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Mad Prophet in New York

Mad Prophet in New York
signed and dated 'Souza 61' (upper right); further signed, titled and dated 'F.N. SOUZA / Mad Prophet / in New York / - 1961' (on the reverse)
oil and acrylic on canvas
45 1⁄2 x 28 3⁄4 in. (115.6 x 73 cm.)
Painted in 1961
Gallery One, London
Acquired from the above by Merlin Jackson
Thence by descent
F N Souza, exhibition catalogue, London, 1961, p. 11 (illustrated)
G. Butcher, 'The Painting of Francis Souza', The Guardian, 8 November 1961 (illustrated)
E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 102 (illustrated)
A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 69 (illustrated)
London, Gallery One, F N Souza, 1961

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Lot Essay

When he was only seven years old, Peter Jackson met Francis Newton Souza’s first wife Maria and their five year old daughter Shelly playing on a beach in the sunny Spanish Beleric islands one summer in the early 1950s. The families soon became friends, and Mr. Jackson became a firm fixture in the Souza family's life. Mr. Jackson, his English father and Swedish mother lived in Newcastle in the North East of England. Just like many boys in the early 1960s, Mr. Jackson was sent to boarding school from a young age for his education. His school was all the way down in Brighton, on the South coast of England, about a day's travel from his home even on the train. Therefore, when it came to leave weekends (exeat), where children were allowed to go home to see their families, Mr. Jackson chose instead to stay in London at the Souza family home at Homer Street, bringing the families even closer together. It was over this period, in 1961-63, that the Jacksons began to acquire Souza’s work. Mr. Jackson’s father, Merlin, was the collector, and he took a keen interest in Souza’s art of the period, becoming a significant patron during the artist's rise to prominence as one of the leading London School painters of the time. The early 1960s were critical in the cementing of Souza's position within the London art scene, when he enjoyed representation at Victor Musgrave’s prestigious Gallery One, which had just moved to more impressive premises at D’Arblay Street in Soho.

One of the first purchases by the Jacksons was Mad Prophet in New York, painted in 1961 and exhibited the same year at Gallery One. This picture was so impactful, that it caught the eye of well-known critic George Butcher who published an article featuring it in the Guardian newspaper. Mad Prophet in New York along with Untitled (Landscape with Houses) (lot 646) were also illustrated a year later in Anthony Blond’s monograph on Souza, written by Edwin Mullins, which is still regarded as a quintessential publication on the artist's work of this critical period. The images printed in the exhibition catalogue and monograph were in black and white, and this is the first time that these iconic paintings from the height of Souza’s London period are being reproduced in their glorious color. Mad Prophet in New York along with the six other works from the Collection of Peter Jackson (lots 642-648) have remained in the family for six decades, and it is Christie’s privilege to offer them at auction for the very first time.

Mad Prophet in New York is an iconic example of Souza’ dynamic portraiture. The dark figure stands starkly against a brilliant blue background, representing a New York night, illuminated by the many bright lights of the city's skyscrapers. This towering pseudo-autobiographical figure displays all of the artist’s trademark features found is his most representative works. The eyes set high in the top of the head and long snout-like nose show the influence of traditional African masks, while the subject's stunningly colored tunic, rendered in magentas, yellows and greens, is a clear reference to the clergy of the Catholic church, so influential in shaping Souza’s visual language. Having just returned from a year in Rome on a scholarship from the Italian Government, it is no surprise that this imagery is so prominent in this painting, compounded by more subtle elements like the row of nails on the figure’s shoulder, an allusion to the suffering of Christ and the saints.

Souza shows his technical prowess as a painter with the figure's wonderfully long, shaggy beard. This is another visual cue referring to the many saints that Souza depicted in his work over the past decade. However, what makes this figure unique is the rich, layered tones of black that Souza uses in his rendering of the beard. An early example of the artist’s experimentation with the color black, this painting foreshadows how the hue would dominate his practice only a few years later. The beard is formally the central focus of the picture, and the the complexity of its black tones enhances the contrasting colors that surround it. This 'Mad Prophet' also has gnarled blackened arms that seem almost mutated and held up in some kind of warning. In the Gallery One exhibition catalogue from 1961, the artist speaks directly of this work stating, “The Mad Prophet in New York. Why mad? Why New York? Why the radiation-bitten hands? The only effective action to halt the drift to nuclear war is civil disobedience - Now. Or these are the last days of mankind” (Artist statement, F.N. Souza, London, 1961, p.3).

Mad Prophet in New York is, according to Souza, a painting of protest, an act of civil disobedience at the height of the Cold War. He went on to write, “I use aesthetics instead of knives and bullets to protest against stuffed shirts and hypocrites” (Artist statement, Ibid., p.3). Souza was a member of the Communist Party in India in his youth before becoming increasingly disillusioned with the autocracy of their politics. He would remain critical of political parties, likening their leaders to his much maligned characters of organized religion and big business. Another seminal work from this exhibition, Manufacturer of Nuclear Weapons, presented a demonic figure in a fur-lined coat embodying everything Souza detested about business and politics. Although the artist was known for his disfigured subjects, here their grotesqueness is literally caused by an imagined nuclear attack. In the present lot, the 'Mad Prophet' represents the fear and anxiety of what seemed to many as an inevitable nuclear apocalypse caused by fighting superpowers on either side of the Iron Curtain. In the title of the painting, however, Souza injects a mixture of humor and sadness into this horror, leaving his viewers to imagine whether this prophet's warnings of impending doom will be heeded, or whether he will be treated as a mutated outcast, a 'mad' monster shunned by society.

In the context of the Cold War, Mad Prophet in New York refers to a very specific political moment in time, but Souza’s message of protest for nuclear disarmament and equality when it comes to the sanctity of human life is as relevant today as it was then. In the opening of the 1961 catalogue for his exhibition at Gallery One, the artist published this timeless statement: “I don’t think there are superior or inferior races within the human race. But I definitely regard myself as superior to those who do” (Artist statement, Ibid., p.3).

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