Head in a Landscape

Head in a Landscape
signed and dated 'Souza 58' (upper right); further inscribed, dated and titled 'F. N. SOUZA / 1958 / "HEAD IN A LANDSCAPE" ' (on the reverse)
oil on board
24 x 48 in. (60.9 x 121.9 cm.)
Painted in 1958
Schuster Gallery, Detroit
The collection of the artist
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 188 (illustrated)

This work is illustrated in the consignment listing of Eugene I. Schuster, London Arts Group, Detroit

Lot Essay


In 1949, Francis Newton Souza left Bombay under a cloud of controversy. His paintings had been deemed too explicit and provocative by the authorities, and Souza moved to London in search of a more liberal audience for his art. It was here that he would remain for the better part of two decades - a period that would define his career. Souza arrived in London a virtually unknown artist. Over his first five years in the United Kingdom, a country still recovering from the aftermath of World War II, the artist struggled to establish himself in the city’s bohemian art and literary circles. In these early years, in search of work and patronage, Souza travelled to Paris in 1952 on a grant, where he was reunited with his fellow Indian modernists Syed Haider Raza and Akbar Padamsee. He travelled across Europe, exhibiting at the Galerie St. Placide (1952) and Galerie Raymond Creuze (1953 and 1954) in Paris, as well as in Zurich (1953) and Rome (1953), before returning to his London home near Belsize Park in Hampstead. In fact, by 1954, Souza was on the brink of conceding defeat and returning to India. As his first biographer, Edwin Mullins noted, “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 within a year Souza found himself considered among the most exciting painters in London. The mid-1950s represent the apex of Souza’s artistic career. His work won him plaudits and patrons as well as acclaim from key art critics of the time including Edward Mullins and David Sylvester who likened the expressionistic, grotesque nature of Souza's work with that of Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon, with whom he exhibited in London. In 1955 Souza wrote his innovative autobiographical essay, ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’, commissioned and published by his friend the poet Stephen Spender in Encounter magazine, which Spender himself edited. Spender was a patron and key supporter of Souza during this critical period and it is no surprise he is the subject of several of his paintings (see lot 263).

This publication coincided with Souza’s first solo exhibition at Victor Musgrave’s prestigious Gallery One in London. This landmark exhibition drew praise from John Berger, the renowned art critic, who devoted a whole article to it in the New Statesman. Other well-known critics like Andrew Forge and George Butcher wrote articles on the artist that appeared in publications such as the Guardian and the London Times. Souza would hold several successful exhibitions over the next decade with Gallery One which soon moved to more impressive premises at D’Arblay Street in Soho. The 1950s and 60s represented a critical moment of exchange between likeminded artists and their contemporaries. Souza had become a significant artist of the period and was totally immersed in the Soho bohemian creative circles where he met the influential artist Francis Bacon.

Fate once again played its part when, on a trip to Paris in 1956, Souza met Harold Kovner, a wealthy New York hospital owner. Kovner was struck by Souza’s work and became his first major patron commissioning many of his most significant works over the following four years. With financial support and gallery representation, Souza embarked on more ambitious and fruitful artistic projects over the next decade. 1958-9 was especially significant for Souza in London, and it was during these years that he painted some of his most lauded works including Head in a Landscape (lot 230), The Politicians (lot 264) and Standing Nude in City Background (lot 210). In 1958 Souza was selected as one of five painters, alongside Ben Nicholson, John Bratby, Terry Frost, and Ceri Richards, to represent Great Britain in the Guggenheim International Award show with his monumental painting Birth, a painting which Christie’s was honored to bring to auction in 2015 and which holds the world auction record for the artist. The following year Souza painted Crucifixion, a masterpiece which is in the permanent collection of the Tate Britain. This productive decade concluded with the 1959 publication by Villiers of Souza’s ambitious book Words and Lines.

By the turn of the decade, Souza had cemented his position within the London art scene and turned his attention to include continental Europe. In 1960 he was invited to Rome on a scholarship from the Italian Government, where he painted a series of twenty-seven works that were later exhibited at Gallery One. In 1962, Anthony Blond published the first monograph on Souza written by Edwin Mullins, still regarded as a quintessential publication on the artist’s work of this critical period.

Souza’s stay in London concluded in 1967 when with the backing of Eugene Schuster, owner of the London Arts Group with galleries in London, New York and Detroit, he migrated to the United States of America, settling in New York. This transatlantic voyage ended a chapter that represented a seminal period in the career of one of the most renowned masters of modern Indian art.


Head in a Landscape realizes in a single painting the creative impetus of Souza’s most formative decade. It is the culmination both in subject and technique of a master at the height of a period recognized as his creative zenith. Painted in 1958, the year Souza was selected to represent Great Britain in the Guggenheim International Award exhibition, this work marks a major milestone in Souza's artistic career.

Having won critical recognition, patronage and gallery representation by 1955, Souza seized the opportunity to perfect his unique artistic idiom. The famed art critic John Berger had already highlighted the artist's originality in an article in the New Statesman, noting “Analysis breaks down and intuition takes over. It is obvious that he [Souza] is a superb designer and an excellent draughtsman. But I find it impossible to assess his work comparatively. Because he straddles several traditions but serves none” (J. Berger, A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 190)

In Head in a Landscape, Souza, with characteristic wit, combines two of his most significant genres of the period, namely the pseudo-religious portrait and the city landscape. The central figure is rendered with the artist’s distinctive skill as a draughtsman, using thick black lines and finer crosshatching. The eyes are characteristically raised high in the forehead and the beard and facial features hold a passing resemblance to the artist’s own likeness. The protagonist is dressed in an ornate, bright red tunic evocative of those associated with the Catholic church. Souza having been brought up in Catholic Goa, a former Portuguese colony, was obsessed with the rituals and vestments of religion. He stated, “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) Religious figures, such as the priest, for Souza, were both venerated and repudiated, a paradox which he wrote about in Words & Lines, saying, “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, Words & Lines, London, 1959, p. 15)

The priest-like figure is perfectly positioned at the center foreground of a cityscape, typical for Souza at this time. The corniced buildings, powerfully angled facades and piercing steeples that flank him on either side allude to the Catholic architecture which informed so much of Souza's oeuvre. Here, cathedral-like structures are constructed from geometric and modular forms and the palette of luminescent blues, greens and reds pay homage to the brilliantly ornamented stained glass windows of Catholic churches. Pools of green are perhaps a nod to the natural world, setting up a trichotomy between the natural, manmade and religious in this painting. Painted during the Cold War, a time of global uncertainty, Souza creates a poignant tension as to the future of the world. This protagonist stands in the foreground adorned in the robes of the church with harsh angled features where each cross-hatch doubles as an arrow across his face. Souza presents this monumental figure as saint and sinner, savior and condemner standing dominion between salvation and damnation. Few works so perfectly encapsulate the aesthetic and social concerns of this artist at the peak of his powers.

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