F. N. Souza: Remembrance of Things to Come (Exhibition Review)

‘Volte Face,’ a mammoth retrospective of Francis Newton Souza’s drawings, paintings and chemical works from the Dhoomimal Collection, curated by Yashodhara Dalmia, was held in New Delhi recently. Art writer Natasha Ginwala reviews the show.

                                                 For in much wisdom there is sorrow and he who stores up knowledge stores up grief.’

                                                                                                                                                  – Ecclesiastes 1:18

When walking through ‘Volte-Face,’ the F. N. Souza Retrospective at the Lalit Kala Akademi, New Delhi prior to the opening, these lines from the artist’s publication, ‘Words and Lines,’ came to mind, “I hate the smell of paint. Painting for me is not beautiful. It is an ugly reptile. I attack it. It coils and recoils making fascinating patterns. I am not, however, interested in patterns… It is the serpent in the grass that is really fascinating.”(1)

Souza has, rather reductively, been labeled – auction star and enfant terrible of Modern Indian Art. Whilst viewing the 200 drawings, paintings and chemical works from the Dhoomimal collection, I realised the compelling painter-poet continually evaded brackets imposed through rigid art historical ‘isms’ and art-world rhetoric. Instead, Souza chose to roam amid creative thresholds, plotting volatile mindscapes and relentlessly probing ugly truths, narratives of lust, death and human travesty.

A small portrait made in black water colour stood beside the entrance to the main gallery; it could have been overlooked as an insignificant work and yet on closer inspection it unravels as a fundamental contemplation on human persona. Souza’s rapid strokes appear as deep scars on the paper surface, combining to form a jagged face, monstrous eyes and a mouth that appears as the entryway to a dark, insatiable cave. In such a portrait, man is symbolically presented as nothing more than a grinning skull. Herein lies the clue to an understanding of Souza’s paintings, in which the emphasis is not on the impermanence of beauty but on the inexorable inevitability of ugliness.

Complete exhibition review may be viewed here


(1) F.N. Souza, Words and Lines, Villiers, 1959

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