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Men in Boats

Souza, F.N.
Men in Boats
inscribed, titled and dated 'F.N. SOUZA / Men in boats / 1945' (on the reverse)
oil on board
28 x 29 ¾ in. (72.1 x 75.6 cm.) image; 31 ½ x 32 ¼ in. (80 x 81.9 cm.) board
Painted in 1945
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner
A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 136 (illustrated)

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Lot Essay

“I attended the JJ School of Art in Bombay. I was 16 years old. I didn't get the diploma. Within five years, I was expelled for political reasons during the Quit India movement. The director of the school of art was British. So I went to Goa and painted. Pictures of peasants tolling in the fields, fisherfolk, priests, Goan women, landscapes. I was amazed to see seeds grow out of the soil, forming beautiful shoots, leaves, buds, flowers! During the monsoon the skies where thick grey, massive clouds rolled, clashing against each other, causing zigzags of electric lightning followed by crashing thunder! Apparently, the lightning puts nitrates and other chemicals in the soil! There's no cause without effect. Wondrous nature! Rains, winds and thunder-storms day and night during the monsoon! At night in bed, I wondered what it was all about, why nature behaved this way? Outside, fireflies glittered! Owls hooted! Foxes came from the hills into the hen-coops and escaped with the quarry! These were very interesting subjects to paint for a young artist. Today, after several decades of painting, I don't need subjects: my painting contains that subject. Art is not what you think it is but what the artist thinks it is. Art has advanced that far today” (Artist statement, The Illustrated Weekly of India, 14-20 September 1991).

Francis Newton Souza was born in Saligao in Goa, and moved to Bombay with his widowed mother Lilia Mary Antunes as a teenager. Bombay, however, proved a struggle with Lilia barely making ends meet through her dressmaking, and Souza contracting smallpox, a disease which was commonly fatal at the time. A devout Catholic, Lilia prayed to St. Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa, for her son’s survival, pledging that should he recover, not only would her son devote his life to the Church but also adopt Francis as his Christian name which was originally Newton. Souza did fortuitously recover and Lilia did enroll him in St. Francis Xavier’s Jesuit School, only for him to be expelled for among other transgressions, adorning the school bathrooms with pornographic graffiti. This set the precedent for Souza’s rebellious ambitions.

Instead of joining the Church, Souza enrolled in the Sir Jamshedjee Jeejebhoy School of Art in Bombay in 1940. Although he found the classes there instructive, particularly on the fundamentals of drawing and painting from anatomy to still life, Souza soon became frustrated with their limited and prescriptive scope, which focused on the aesthetics of an outdated academic realism and European art of the nineteenth century. The young student became increasingly influenced by art and politics outside his formal education. The arrival of a group of Jewish émigrés from war ravaged Europe, including the Austrian art teacher and painter Walter Langhammer, German art critic, Rudolf Von Leyden and Austrian collector Emanuel Schlesinger, played a critical role in Souza’s artistic development during this period. Langhammer’s Bombay apartment became a meeting place where young artists learned of developments in modern art in Europe, and pored over reproductions of the works that represented new directions and movements in the international art world. Souza’s desire for a more Avant Garde art colored his politics as well. He became passionately revolutionary in his views, and in 1945 at the age of twenty-one was ultimately expelled from art school as well for his role in protests against its British Director, Charles Gerrard during the Quit India movement.

Disillusioned with the struggles and perceived injustices of Bombay, Souza returned to Goa where he fell back in love with its landscape and people, which acted as a creative tonic. He entered a productive but brief period, working mostly on paper painting jewel-like works in gouache that depicted village life, paddy fields, musicians, farmers, fishermen, boats and the lush, productive landscape of his native Goa. The warm landscape rendered in vivid colors make Souza’s paintings from this period instantly recognizable. It was during this formative period that the artist painted the present lot, Men in Boats, in 1945. In this stunning early painting, Souza transposes the exquisite romantic treatment of his Goan works on paper to the more ambitious scale of an oil painting on board. This work, which may well be the largest early oil by the artist to be documented, is painted in rich impasto. Using textural brushwork, Souza depicts a busy seascape with group of mariners on small traditional small fishing boats exchanging cargo between them to be transported away. In the background, several other boats cut across the horizon in a busy Goan day at sea. The marked flags atop the masts, differentiated skin coloring and conquistador-like helmet adorned by the central figure who is pushing his boat off from another, suggest a specific narrative that speaks to the multicultural nature of Goa but also transcends specific chronologies and geographies. While this could be an image of an active Goan trading port in 1945, it also references its Portuguese Conquistador colonisers such as Afonso de Albuquerque. Although Souza leaves this question formally unanswered, his larger body of work from this period suggests the former.

Many of the works Souza created after his expulsion from art school, such as Family (1946) and Indian Family (1947), are characterized by their brazen propaganda and social realism depicting the country’s impoverished proletariat. What makes Men in Boats so enthralling is that Souza focuses on the working man not as a downtrodden victim but as an inspiring romantic hero. Here Souza reveals the stark difference between urban and pastoral India. His choice to stylize the figures, distinguishable by the rainbow of skin tones, stands starkly apart from the figures of beggars and street urchins he painted the next few years, which drew criticism for allowing politics to dominate his aesthetic choices.

In the present lot, the works of European artists, particularly Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, that Souza would have seen in reproductions, can also be seen to have influenced the artist’s color palette and the treatment of his figures. The pink sky, possibly suggesting early dawn, contrasts sumptuously against the bright blue sea, yellow boats and colorful pennants. On the reverse of this exceptional painting is an elegant and simple line drawing of a still life of flowers, over which the artist has inscribed the title, dated and signed the work. The fact that he signed ‘Souza’ rather than ‘Newton’, as he more commonly did at this time, suggests this was a work the artist cherished for many years. 1945 was also the year of Souza’s first solo exhibition, and this painting marks this first major step on a career that would go on to establish him as one of the most celebrated masters of Indian modern art.

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