"I wanted to do everything; to make others suffer, to make myself suffer. I have no desire to redeem myself or anybody else because Man is by his very nature unredeemable, yet he hankers so desperately after redemption." (Artist statement, Words & Lines, London, 1959, p. 26)
Born in the Portuguese colony of Goa in 1924, Francis Newton Souza grew up in an orthodox Roman Catholic community, whose beliefs and practices deeply affected his work throughout his extensive career. Although at first impressed by the rituals and representatives of the Catholic faith and awed by their opulence, Souza eventually noticed a profound hypocrisy at the heart of these practices and in the envoys who claimed absolute power through divine sanction.
Completely rejecting the Christian ideals of compassion and salvation, Souza saw no redemption for Man, famously claiming that unlike artists of the Renaissance who painted men and women as angels, he painted men and women to show angels the true depravity of our race. According to the critic Geeta Kapur, the artist was "a tormented being, exploring evil because the possibility of good teases him, eludes him, draws him out in bitter longing, a longing in which God in the shape of Christ is hardly ever absent, but in which God as absolute authority is always ridiculed." (Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. xiii)
Souza moved to London in 1949, and it was there that his talent and reputation were firmly cemented, winning him steady patronage. Souza's art and writing established him as one of the most exciting and articulate voices of the post-war generation. Alongside contemporaries like Francis Bacon, he became one of the figureheads of what Kapur refers to as the 'new tradition of the grotesque' in British art.
By the early 1960s, Souza had truly come into his own, leading the critic Mervyn Levy to describe him in 1964 as "one of the most vigorously stimulating and committed painters of our time." ('F.N. Souza: the human and the divine', Studio International Art, April 1964, p. 134) Closely attuned to sociopolitical and scientific developments, the artist painted a series of large, ominous works during this period, including The Butcher (1962), Fall-Out Mutation (1962), Red Curse (1962), Manufacturer of Nuclear Weapons (1962) and Beasts of Prey (1963). Each of these paintings was a tour de force, leading Kapur to label Souza a "painter of doom and destruction as seen from the inside of a suicidal civilization." (Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. 26)
The Butcher represents the apex of the raw, expressionist style that characterized Souza's works in this series. Influenced by the works of El Greco and Goya as well as the Romanesque paintings and Catalonian frescos he saw on an earlier visit to Spain, Souza seems to draw on their apocalyptic visions of hell and its monstrous inhabitants in paintings like this one. Wielding a cleaver larger than his own disfigured head, the menacing subject of this monumental, disturbing painting stares directly at the viewer as he prepares to strike. The gruesomeness of the scene is accentuated by the bloody animal leg he holds in his other hand, and the fresh, red spatter on his vest and chopping block. Distinct from the slaughterhouse scenes painted by artists like Carracci, Rembrandt, Bacon, Soutine and Tyeb Mehta, Souza's painting focuses on the agent of butchery rather than the animals being butchered, casting him as a sign of the direction in which he sees society heading.
Poised under a row of meat hooks, the "Butcher is typical of Souza's malevolent figures that stare at the viewer with wild eyes pushed so high that they displace eyebrows and forehead. The subject's bared-teeth scowl resembles the snarl of a mad dog [...] Undoubtedly the symbolism of Butcher comes from the depths of Souza's being, but does it represent the evil oppressor, the marginalized artist, or Souza himself?" (M. Sirhandi, India, Contemporary Art from Northeastern Private Collections, Rutgers, 2002, p. 113)
Souza amplifies the malevolence of the subject both through the sheer scale of the painting, and through the use of black satin as a ground, which signals a mounting, intensifying darkness on the verge of consuming all it touches. At once a warning to and an indictment of humankind, this epic painting is a masterpiece, open to multiple levels of interpretation. While the composition is marked by Souza's vigorous, almost rabid brushstrokes, we realize that the figure of the butcher is as much subject to the threat of the darkness that surrounds him as we are.
Underlining the critical role that 'shock' plays in Souza's work and in the artist's relationship with his viewers, his first biographer Edwin Mullins explains, "In a sense Souza is a dedicated vulgarian. The weapon with which he makes his first attack on our sensibilities is vulgarity; and one of the principal claims these pictures have on our attention is the challenge they throw down, that we should reconsider yet again what, in terms of art, words like 'vulgar' and 'shocking' really mean. And what it is that we ask of a work of art." (The Human and the Divine Predicament, London, 1964, unpaginated)