Francis Newton Souza's powerful portrait, Head in Landscape, painted in 1958, represents the culmination both in subject and technique of a master at his creative zenith. Living in Hampstead in North London, the late 1950s were arguably the most seminal and fruitful years of Souza’s career. Significantly, this portrait was painted the same year that Souza was selected as one of five artists, alongside Ben Nicholson, John Bratby, Terry Frost, and Ceri Richards, to represent Great Britain at the prestigious Guggenheim International Award. The work chosen for this award was his monumental painting Birth (1955), which sold at Christie’s in 2015 setting a new world auction record price for the artist. Crucifixion (1959), another masterpiece from this period, is part of the Tate's permanent collection highlighting the significance of Souza’s works of this period.
In Head in Landscape, Souza combines two of his most iconic genres, the male portrait and the cityscape. Here, the central male bust is exquisitely defined with Souza’s instantly recognizable black lines, applied using brush and palette knife. The figure is projected to the foreground of the composition, with his characteristically oversized eyes raised high above the brow bridged by an elongated nose leading to a pair of gnashing stitch-like teeth. The tight collar of the figure's tunic, at the base of a long, strained neck, is suggestive of the vestments of the Catholic clergy. Brought up in Catholic Goa, a former Portuguese colony, Souza was obsessive about the ritual and vestments associated with the religion. Writing in Words & Lines, published only a few years prior to the present painting, the artist noted, “The Roman Catholic Church had tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services [...] The priest dressed in richly embroider vestments, each of his garments from the biretta to the chasuble symbolising the accoutrement of Christ’s passion." (Artist statement, Words & Lines, London, 1955, p. 10)
What is most unique about Head in Landscape is Souza’s playful and virtuosic mastery of illusionistic perspective. While the man looms large like a giant in the foreground, the city in the background is foreshortened, with its structures seemingly reflected in what appears to be a pale blue river, horizontally bisecting the composition in the middle distance. Souza creates multiple horizon lines with the thick outlines of his corniced buildings, creating an illusion-like effect of multiple reflections and perspectives that discombobulates the viewer. Souza addressed the notion of illusionistic perspective stating, “By plastic manipulation of the paint with brush and knife painting, I produce a depth illusion. The in-and-out of perspective the kind of depth of illusion I am talking about is in the field of reality: Reality has perspective and proportion. The real is perceived in proportion.” (A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 212)
The landscape behind the figure in this painting is dark and foreboding, contrasted by the pale opacity of the river. The jagged black buildings may well represent the view of Westminster from the banks of the river Thames, the very heart of government in Central London. Painted during the Cold War, Souza is perhaps alluding to the politics of man in a time of great uncertainty. Despite his Marxist past, by 1958, when this portrait was painted, Souza had become disenchanted with both the left and right of politics due to the hypocrisy he saw in the politicians that represented these ideals. He writes in Words & Lines on this very subject, observing, “Presumptive politics are left in the left and right hands of fidgety men with twitching fingers […] eyes fixed on the extreme left and right side of his head so as not to be taken unawares by one side or the other." (Artist statement, Words & Lines, London, 1955, p. 23) Here, Souza’s isolated figure stands eyes split; left and right in the shadow of the Houses of Parliament. This poignant portrait, painted more than six decades ago, is as relevant today in times of global change and heightened antagonism.