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Girl with Two Men; Untitled (Study for Girl with Two Men)

Souza, F.N.
Girl with Two Men; Untitled (Study for Girl with Two Men)
signed and dated 'Souza 63' (lower left); signed and dated 'Souza 62' (lower right)
oil on canvas; ink on paper
41 x 38 in. (104.1 x 96.5 cm.); 17 5/8 x 11 ½ in. (44.8 x 29.2 cm.)
Painted in 1963; executed in 1962; one work on canvas and one work on paper
Grosvenor Gallery, London
Sotheby's New York, 24 March 2004, lot 166
Acquired from the above by the present owner
Gallery One, London
Christie's New York, 21 March 2012, lot 585
Acquired from the above by the present owner
The Human and the Divine Predicament, New Paintings by F.N. Souza, exhibition catalogue, London, 1964 (unpaginated, one listed)
Souza and Friends, exhibition catalogue, London, 2002 (unpaginated, one listed)
R.D. Cochran and B. Leigh, '100 Top Collectors who have made a difference', Art & Antiques, March 2006, p. 95 (one illustrated)
T. Sears ed., Paper Trails: Works on Paper from the Gaur Collection, Ahmedabad, 2022, pp. 28, 29 (illustrated)
London, Grosvenor Gallery, The Human and the Divine Predicament, New Paintings by F.N. Souza, 31 March - 25 April 1964 (one)
London, Grosvenor Gallery, Souza and Friends, 3-27 September 2002 (one)

Brought to you by

Nishad Avari
Nishad Avari Specialist, Head of Department

Lot Essay

Girl with Two Men and its study offer an insight into Francis Newton Souza’s sardonic self-awareness and scathing commentary on religion and patriarchal power structures in society. Souza was no stranger to sexualised imagery, exploring aspects of nudity, the male gaze and even violence in his artistic practice. In Girl with Two Men, the artist plays on multiple interpretations of a seemingly innocent scene portraying a nude female with two dressed men seated in a landscape. This is a common enough juxtaposition for the artist, who often challenged prevailing social norms, contrasting the sexualized with the sartorial, the lowbrow with the privileged elite.

This particular configuration of figures draws an immediate comparison with Édouard Manet’s iconic painting Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe from 1862-63, depicting two dressed dandies picnicking on the grass with a naked woman while another woman stands bathing in the background. Manet’s famous picture, painted exactly a century before Souza’s version, drew a great deal of controversy for breaking with academic styles in its painterly technique and depiction of flawed bodies, and also for its implication of blatant prostitution in modern society. Souza pares down his version, focusing on only the central composition, abstracting the male figures’ faces, and dressing them in garments suggestive of the Catholic clergy. This pairing of the female nude with the figures of male priests sits at the very heart of Souza’s practice, effectively rendering the present lot a microcosm for Souza’s ideology as an image maker.

Souza’s introduction of religious ideas in this iconic composition move it beyond Manet, and suggests a long line of antecedent subjects painted by the old masters and championed by Souza. The most likely inspiration would have been the story of Susanna and the Elders, famously painted by artists such as Tintoretto (1518-1594) and Artemisia Gentileschi (1593-1656). Susanna and the Elders refers to a Biblical story from the Old Testament’s Book of Daniel – a tale of voyeurism, abuse, rejection and betrayal. In this controversial narrative, Susanna, a young married woman bathed in her garden while, unbeknownst to her, two older men hid watching. The men go on to proposition the unsuspecting Susanna, threatening to denounce and vilify her if she did not comply. Despite these threats, the heroine rejected their sexual advances. The elders, who were judges and considered respected pillars of the community, then made false accusations of adultery against Susanna, a capital offence in Jewish law at the time, condemning her to death. Fortunately, Susanna’s desperate prayers for salvation were answered through an angel who found the young future prophet Daniel and told him the truth. Daniel stopped the execution, and upon cross examining the hitherto unimpeachable elders, unravelled the inconsistencies in their story. Not only was Susanna set free, but the elders, having born false witness, itself a crime punishable by death, were themselves executed.

Rendered in an unusual monochromatic palette, with the figures defined by Souza’s confident black line, this composition leaves much of the painted surface free of detail to draw the viewer into the multilayered relationship between its the three subjects. While offering a nod to Manet and Tintoretto, Souza lays bare complex contemporary power dynamics in society, and the blatant abuse of positions of privilege based on gender, power and religion. The notion of false accusations and the abuse of an innocent woman simply for rejecting sexual advances is sadly as relevant in the Old Testament and in the 1960s as it is today. The present lot and its exquisite study, which features a stunning landscape in the background, are both a celebration of the female hero and a powerful reminder of the injustices still prevalent in society.

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