Christie’s held an auction of over 140 lots from the Souza estate. Many of Souza’s works fetched very high prices, some several times Christie’s estimates.
Dhoomimal Art Gallery Delhi is one of the largest collectors of Souza’s works.
Vikash Kalra is a self-taught artist & writer based in New Delhi whose work has been exhibited across India and is held in several private and corporate collections.