India Today

Guts and Glory

An ongoing exhibition in Mumbai reveals F.N. Souza as both an iconograph­er and an iconoclast

- —Shaikh Ayaz

f.N. Souza once said, “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.” Walking into the Jehangir Nicholson Art Foundation (JNAF) gallery at the CSMVS museum in Mumbai, Souza’s words make more sense. On display until January 3, 2022, the exhibition F.N. Souza: The Power and the Glory can take one’s breath away. Your eyes are immediatel­y drawn to ‘Death of a Pope’. In JNAF director Puja Vaish’s view, it is the show’s “indispensa­ble centrepiec­e”. Painted in 1962, it recreates— rather “satirises,” as the exhibition’s curator Ranjit Hoskote puts it—Pope Pius XII’s death.

Souza, Hoskote says, based his rendition (see pic) on a newspaper photograph of the Pope Pius XII, whose papacy was forever tainted by his actions during World War II. Not only had he turned a blind eye to the Holocaust, he had also earlier signed a treaty with the Nazis. A “savage take on religious authority”, ‘Death of a Pope’ is being shown alongside 16th and 18th century Christian relics and objects from Goa’s Portuguese past, which underscore Souza’s conflicted relationsh­ip with his own Roman Catholic roots.

Francis Newton Souza was born in Saligao in 1924. Though he spent extended periods of his life in Bombay, London and New York, the

childhood experience of his native Goa dominated his imaginatio­n till the end of his life. The sacred and the profane are the contradict­ory forces that give his art its pulsating thrust. He was known for twisting saints to look like sinners. On the other end of the spectrum stood landscapes of harrowing power with deserted church-towns and erotic female nudes.

Expelled from St Xavier’s College and later from the Sir J.J. School of Art for participat­ing in the Quit India movement, Souza would soon go on to become the paterfamil­ias of another movement, one that shook up the art world. As co-founder of the influentia­l Bombay Progressiv­e Artists’ Group—that included M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and K.H. Ara, among others—Souza was seen as the resident wizard of the post-Independen­ce Indian art scene, and also, at times, its ‘enfant terrible’.

Stray persecutio­n for his ‘obscene’ art, combined with a personal ambition to find a larger audience, prompted Souza to move to London in 1949. While in India, he was the quintessen­tial misunderst­ood artist, but the West was quick to recognise his genius, says Dadiba Pundole, who has lent 13 works to the JNAF show from his family collection. Later, in 1969, he relocated to New York where he experiment­ed with chemical alteration, a process that further distorted his grotesque figures. “These works are vital in our show, because they attest to his turbulent relationsh­ip to the image—he was both iconograph­er and iconoclast, a maker of fierce and memorable images, and a destroyer of images given readymade by establishe­d religion and by the culture of consumeris­t capital,” says Hoskote.

Though Souza’s output remained prolific, he was beset by alcoholism and failed marriages. The artist’s last years were particular­ly bitter, claims Pundole. “He was frustrated because he felt he didn’t get the success he deserved,” he says, even as peers such as Husain, Akbar Padamsee and Raza were gaining repute across Indian and European markets.

Souza had once declared, “Now that Picasso is dead, I am the greatest.” Yet it was only after his own death in 2002 at age 77, that the commercial valuation of his work shot up dramatical­ly. Today, Souza’s darkly mysterious art is instantly identifiab­le and, certainly, expensive. But this is precisely the narrative that F.N. Souza: The Power and the Glory seeks to challenge. While calling him a “whiskey priest”—a nod to Graham Greene’s protagonis­t in the 1940 novel The Power and the Glory— to hint at the tension between the blasphemou­s and blessed in Souza’s personalit­y, Hoskote goes on to emphasise that the exhibition “is an invitation to respond to Souza once again, afresh, viscerally and critically, in nuanced ways—an attempt to rescue him from the kind of uncritical miasma that shrouds an artist, once s/he begins to do well at auction”. ■

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 ?? ?? SHAKING THINGS UP (clockwise from top) ‘Death of a Pope’ (1962); ‘Still Life with Eggs’ (1984); ‘Landscape in Red’ (1961); and a portrait of F.N. Souza by Oswald Jones
SHAKING THINGS UP (clockwise from top) ‘Death of a Pope’ (1962); ‘Still Life with Eggs’ (1984); ‘Landscape in Red’ (1961); and a portrait of F.N. Souza by Oswald Jones
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