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Priest with Chalice

Souza, F.N.
Priest with Chalice
signed and dated 'Souza 53' (upper right); further signed, dated and titled 'F.N. SOUZA / 1953 / Priest with Chalice' (on the reverse)
oil on board
36 x 23 7/8 in. (91.4 x 60.6 cm.)
Painted in 1953
The London Arts Group, Detroit
Corporate collection, Michigan, March 1977
Acquired from the above by the present owner, July 1988
Indian Painting Now, exhibition catalogue, London, 8 January - 7 February, 1965, no. 74 (illustrated, unpaginated)
This work is included in the consignment listing of Eugene I. Schuster, London Arts Group, Detroit
London, Commonwealth Institute of Arts, Indian Painting Now, 8 January - 7 February, 1965
Traveled to Newcastle Upon Tyne, Laing Art Gallery, 20 February - 13 March, 1965; Kilmarnock, Dick Institute, 20 March - 10 April, 1965; Darlington, Darlington Art Gallery, 17 April - 8 May, 1965; Cardiff, National Museum of Wales, 15 May - 5 June, 1965; Aberdeen, Aberdeen Art Gallery, 12 June - 3 July, 1965; Huddersfield, Huddersfield Art Gallery, 10-31 July 1965

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Lot Essay

Souza’s treatment of the figurative image is richly varied. Besides the violence, the eroticism and the satire, there is a religious quality about his work, a terrible grandeur which even Rouault and Sutherland have not equalled in this century
- Edwin Mullins, 1962

Francis Newton Souza was born in the Portuguese colony of Goa and raised as a practicing Roman Catholic. As he has wrote, his visual repertoire was deeply influenced by the spectacle and ceremony of the churches he visited with his grandmother as a child. 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).

As an adult, however, Souza became more and more cynical of organized religion, and his admiration for the Church was colored by strong feelings of antipathy towards its representatives, who he saw as hypocrites driven by greed and power. Noting this change, the critic Geeta Kapur wrote, “An irony based on a deep-seated suspicion of authority becomes the marked characteristic of his subsequent work and he uses the transfixed, frontal aspect of the figure to convey a feeling of petrification associated with authority [...] the theme of hypocrisy and the Church, in so far as it symbolises absolute authority and camouflages with subtle cunning the hypocrisies of the elite, has remained one of the most important subjects of his paintings [...] The recurring portraits of priests, prophets, cardinals, and Popes are therefore to be taken literally for what they are but also symbolically as representatives of institutions and authority, only more treacherous in that they claim divine sanction. That is to say, the villains of the Catholic Church he represents are both real and allegorical. It is this double connotation of fact and symbol and his interlocked feelings of secret fascination and objective disgust which make Souza’s handling of religious figures so unique” (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. 20).

The present lot, one of the earliest and most powerful portraits of the clergy that Souza painted, draws equally from Spanish Romanesque traditions of religious painting and the work of modern Expressionist painters. While the frontal gaze of the priest portrayed here and his richly brocaded tunic is influenced by the figures in medieval Catalan frescoes, Souza’s technique of almost sculpting in paint, using thick black lines, owes a strong debt to the work of the French artist Georges Rouault. “Some of the things that characterized Rouault’s work were his manner of handling pigment; his line-bound figures; frontal, icon-like compositions. The thickly caked surface Rouault developed at the same time subdued as it enriched the colour; but what is more important, it gave the image an extraordinary tactile quality: the face or figure was virtually sculpted out of the thick, porus layers of paint. This Souza borrowed, also the frontal formalization of the figure; its definition in heavy black line; and its placement in a strict spatial enclosure” (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, New Delhi, 1978, p. 16).

Here, the dark figure of the priest stands out against a tightly cropped golden-ochre backdrop, much like a Romanesque icon. The rich fabric of his high-collared tunic is elaborately patterned, with thick black curlicues overlaying a finely checkered ground. From under its black designs, flashes of red, green and blue add to its opulence, and heighten the enigmatic nature of the subject. While his face is not distorted like those of the subjects in the artist’s later portraits of mean, priests and saints, it is shrouded in mystery. Foreshadowing a series of black paintings he worked on more than a decade later, the artist masterfully etches the features of the priest by manipulating the textures and opacity of this single dark pigment. Turned slightly to his right, the priest’s eyes are expressionless, and his mouth almost hidden by an impressive, tapered beard.

The finely decorated chalice that the priest holds in his right hand overtly references both the Last Supper and the Eucharist, the final meal before Jesus Christ was crucified, when he transubstantiated the wine from his cup into his own blood. Usually paired with the chalice, the host or Communion wafer represents the bread at the table which Jesus turned into the flesh of his body. Here, Souza portrays the host as a radiant blue sphere, elevated above the chalice after its consecration, to underline that its transubstantiation into the Body of Christ has occurred. These Biblical miracles inform the holy sacrament of Communion, taken at Roman Catholic mass.

After remaining in a private American collection for almost fifty years, it is an honor to be able to present this magnificent early portrait by Souza in public again. Easily categorized as one of what Souza’s biographer Edwin Mullins terms his “real masterpieces”, the impact of this painting is profound. “Even with his finest paintings [...] the concentrated passion with which they were created may seem to burn over the canvas, yet the nature of the passion is less easy to place. They are full of apparent contradictions: agony wit, pathos and satire, aggression and pity. Their impact is certain but few people are able to explain what has hit them [...] Like Picasso, too, his inventions have tended to be thought outrageous, because the imagination that created them was discovering something about the visual world which no one as yet understood, or which everyone had forgotten” (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, pp. 39-40).

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