Francis Newton Souza (India, 1924-2002) Head of Christ
oil on board, signed and dated '56 upper left, framed 74 x 58 cm.
Provenance: Private UK collection; acquired circa 1985.
Published: The Other Story:Afro-Asian Artists in post-war Britain, ed. R. Araeen, Hayward Gallery Exhibition Catalogue, London 1989, p. 129.
This iconic image of Christ is an outstanding example of Souza's religious oeuvre. The strength of line and muted colours create a powerhouse portrayal of pain, violence and anger, emotions for which Souza became so well-known. It demands the viewer's attention and respect. As Edwin Mullins wrote: "Some of the most moving of Souza's paintings are those which convey a spirit of awe in the presence of a divine power - a God, who is not a God of gentleness and love, but rather of suffering, vengeance and of terrible anger. In his religious work there is a quality of fearfulness and terrible grandeur which even Rouault and Sutherland have not equalled in this century." (Edwin Mullins, Souza, 1962, p.40).
Much has been written about Souzas religious paintings and drawings and there is little doubt that Indian culture, particularly the Roman Catholic culture of his birthplace, Goa, was an influence on Souzas best works as well as his personal anguish. Examples such as the present work represent more of an 'Oriental' Christ than that of Western tradition. Maria Couto, in an article on Souza's time in Goa, writes: "Unlike in the West, religion and life are not kept in separate compartments but represent the whole human personality. Hence, Souza's Christ has many faces which range from anguish to mockery, fun and entertainment [...] Souza's Christ departs radically from Western iconography: he is denied dignity and divinity in order to illuminate the artist's own tortured obsessions with the mystery of life and death."
Souza's rebellion against orthodox Christian belief manifested itself in his early days at St. Xavier's School, from which he was later expelled. The Jesuits at the school wanted him to imitate the art of Raphael and Hoffman, 'his blond operatic Christs and flaxen haired shy Virgins', which he was unwilling to do. He was influenced more by the 'masters' of Indian art, the sculptors of Khajuraho and Indian miniaturists. Western art did not come to influence him until later, during his time in Europe: notably the Byzantine icons of Romanesque Spain and Picasso's work of the 30s and 40s.
The most notable feature of the present lot is the exaggerated appearance of the motif Souza used in all his works: the cross-hatched lines. This structure had religious and spiritual significance for Souza which he explains in his autobiographical essay, Nirvana of a Maggot: "If you ask God to show you the cause of His whole Creation, this infinite universe, the entire cosmos, you will see that the cause itself is not as big as the Creation, in fact, it is something very small, for He will show you in the palm of His hand a tiny little thing which could perhaps be a drop of water, a speck of some sort, a nucleus maybe, or a germ of some kind: something that is impossible for us to grasp, both with hand and mind, but sometimes grasped at rare inspired moments by the heart [...] in the same way, my own activity in matters of paint and words, I am trying to make one of creation within Creation. My drawings and paintings, for instance, are made of a little structure: two parallel lines cross-hatched on either side. All my work still lives, landscapes, portraits and compositions are based on this principle, or perhaps it is a drop of water or germ of some sort [...] because, if man is made in the image of God's likeness, his creative activity must also be in the likeness of a hypothetical activity of the Creative God." (F. N. Souza, Words and Lines, 1959, p. 18).