Still Life

Still Life
signed and dated 'Souza 58' (center left)
oil on board
35 5⁄8 x 48 in. (90.5 x 121.9 cm.)
Painted in 1958
The Collection of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry
Thence by descent
Sotheby's New York, 22 March 2007, lot 16
Acquired from the above
E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 4 (illustrated)
The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, exhibition brochure, London, 1965
B. Platts, 'The Architect as Collector: The Modern Collection of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew', Country Life, 29 September 1966, p. 782 (partially illustrated)
A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 115 (illustrated)
King's Lynn, Fermoy Art Gallery, The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, 23 January - 13 February, 1965
Lincoln, Usher Art Gallery, The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, 20 February - 13 March, 1965
Exeter, Exe Gallery, The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, 22 March - 9 April, 1965
Walsall, Central Library and Art Gallery, The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, 17 April - 8 May, 1965
Cardiff, Arts Council Gallery, The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, 15 May - 5 June, 1965
Stafford, Stafford Art Gallery, The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, 12 June - 3 July, 1965
London, Hayward Gallery, The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain, 29 November 1989 - 4 February 1990
Wolverhampton, Wolverhampton Art Gallery, The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain, 10 March - 22 April, 1990
Manchester, Manchester City Art Gallery and Cornerhouse,The Other Story: Afro-Asian Artists in Post-war Britain, 5 May - 10 June, 1990

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Lot Essay

Some of the most moving of Souza's paintings are those which convey a spirit of awe in the presence of a divine power […] In his religious work there is a quality of fearfulness and terrible grandeur which even Rouault and Sutherland have not equalled in this century.
- Edwin Mullins, 1962

Painted in 1958, Still Life represents an important cornerstone in Francis Newton Souza’s oeuvre, and is probably the finest example in the genre of still-life by the artist. At first glance, the highly structured setting appears domestic, secular and mundane. However, on closer inspection, a deep religious symbolism is found encoded in its components, revealing the blueprint for many of the artist’s most important paintings of the 1950s and 60s.

Souza was born in the Portuguese colony of Goa and raised as a practicing Roman Catholic. As he has stated, his visual repertoire was deeply influenced by the spectacle and ceremony of the churches he visited as a child with his grandmother. He recalls, “The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services [...] The wooden saints painted with gold and bright colours staring vacantly out of their niches. The smell of incense. And the enormous crucifix with the impaled image of a man supposed to be the Son of God, scourged and dripping, with matted hair tangled in plaited thorns. I would kneel and pray for hours. When the sacristan came around with the collection plate, I would drop on it, with great satisfaction, the large copper coin given me by my grandmother. I felt I had paid an installment for the salvation of my soul” (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 42).

One of the first ways in which Souza manifested this early influence in his work was through a series of still-lifes, painted from memory, of ecclesiastic objects placed on various types of altars. One of the most striking and significant paintings from this series, this 1958 composition portrays a resplendent group of liturgical vessels that overtly reference both the Last Supper and the Eucharist, the final meal before Jesus Christ was crucified, when he transubstantiated the wine from his chalice into his own blood and the bread into the flesh of his body. This Biblical miracle informs the holy sacrament of Communion, taken at Roman Catholic Mass. The vessels portrayed here include an ornate stein-like chalice with an unusual handle, a lidded ciborium used to hold the consecrated host, a ewer or cruet, a monstrance, a candlestick and a footed paten.

The tone of the present lot is emphasized not only in its objects, but also in the colors and structure of the checkered backdrop against which they are placed. Underscoring the importance given to ornamental altar linens in a service, this patterned backdrop also recalls the luminous stained glass windows of Catholic churches and the tunics and vestments of the priests and saints Souza often depicted in his scathing portraits from this seminal period. However, as the critic Geeta Kapur noted, Souza’s still-lifes like the present lot are not irreverent or contemptuous, representing a rare celebration of the sacred in his body of work. “They are mostly ornate vessels and sacred objects. These objects retain their ritual aspect both on account of the visual description and composition. They appear brightly burnished and sometimes carry a halo such as a devotee must imagine each holy object to possess as he sees it being carried forth in High Mass. They are, moreover, clustered formally as if on the shelf of the sacristy [...] The point is, his objects belong neither to the intimate comforts of a home nor to the glamour of the market-place, both environments being specifically bourgeois in their origins. Very curiously in the object-world he reclaims the sense of the sacred that he so consciously drains from the human being and from God” (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, pp. 29-30).

In a study for this painting from the same year, the rigor and attention Souza paid to perspective and the placement of the objects in Still Life is made clear. The objects are flattened and depicted frontally, with their jewel-like colors giving them a sense of depth. Their double-outlined forms and segmented bases echo the concentric squares of the fabric behind them, endowing this painting with a powerful architectonic presence. Painting the altar that the vessels are placed on from an aerial perspective, Souza flaunts the luminosity he is able to achieve even in a simple black surface, which shimmers with the ultramarine and orange reflections of the vessels. This treatment of dense, black pigment served as an important precursor to a significant suite of black paintings by Souza a few years later, which culminated in the exhibition Black Art & Other Paintings in 1966.

This painting was originally acquired from Souza by Maxwell Fry and Dame Jane Beverly Drew, the British architects who pioneered the style of tropical modernism. Best known for designing public buildings in Nigeria and Ghana, they also collaborated extensively with Le Corbusier on the planning and design of the Indian city of Chandigarh in the early 1950s. Throughout their career, Fry and Drew amassed a notable art collection, displayed in their London home and office. By the 1960s, the walls of their townhouse and drawing offices at 63 Gloucester Place were hung with modern works from around the world, including notable paintings by Souza, Avinash Chandra and Shanti Dave. According to Drew, the couple did not approach collecting with any particular strategy or mindset, but simply collected what they liked, largely from artists they had met in person and befriended. Their appreciation for art frequently intersected with their architectural interests: they acquired works that were aesthetically resonant to them and also collaborated with artists for specific construction projects like commissioning a large-scale glass mural from Chandra for the entrance to a commercial building they designed. The couple’s collection, including the present lot, was shown in an Arts Council exhibition that travelled around England in 1965. In the show's brochure, Drew wrote, “Works of art are the principal furniture of our home and our office [...] they are like music for the eye, and reveal beauty and order for us elsewhere by sharpening our sensitivity” (J. Drew, The Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry Collection, London, 1965, unpaginated).

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