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HEAD OF A SAINT

HEAD OF A SAINT

Item Description:

PROPERTY OF A FRIEND OF THE ARTIST


Oil on board

1956

38 1/2 x 23 1/2 in. (97.8 x 59.2 cm.)

Signed and dated 'Souza 56' upper left and inscribed and dated 'F.N. SOUZA / head of a saint - 1956 / 24 x 38' on reverse

'Souza sees himself as a priest of paint. His job is to show God the flawed face of men, and men the beauty and wrath of God. He is medieval in his insistence on the corrupt flesh of mankind and fire of the divine. He paints to protest. There can only be for Souza one truth, and one meaning in his art. He cannot paint abstractions, which might lie about the single purpose of each canvas.'

(Andrew Sinclair, F N Souza, exhibition catalogue, Gallery One, London 1962, unpaginated)

In the period between 1955 and 1963, Souza held five one-man exhibitions at Gallery One in London. It was a time of immense commercial and critical success, with reputed papers such as The London Times, New Statesman and The Guardian, presenting Souza alongside artists such as Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon as one of the truly important artists of the contemporary British art scene. Guy Brett, wrote in The Guardian newspaper, 'Most critics and dealers and people whose job it is to spot emerging talent cherish the belief that quite independent of the activities of the so-called avant-garde, there are and always will be figurative painters. Somewhere or other, they feel there must be a man, a Van Gogh, who is really painting from the bottom of his heart. Rouault was one although he was at first neglected even by dealers. F N. Souza seems to be the perfect candidate for this category.' (Guy Brett, The Guardian, 1958, reprinted in Aziz Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Modern Indian Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 41)



The current painting, Head of a Saint, was painted in 1956, at the height of this important period in Souza's career. The year before, Souza had completed his autobiographical essay, 'Nirvana of a Maggot', published by his friend, the poet Stephen Spender, in Encounter magazine. In the same period, Souza painted several of his most iconic works including Birth (1955), Tycoon and The Tramp (1955), Titian's Grandfather (1955), and Crucifixion (1959). Importantly, many of these most powerful images are of Christian subjects, referencing his childhood experiences of being brought up in Goa as a Roman Catholic. Geeta Kapur explains, 'the recurring portraits of priests, prophets, cardinals, and Popes are... to be taken literally for what they are but also symbolically as representatives of institutions and authority, only more treacherous in that they claim divine sanction... It is this double connotation of fact and symbol and his interlocked feelings of secret fascination and objective disgust which make Souza's handling of religious figures so unique.' (Geeta Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. 20)



The current work is unusual in that the title on the reverse clearly identifies the figure as a saint, but unlike many of his other works, Souza has not pierced the figure's neck with the arrows of martyrdom, nor is there an overtly critical presentation of the figure as a whole. Rather, the painting seems unusually serene and calm in its form. In many ways it is reminiscent of the Prophet figures created by Akbar Padamsee four years before, which Souza would have seen when he exhibited alongside Padamsee in Paris. For Souza, the chequerboard smock in repeated squares of blue, green and red appears to be almost an exercise in artistic restraint. As Sinclair notes, 'his pictures usually blubber and rave with the shrieking lines of life. Figures hairy with arrows, agonize with mute jowls. Tarts stretch lecherous, crutch akimbo, on black satin cloth. A sensuality of paint and a sense of sin touch horror and lust into sight.' (Sinclair, op. cit., unpaginated) Yet, this is where Souza's paintings of the period build upon one another and need to be read as part of a larger theme. The formal clothes that men wear, both the suit and tie of the layperson and the robes of the clergy, represent societal veneers of respectability that hide inner lusts, desires and corruptibility.



'Wherever he went, Souza took with him the iconography of his Catholic faith. He rediscovered himself in the saints and sinners and martyrs of the Bible. And in womanhood, Souza found solace and comfort, and the fecundity and regenerative power of Nature. His works oscillate between these two poles of abnegation and exultation. And because of the elemental and universal nature of this experience, his works touch us deeply.' (Ebrahim Alkazi, The Alkazi Collection: F.N. Souza - A Tribute, exhibition catalogue, New Delhi, unpaginated)

Condition:

The colours of the original are similar to the catalogue illustration, but the
colours of the tunic are slightly richer and deeper than the catalogue illustration.
The painting has been recently cleaned and varnished. Several areas of flaking
have been consolidated and spots of paint loss have been retouched. The
extreme upper edge of the painting across the width of the work had chips and
losses to the paint which have been consolidated with associated areas of
retouching only visible under UV light. Further scattered spots of retouching are
visible in the black and white background above the head of the figure and above
both shoulders, with further spots of retouching to the extreme left edge of the
painting. A small spot of retouching to the figure's left cheek and three minute
spots of retouching within the tunic are also visible under UV light. Overall good
condition.

About The Artist:

FRANCIS NEWTON SOUZA (1924-2002)

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