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God, Sex & The City : an anthology of the work of Francis Newton Souza

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on September 21, 2015 at 11:46 PM

"Birth" - by F. N. Souza (1924 - 2002) - was sold at a staggering $4.01 million (approx. Rs 27 crores) at a Christie's sale in New York, last week. The painting which was picked up by the Harmony Arts Foundation run by Tina Ambani, for $2.5 million in 2008 - has now been bought by Delhi-based collector Kiran Nadar. 

© Courtesy of 'Birth', by Francis Newton Souza - sold for Rs. 27 Cr at a Christie's auction last week! Pic: internet sources

Pic:1 - Birth, Pic:2 - Francis Newton Souza

"Birth", an oil-and-board work, which ranks as one of Souza's best works, has all the characteristics of a typical Souza – a nude female, a priest, a vista from a window and still life. The painting, sold at $4.01 million, measures 48x96 inches – which means it was sold at a rate of almost $900 per square inch. The previous record was held by artist V S Gaitonde, whose work had sold for $3.7 million at Christie's debut auction in Mumbai in 2013. 

Pic:3 - Sewing Machine, Pic:4 - Goan Peasants

The son of a teetotalling Goan Catholic schoolteacher, Francis enjoyed alcohol and resented the church, with its rigid impositions. Surviving a severe attack of smallpox, which left his face scarred, his grateful mother named him Francis after the patron saint of Goa, St. Francis Xavier. His mother was a seamstress and her presence is often observed in Souza's paintings. One of Souza's better-known paintings also depicts a sewing machine. He was expelled from Xavier’s College for drawing pornographic graffiti in a toilet, and later from the Sir J. J School of Art because of his support to the Quit India Movement. For a brief period, he was allied to the Communist Party of India, during which phase his Marxist ideals reflected in his painting such as Goan Peasants. As an artist, Souza imbibed varied artistic ideologies — of Byzantine murals, Gupta figurines, Khajuraho reliefs, and the works of Picasso, Gauguin and Cezanne - but he had developed his own unique style, which is clearly seen in all his work. 

Pic;5 - Self portrait, Pic:7 - Christ

In 2008, when this same painting "Birth" was sold to the Harmony Art Foundation, it had set a world auction record for the most expensive Indian painting sold till then. 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. 

Pic:8 - 11 - Landscapes, Pic:12 - Untitled, 13 - Nude with a mirror,, Pic:15 - Still Life

An unabashed rendering of female nudes marks Souza’s work. Whether the prostitutes of London, or his own paramours, the obsession with sexuality is evident throughout his work. Birth, which shows a pregnant nude is said to be depicting his then partner Lisolette, with whom he had three children. His repertoire includes still life, landscape, nudes, sexual interactions, cities, architecture and icons of Christianity, often seen with acute distortions of form. The angst in Souza’s work may be ascribed to the loss of his father, at the age of three months and his sister, soon after. It is often said that these tragedies left him with a sense of guilt. 

Pic:16 - Souza, by M. F. Husain

One of the founding members of the Progressive Artists Group, along with S. H. Raza, M. F. Husain, K. H. Ara, H. A. Gade, and S. K. Bakre, Souza chose varied Indian subjects and explored different artistic styles. Elements from Post-impressionism, cubism, and expressionism and the Art Brut movement marked his paintings; sex and religion being central to his work. His flair for writing shone through as the spokesman of the Progressive Arts Group, when he worked out a manifesto stating that ‘they wanted to take art away from the sophisticated arty-arty crowd’.

Francis Newton Souza (April 12, 1924 - March 28, 2002) was the first post-independence Indian artist to achieve international acclaim. Souza, a controversy-courting aritst prone to painting abject sexuality and contorted religious icons – sharply shunned and defied conventional and societal norms and lived on his own terms. The modernist’s works often autobiographical, are expressive and uninhibited; and were probably way ahead of their times when they were made. During his lifetime, his overtly erotic paintings with ghoulish figures did not find many takers. However, in recent years Souza's Paintings have been sold for over a million dollars. With the latest record-breaking price given by Kiran Nadar for "Birth", Souza has risen to the top of the charts!!!

Pic:6 - Self-Portrait with first wife Maria, Pic:14 - Reclining Nude on Brocade

Kiran Nadar's private museum already has one of Souza's self-portraits with his first wife Maria Figuerado. They met in 1942, when she bought a painting from the artist’s first exhibition, held at the Bombay Art Society and became Souza's first collector. They married in 1947 and Figuerado supported Souza during his struggle to launch his career in London in the 1950s. Even after the couple separated, Figuerado actively promoted Souza’s work and other Indian artists at her Art38 Gallery in London’s West End. In this painting, Souza has captured their relationship succinctly. Despite his womanizing ways, his eldest child Shelley was brought up to admire his work as an artist and to treasure the legacy he would leave behind. Most of his works are there in the Shelley Souza Collection, which she regularly exhibits, in galleries across the world. 

It is expected that "Birth" would be displayed in Kiran Nadar's private museum!


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