FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA: FAMILY
He is one of the most remarkable young artists of India, not as an accomplished master who already has found his own style, but as an experimenter of an intensity rare in this country [...] always provoking and trying out new techniques and new interpretations [...] Whatever Francis Newton’s final style may be, in whatever manner it will be integrated into the all-Indian tradition, his contribution will be an intensity and a fierce fire which the soft escapism of modern Indian art has generally missed [...] From where he is fetching his techniques, does not matter. For all real art starts only where an artist ceases to follow anybody, and dissolves all those lessons in the fire of his own vision.
- Hermann Goetz, 1949
In the entire history of Indian art he [Souza] is exceptional, in the sheer power and development of his work to a truly distinctive style, which sets it apart. In no period of Souza’s work can you mistake it with anyone else’s. What is this quality in him that sets him so uniquely apart and at the same time does not make him derivative? His work has incredible vitality and one has to search for its basis.
- Ebrahim Alkazi, 2016
Francis Newton Souza moved from his native Goa to Bombay with his widowed mother Lily Mary Antunes as a teenager. While she struggled to make a living for them both from her dressmaking, Souza enrolled in the Sir J.J. School of Art in 1940, only to be expelled in 1945 for his role in the protests against its British Director Charles Gerrard during the Quit India movement. The artist’s first biographer, Edwin Mullins describes the period, noting that Souza was becoming “Increasingly vexed by the polite inertia of Bombay society, with its borrowed aesthetic values and its indifference to the condition of India” (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 17). Branded a ‘Rebel Artist’ by the critic and curator Hermann Goetz, who acquired one of Souza’s first paintings for the Baroda Museum where he worked, the artist soon found himself in the company of other revolutionaries, eventually becoming member of the Communist Party of India in 1947.
Geeta Kapur describes Souza’s short-lived involvement with the Party in her seminal 1978 essay on the artist, ‘Devil in the Flesh’. “Souza’s process of politicisation led him quickly to Marxism, and soon after he had been expelled from the art school, he joined the Communist Party of India. Being by temperament a fighter every pang of humiliation he felt as an individual or as a “native” roused him to retaliation and attack. He converted this fighting spirit into revolutionary politics. The Party welcomed him on the popular front, and his art of the period did indeed merit enthusiasm from the comrades. He devised his figures according to class-types, showed them in their environment, labeled them with appropriate titles. He depicted the plight of the poor (Goan peasants, Bombay Proletariat); he exposed the villains (Capitalists in particular, the bourgeoisie in general). He painted, moreover, in an idiom belonging broadly to the Social Realist category and was more than willing, with the help of the party organisation, to show his paintings in the working class colonies of Bombay. He was hailed in the People’s Age, the Party paper, as a patriot and a revolutionary” (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. 7).
It was during this period that Souza, as a twenty-two year old ‘revolutionary’, painted Family, a scathing socioeconomic portrait deeply influenced by his Marxist views and the political climate in India at the time. One of the artist’s most seminal works from the 1940s, this painting represents the brief but dynamic formative period of Souza's career that was instrumental in laying the foundation for his later work in India and England. Although it bears thematic similarities with Van Gogh’s famous 1885 canvas, The Potato Eaters, this painting offers a more confrontational perspective on the circumstances of the working class, closely allied with the work of Social Realist, Mexican Revolutionary and German Expressionist artists.
Painted in 1946, the year after Souza’s first one-man show and shortly before he would found the Progressive Artists’ Group, this family portrait represents not only a significant point of inflection in the definition and evolution of modern Indian art, but also in the political history of South Asia. Here, an impoverished family of four sits down to a meagre meal on the floor of their hut, holding tiny cups and surrounded by empty vessels. Slightly less stylized than Souza’s Untitled (Indian Family), a similar portrait he painted a year later, also notable in this picture is the artist’s overt references to Catholicism, both in the oversize cross the woman wears on a rosary around her neck and in the household shrine with the Madonna and Child that hangs on the wall behind her. While Souza clearly highlights their poverty, largely perpetuated by indebtedness and servitude to wealthier, more powerful masters, he also draws attention to their faith, a result of centuries of conversion by missionaries and colonizers. In its portrayal of the family’s living conditions, paintings like this one established the foundation for the critique of religious hypocrisy and the contempt for social hierarchies that Souza expressed through his acclaimed works of the 1950s and 60s. They also inspired several other Indian artists who were members and associates of the Progressive Artists’ Group, most notably Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna and Satish Gujral.
Although inspired by the warm colors of the Goan countryside and its peasantry, this painting is very much a product of Souza’s time and experiences in Bombay and was probably included in his exhibitions that toured through the labourer colonies of the city. Also included in Souza’s first one-man exhibition at the Bombay Art Society’s Salon in 1948 (titled Proletariat of Goa at the time), Family is a political tour-de-force. As Goetz, who inaugurated this exhibition noted, it is no wonder that Souza “thought it his duty to place his art in the service of propaganda to alter such deplorable conditions; no wonder he believed that this should be an art of the people for the people” (H. Goetz, ‘Rebel Artist: Francis Newton’, Baroda State Museum Bulletin, Vol. 4, 1949, p. 53).
This formative phase of the artist’s oeuvre, however, didn’t last very long. The reviews of his 1948 show were less than favourable, with a large section of viewers and critics left shocked by paintings like The Proselyte, Prostitute, A Corner in our City’s Underworld – or the Pederasts and Naked Family. One review titled ‘Propaganda Confused with Art’ railed against Souza’s capacity for social critique through his paintings, noting that “this fanaticism is Newton’s weakness as well as strength” (R. Chaterji, ‘Propaganda Confused with Art, Francis Newton's Progressive Paintings’, January 1948).
In 1949, Souza quit the Communist Party, explaining later that it was because they “told me to paint in this way and that. I was estranged from many cliques who wanted me to paint what would please them. I don't believe that a true artist paints for coteries or for the proletariat. I believe with all my soul that he paints solely for himself” (Artist statement, Words and Lines, London, 1959, p. 10). Later that year, the artist sailed from Bombay to London, in the hope of finding a more receptive audience for his art outside India.
His first exhibition in London, featuring works from the 1940s he had taken with him, possibly including this painting, was held at the Asian Institute Gallery in November 1950. Unfortunately, the few critics who did view this show tended to agree with Chaterji, but not from his morally conservative standpoint. “The London critic [...] can afford to be less sensitive to the artist’s evident desire to shock both morally, politically and traditionally, and can face disinterestedly for instance the political questions of the wildly mixed racial styles involved. But while he may appreciate the artist’s gift of line, and his apparent social sincerity, he may well doubt whether the effort to appreciate flat two-dimensional, crudely decorative use of raw colour rushed onto unprepared beaverboard will be repaid here in this country, even though the forms involved may have a certain Gauguinesque travel interest” (C. Hogben, ‘Souza’, Art New and Review, London, 2 December 1950, p. 5).
The response to his work, both in India and England, together with his deep disenchantment with life in post-war London, and the hypocrisy he saw in those occupying positions of wealth and power, provoked the first major transformation in Souza’s work, which would soon propel him to recognition and even fame in London’s artistic circles.