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The Lovers

Souza, F.N.
The Lovers
signed and dated 'Souza 1960' (upper left); inscribed 'F.N. Souza / 83 ; A.125' (on Gallery One label on the reverse)
oil on board heightened with gold
46 ½ x 34 in. (118.1 x 86.4 cm.)
Painted in 1960
Gallery One, London
Acquired from the above by the late Robin Howard CBE
Thence by descent to the present owner
E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 86 (illustrated)
G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, pl. 13 (illustrated)

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Lot Essay

The Lovers, painted in 1960, is one of Francis Newton Souza’s most iconic representations of a subject that was a cornerstone of his artistic practice. Souza was fascinated with historical depictions of lovers and their unique significance in global visual culture. From Indian court paintings to the temple sculptures of Mathura and Khajuraho, and from Spanish Romanesque painting and the work of European Old Masters to tribal art from Africa and European Modernism, the iconic trope is universal and deeply rooted in art history. In India, the depiction of the loving couple or mithuna was considered auspicious and dates back to antiquity.

Souza was never one to shy away from explicit representations of love and sex, having been expelled from his school for decorating the bathroom walls with lurid graffiti. However, the real turning point in his engagement with the theme of sex and lovers in his practice was a fateful trip to New Delhi in 1948 with fellow artist and close friend Maqbool Fida Husain to see an exhibition of classical Indian sculpture and painting. Both artists found the exhibition a revelation. As Husain recalled, “We went to Delhi together to see that big exhibition of Indian sculptures and miniatures which was shown in 1948 [...] It was humbling [...] That was the breaking point [...] To come out of the influence of British Academic painting and the Bengal revivalist school” (M.F. Husain in P. Nandy, The Illustrated Weekly of India, December 4-10, 1983).

The most immediate impact of this moment was seen in Souza’s 1949 paintings Lovers and Jealous Lovers, executed in his vivid tribal style of the period. In fact, these early depictions of nudes and couples gained Souza notoriety in India, with more conservative members of the public condemning his work as radical, resulting in police raids at his exhibitions. Failing to find an appreciative audience in India for his art, Souza left the country for London in 1949.

After an initial struggle to make a name for himself in London, by 1960, when he painted this magnificent double portrait, Souza had found both patronage and critical acclaim, through no small part with the support of Gallery One, its owner Victor Musgrave, and one of his silent investors, Robin Howard. Five years after his breakthrough one-man show at Gallery One, Souza had now established himself in London’s artistic and literary circles. 1960 in the city represented a vibrant moment of exchange between likeminded artists and their contemporaries, and Souza came to be a significant member of a group of artists now referred to as the ‘London School’. Having cemented his position within the London art scene, Souza turned his attentions to continental Europe, and the same year, was invited to Rome on a scholarship from the Italian Government, where he painted a series of twenty-seven works which were later exhibited at Gallery One.

This trip to Rome enhanced Souza’s lifelong fascination with the Catholic Church. Brought up as a Catholic in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, Souza’s mother had intended him to join the cloth himself as a Jesuit following his miraculous recovery from smallpox as a young boy. Souza, however, had very different ideas, and as the perennial enfant terrible, used the Church more as a source of inspiration both for veneration and repudiation through his art. Despite his fraught relationship with the Church and its representatives, the artist remained obsessive about its rites and rituals. In his seminal 1955 publication Words & Lines, the artist 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“ (Artist statement, Words & Lines, London, 1955, p. 10). For Souza, religious figures like priests and saints became figures of both of reverence and renunciation, a paradox he wrote about the same year in his famous semi-autobiographical essay ‘Nirvana of a Maggot’.

The present lot spectacularly combines the artist’s fascination with religion and sex, his commentary on the Church and his exploration of the theme of lovers, into a single harmonious composition. Many of Souza’s depictions of the clergy convey his sardonic commentary on the hypocrisy of the Church and those in positions of power. Lots 604 and 606 from this same collection of pictures depict a priest and cardinal respectively, and epitomize Souza’s complex relationship with organized religion. Souza’s portraits of influential social and religious figures echo the raw emotion and psychological depth seen in the works of the artists he admired, while simultaneously expressing his own unique, cynical vision of the world. His use of bold brushstrokes, strong black outlines, and a vivid palette creates a sense of dynamism and intensity, capturing the viewer’s attention and conveying the complexity of his inner world. In The Lovers, Souza takes this complexity further, making this double portrait one of the artist’s most significant and impressive masterpieces of the period.

The monumental scale of The Lovers belies the sensitivity and warmth conveyed by the image. The pseudo-autobiographical portrait presents a couple in tender embrace. While the male figure could perhaps represent the artist, his companion may well be modelled on Liselotte Kristian, who was Souza’s partner at the time and featured in many of his paintings from the period. The brilliant reds, yellows, greens and oranges of the two subjects’ tunics are heightened with gold, giving the work a sense of opulence in addition to its tenderness. These tunics are likely a reference to the clergy, especially those in Rome, the epicentre of the Catholic Church. The glistening palette, unique to Souza’s work of the period, shimmers like the stained glass windows found in so many churches Souza would have undoubtedly visited there the same year.

Souza’s signature thick black line gives this painting a sculptural element, which together with the theme of the lovers or mithuna suggests this is an update of the early examples of the same subject the artist painted a decade earlier, drawing heavily from Indian temple carvings. With so many iconic, violent and sexualised works painted by Souza at the same time, The Lovers represents a charming deviation in his oeuvre. This warm, tender scene, pairing the closed eyes of the woman and her hand resting on her partner’s heart with his protective embrace, shows Souza at his sensitive best. 1960 was also the year that Souza gave up alcohol, having had several turbulent years abusing drink the prior decade. Perhaps the solemnity of this moving and emotionally charged picture is a visual representation of a moment of sobriety and clarity for the artist at the time.

This picture synthesizes the themes of love and religion within one exquisite painting, and the artist’s use of color heightened with gold make this perhaps the only work of its kind. Acquired by Robin Howard (see provenance note for more information), the work was clearly considered one of the finest within Souza’s oeuvre by the artist, his gallerist and patron. Also underlining its importance, The Lovers was published in the famous 1962 monograph on the artist by Edwin Mullins and Geeta Kapur’s seminal 1978 publication, Contemporary Indian Artists. Until now, however, it has only been known as a black and white reproduction. This painting is without doubt one of the most significant works created by the artist at what is widely considered to be the apex of his career, and it is a great privilege to present it in public again after more than half a century.

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