India’s Business Standard offers an interesting thumbnail biography of Francis Newton Souza, one of Modern Indian art’s most important names. The story begins by explaining that the value of a painting is not a product of the painting itself but of the evolution of an artist’s work and of art history. As a case in point, the article offers Newton’s Birth which was bought for a very high sum last year. Why?
To understand that, you must know a little about Souza, born in Saligao, Goa, where his father died soon after his own birth, and his elder sister soon after, leaving him to be brought up by his seamstress mother first in Goa and later in Bombay. Souza was not a model student, and rebelled against church and authority, drew pornographic pictures in the school toilets, and was expelled from the JJ College of Art for replacing the Union Jack with the Indian tricolor before the country’s independence. Some of these rebellions would stay the course of his life in London, Paris and New York, even though — and unlike many of his peers — he found success with his first major show in London. But in London, as in Paris, he was abjured as much for his art as his wild ways, became an alcoholic, but refused to paint any differently, though in his later years he reformed sufficiently to become a teetotaler.
Souza’s oeuvre consists of a few recurring images. The first of these are the nudes. Collectors believe — not wrongly either — that he painted unflattering images of the prostitutes in London, though he wasn’t entirely wary of painting nudes of those close to his life. He confessed to being a voyeur, and as a boy growing up he would watch his mother at her bath through a peephole, and later her clients when they came to be measured for dresses, or when they would try them on, as a result of which he was familiar with the contours of the female body.
Souza greatly admired Pablo Picasso, and the Cubists, and these influences can be seen somewhat in his nudes, but more noticeably in his landscapes, which tended to address Western skylines, and would often include a church, for religion played a great part in his upbringing as well as in his painting. Too often, though, the bigotry, greed and iconography that he painted questioned rather than reassured viewers with regard to religion. Souza was also fond of still life studies, often doing impressionistic renderings of vases and flowers and fruits and bowls. And self-portraits — where he would practice distortion most effectively — were to remain a favourite.
Birth, painted in 1955, is a valuable work because it contains at least four of his favourite themes. It is also something that was close to his life, since it is believed that it depicts his wife of that period, Maria, in labour. Though there is no overt reference to religion, this could be Madonna giving birth to the Baby Jesus, and there is a hint that at least one of the buildings in the background could be a church. Be that as it may, you cannot escape the other features: The nude in a state of labour being consoled by the artist, while in the background there is the familiar London landscape as well as his trademark still life of jars and vases. Any wonder the work is considered vintage Souza?
What to Look for in a Painting (Business Standard)