by Vivek Menezes
I’ve been stewing about this since coverage of the death of “Nudist painter Lucian Freud” inexplicably spread across the Indian press right into my morning papers here, a media backwater that is by far the smallest state in the country. But it was the same across the subcontinent – even the most obscure regional publications marshalled a deeply respectful send-off for the British painter.
Yet when Freud’s one time rival for the 1950’s London spotlight, the monumentally brilliant Indian painter Francis Newton Souza, died on 28 March, 2002 during a trip to Bombay, the news barely caused a ripple anywhere in the world.
He founded the Bombay Progressives in 1947 – unquestionably the single most important 20th century development for Indian art – but when he died in the same city more than 50 years later, Souza's body was consigned to shabby Sewri Cemetery, where only the unattached are sent to be buried. The old man had been near-indigent, selling his best work from the 1950's and 60's for two and three thousand dollars. Most of the stragglers graveside were art dealers, already jostling to feed from the artist’s corpus. It took no time at all for them to push his work to knock down million-dollar records at auction, but the shameful truth is that Souza burned livid right to the end of his life, shot through with pain about being abandoned, and totally ignored by the same trampling hordes of instant cognoscenti that now like to pretend they knew and acknowledged his worth all along. That's just a blatant, barefaced lie.
After 40 years I still have a vivid memory of Souza’s presence as embodied in both his paintings and his person. If I had to sum up that presence, I would say it was that of a martyr. The confrontation within him between pain and voluptuousness, fury and calm are comparable, I believe to those often discovered in martyrdom. –-John Berger
Understand this: putting Souza in the same context as the late Lucian Freud isn’t a stretch, or some kind of ujustified boosterism for the mercurial Indian artist. In fact, the two were often compared to each other in the 1950’s London avant-garde, along with their older contemporary, Francis Bacon.
There are undeniable similarities of personality (alternatingly rude and charming, lastingly sentimental) and personal lives (fathering multiple children with several partners), also fascinatingly akin in the way they pursued their art (both were epically pitiless realists, possessed with limitless ambition).
But looking back at those crucial post-war years these last few days, it’s been interesting to note that Souza flared brightest at the start. Several years before Freud finally made his decisive, history-making move away from the neo-Romantics, the Indian had already become a confirmed headliner in the mileu they shared.
In 1955, it all came together in one magical burst for Souza.
The big breakthrough for his paintings came in a sell-out show at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One. The event garnered garnered straight raves – “profoundly original, appalingly honest…qualities of genius” – The New Statesman, “the most formidable caricatures of the human consciousness that have appeared in English art since Wynham Lewis” – Robert Melville in The Architectural Review. This is when peerless John Berger first took notice, famously declaring that “Souza straddles many traditions but serves none.”
But the Gallery One show itself came on the heels of another critical triumph for the artist – his searing autobiographical essay, ‘Nirvana of a Maggot' created a stir when published by Stephen Spender (an early collector of his paintings) in Encounter magazine.
In retrospect, you could see that year as the benchmark for Souza. Still heathy, young and confident, he had achieved some financial security for the first time, and he had every right to presume that things were only going to improve from that point. There was no way for him to know that it was going to be largely downhill for the rest of his life, or that his one-time equals Freud and Bacon would become the most celebrated and wealthy painters in the world. It is a small mercy that he never saw the extent that India has become awash in grotesque fakes of his work, but make no mistake, the man never felt accepted, recognized or understood by the Indian art vultures who now pose as his champions.
“I was a rickety child with running nose and running ears, and scared of every adult and every other child. Better had I died. Would have saved me a lot of trouble. I would not have had to bear an artist’s tormented soul, create art in a country that despises her artists and is ignorant of her heritage.” – Francis Newton Souza