Francis Newton Souza was born into a Roman Catholic family in the village of Saligao, in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, India. Moving to Bombay as a boy, Souza soon discovered his compulsion for creative expression. In 1937, at the age of fourteen, he enrolled in the Jesuit St. Xavier’s High School in Bombay, but, ever the rebel, was expelled within two years for vandalising the school lavatories with his ‘pornographic’ drawings.
Souza founded the seminal Progressives Artists’ Group ten years later, on the eve of India's independence in 1947, with fellow artists Syed Haider Raza and Krishnaji Howlaji Ara, followed shortly by Hari Ambadas Gade, Sadanand Bakre, and Maqbool Fida Husain. The Progressives were a highly influential group, and combined aspects of Indian folk art, classical painting and sculpture with Western Modernism to produce new and unique modes of expression.
In 1949, Souza moved to London in search of a more liberal audience for his art, and would remain there for almost two decades. Over his first five years in the country, in the aftermath of World War II, the artist struggled to establish himself in the city’s bohemian art and literary circles. In fact, in 1954, Souza was on the brink of returning to India. As his first biographer, Edwin Mullins put it, “It seemed the only way he [Souza] could go on painting, for at least in India he could sleep in the street if necessary, and live on rice […] if he had been able to find enough money for the passage, he would probably have left.” (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962. p. 23)
However, fate intervened, and the following year, Souza found himself considered among the most exciting painters in London. This was the year of his first solo exhibition at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One, which opened to critical acclaim, and the publication of his autobiographical essay ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’, which appeared in Stephen Spender’s magazine Encounter. This creative output won Souza patrons and plaudits from key art critics of the time including Edwin Mullins and David Sylvester, who compared the expressionistic, grotesque nature of his work with that of Graham Sutherland (1903-80) and Francis Bacon (1909-92), with whom he exhibited in 1954. John Berger, the renowned art critic, also devoted a whole article to Souza’s Gallery One exhibition in the New Statesman. Other well-known critics Andrew Forge and George Butcher wrote articles on the artist that appeared in publications such as the Guardian and the London Times.
With financial support and gallery representation, Souza embarked on his most ambitious and fruitful artistic projects in the mid-1950s. Birth, painted in 1955, the pivotal year in which the trajectory of his career was defined for the remainder of the century, was exhibited at Gallery One a year later, and Souza would hold several successful exhibitions over the next decade with Gallery One.
This monumental painting represents the pinnacle of the artist's creative output in the 1950s and holds the current world auction record for a work by the artist – set at Christie’s in 2008. The painting uniquely encompasses all the subjects that define Souza’s early practice, including the pregnant reclining nude with hairpins, the autobiographical man in a priest’s tunic, a still life on the window ledge and, beyond the window, a townscape with corniced buildings and tall steeples.
The outstretched, heavily pregnant female figure, the cynosure of this epic painting, seems on the brink of giving birth to her child. In his monograph on the artist, Edwin Mullins discusses the significance of the female nude in Souza’s practice. “[Souza’s] women with girdles and high rounded breasts, fastening a pin in their hair [...] clearly have their origins in Indian stone carvings and bronzes. Yet in spirit they are not traditional […] On the whole his paintings of nudes are more gentle than most of his other work; they have less impassioned ferocity about them. At the same time they are often perverse and obsessed. The inelegant sexual poses, the blunt emphasis on the pregnant belly, the ravaged face. They suggest a personal fascination with the female body, blended with an almost Swiftian disgust with its natural functions.” (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 43) Reminiscent of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863), the long braids of the pregnant nude are adorned with Souza’s iconic pins, and her forearms ringed with a stack of bangles, symbols of femininity and affluence. At once an object of desire and a source of life, this is Souza’s quintessential portrayal of a woman.
The attentive standing figure at the feet of the pregnant nude wears a heavily decorated red brocade tunic, usually associated with the clergy. Almost obsessive about the rituals and vestments of the Roman Catholic faith in which he was raised (and would later reject as hypocritical), Souza noted in Words & Lines, “The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services [...] The priest dressed in richly embroidered vestments, each of his garments from the biretta to the chasuble symbolising the accoutrement of Christ’s passion.” (F.N. Souza, Words & Lines, London, 1959, p. 10)
The man’s dark hair, beard and facial features of the male figure also hint at an autobiographical dimension to this iconic work. For Souza, religious representatives such as saints and priests were both figures of veneration and repudiation, a paradox which he wrote about in ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’. Here, as the priest, the artist was both the sinner and saint he wrote about. “The vicar of the village church was a man of great religious fervour, unlike those others one meets in Goa who take priesthood and make it a mercenary end. The sacerdotal profession is a lucrative business there. The vicar and I became friends […] a sinner could be a good friend of a saint and a saint must necessarily be a friend of the sinner.” (F.N. Souza, London, 1959, p. 15)
Also in the considerable picture frame, Souza cleverly includes one of his characteristic landscapes, visible through the open window of the bedroom. The landscape would become a genre the artist perennially returned to, but this scene most likely represents Hampstead, the area of London in which he lived at the time. The corniced buildings and piercing steeples, rendered in Souza’s iconic thick black line which earned him such acclaim as a draftsman, suggest the Catholic architecture which informed so much of his oeuvre. Cathedral like structures are formed out of geometric and modular forms, emphasizing Souza’s and indeed mankind’s control over the natural world.
Additionally, the objects arranged on the bedside by the head of the female figure represent a classic still life composition. Souza's still-life paintings are often vested with an element of the sacred. Here, the artist's reference to the Catholic Church is exemplified through the vessels on the table, which suggest the liturgy of the holy sacrament of Communion. Even the reds, greens, blues and yellows of the receptacles are suggestive of the stained glass windows of Catholic churches that Souza vividly remembered from his youth.
In terms of scale, subject, period and provenance Birth represents the magnum opus of Souza’s career, and sets itself apart from so many modernist works of the time in that it was considered a triumph by the artist’s critics and contemporaries. In 1958 Souza was one of five painters invited to represent Great Britain in the Guggenheim International Award, and Birth was selected for his submission. Exhibited alongside works by artists like Ben Nicholson, John Bratby, Terry Frost and Ceri Richards, this was a tremendous achievement for an artist who was unrecognized, bankrupt and on the brink of returning to India defeated only four years earlier.
Birth, considered of such significance to be worthy of representing Great Britain in an international award exhibition, embodies the moment in which Souza was elevated to a truly global platform. The significance of Birth is momentous, not just for Souza’s own oeuvre but for Indian Modernism as well. It is the manifestation of the moment when an Indian painter, once shunned for his depictions of nude women, alighted on the international stage at the highest level to speak simultaneously for two nations, the United Kingdom and India. Birth revealed to the world that Souza’s formative years were decidedly behind him, and, in perfect symmetry with the painting itself, a modern master was born.