Francis Newton Souza (India, 1924-2002) Last Howl from the Cross
oil on canvas, signed and dated 63 upper left, the reverse marked with no. 2, cat. 15, no. 20, framed 155 x 107 cm.
Provenance: A gift from the artist to the vendor's parents in 1964, and by descent.
Exhibited: Grosvenor Gallery, London, "The Human and the Divine Predicament", 1964.
Some of Francis Newton Souzas most enduring images bear the influence of his Catholic upbringing. As a young boy growing up in the Portuguese colony of Goa, Newton suffered a bad attack of smallpox. His mother resolved to enrol her son in the priesthood if he recovered. He did, and she added 'Francis' to his name after the patron saint of Goa. Souza never became a priest, but he found in religious art a powerful source of inspiration.
Indeed, the churches of Goa, with their wonderful baroque architecture and lavish services, left a lasting impression on Souza. However, he was unable to ignore the conflict between the Church's repressive teachings and the eroticism he saw in Indian art and culture. Souza has said: "For me, the all pervading and crucial themes of the predicament of man are those of religion and sex." These twin concerns are manifest in early paintings depicting the life of Christ and in series of female nudes.
The Last Howl From The Cross is one among a handful of crucifixions that Souza painted during his highly inventive 'London period' (1949-1967). The painting was first exhibited in 1964 at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, as part of a solo show titled 'The Human and the Divine Predicament'. Souzas rendition of Christs death in a series of works is subversive, ironic, reflecting his deep-seated suspicion of the Church. (Another work from 1959 controversially depicts Christ as a black man. A part of the BP British Art Displays at the Tate Britain, it can be found in a room dedicated to the artist.)
As in several of his religious paintings, Souza's Christ in The Last Howl From The Cross is rendered with violence rather than compassion. With matted hair and sharp teeth, he appears ghoulish and sinister. The mourners surrounding him are wildly distorted, almost grotesque. There is none of the overt piety or sentimentality usually associated with a crucifixion: the image inspires revulsion rather than pity. While critics have compared Souza and Rouault for their frontal iconic compositions and obsessive explorations of Christ's life, in this aspect the artists are different.
The painting is also significant for its size. A large painting, it nonetheless captures the spontaneity of the brush. Works on a large scale often require deliberate handling and execution and, in the process, the immediacy of the creative moment is lost. To combat this, Souza designed a projector a sort of magic lantern. He would quickly note an original idea or composition on a horizontal pane of glass, which would then be lit with the image magnified to the desired size onto a canvas fastened to a wall. It is likely that this unusual method was used to paint the current work.
Souza is well known as the founder of the Progressive Artists' Group, which embraced modernism and directed the course of contemporary Indian art in the post-independence period. He was also its main spokesperson. Struggling to find acceptance for the type of art he wanted to create, Souza left India for London in 1949. After an initial period, his work became recognised by the artistic establishment and, as early as 1954, he exhibited three paintings alongside Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland at the Institute of Contemporary Arts.
The following year, Souza exhibited at Gallery One in London; and to coincide with this solo show Stephen Spender published the artist's autobiographical writings in Encounter magazine. The critical establishment took notice and John Berger, Edwin Mullins, Andrew Forge, and George Butcher wrote about his work in leading London papers. A period of success followed before he moved to the US in 1967. The present painting, containing many of the elements for which Souza has become recognised as an original and irrepressible talent, was painted at this time.