Picasso shook hands with us warmly. I felt some kind of supernatural, phenomenal power radiate even from his finger tips [...] Here was the man before us, who had changed the entire art of the whole world, his influence radiating even in poetry, literature, architecture, publicity, music and drama.
- Francis Newton Souza, Thought, 22 June 1951
“You remember, don’t you, that the picture was at first called The Brothel at Avignon. And do you know why? Avignon is the name that is linked to my life in Barcelona. There I lived only a few steps away from the Calle d’Avignon. That is where I always used to buy my paper and paints under the gaze of prostitutes.” (P. Picasso, Words and Confessions, 1954, quoted in A. Kurtha, Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ahmedabad, 2006, p. 55)
These words, which give the title’s exegesis for Picasso’s painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), also set the context in which Francis Newton Souza painted Young Ladies from Belsize Park more than fifty years later in 1962. At that time, Souza was living in Hampstead, London, whose bustling atmosphere and nearby red light area of Belsize Park echoed Picasso’s description of Barcelona. The year 1962 marked thirteen years since Souza left India, and was already established both in the London and Paris art scenes, and was also exhibiting in Rome and Geneva. His art, qualified as too outrageous in India, blossomed in Europe enabling him to explore subjects like the female figure in his work as a powerful and subversive aesthetic tool.
In the first monograph on Souza’s oeuvre, published the same year as the present work, the art critic Edwin Mullins draws a comparison between Souza and Picasso, stating, “Like Picasso he is restlessly inventive, and the [subtlety] of his art is at times masked by the sheer vigour of his brushwork. 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)
Souza was indeed profoundly struck by Picasso’s art and personality, and when he and his fellow artists Syed Haider Raza and Akbar Padamsee met the master in Paris in 1951, he would describe this encounter as a defining moment. In Young Ladies from Belsize Park, Souza borrows from Picasso’s ‘visual world’ by channeling the compositional structure of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Interestingly, Picasso was himself influenced by El Greco’s The Opening of the Fifth Seal (1608) in the creation of this masterpiece
that introduced the world to the artistic idea of Cubism. This fascinating genealogy illuminates a tool both Picasso and Souza used constantly, quoting Old Masters such as Diego Velàsquez (Las Meninas, 1656) or Titian (The Venus of Urbino, 1538) as counterpoint in their most renowned paintings.
The stylistic influence of traditional African art played into Picasso’s Cubist breakthrough, and similarly finds a resonance in Souza’s painting. The latter would have likely seen the exhibition of Nigerian tribal sculpture at the Arts Council in London in 1960, held to mark Nigeria’s independence. Eddie Chambers explains that “Picasso’s painting was itself a sampling, an appropriation, of the dramatic elements of line, shape, and form that were such a compelling aspect of the objects of African art [...] Picasso sampled African art, and Souza, in Young Ladies of Belsize Park, made explicit, or reminded viewers of, the connection.” (E. Chambers, Black Artists in the
British Art: A History since the 1950s, New York, 2014, unpaginated)
This lineage of inspirations underlines a larger context at the turn of the century, showing that artists, such as the generation of the ‘École de Paris’, would dig into a much wider iconographical horizon than what their backgrounds may have suggested. Souza’s female figures delineated in brutal and somber lines, emerge from a rich background, recalling a colorful tribal fabric. Each figure mirrors the postures of Picasso’s Demoiselles in a simplified style that is almost more primitive. There is a sensuality, however, exuded from these five figures, distorted but carefully assembled, which Souza distilled from his analysis of the voluptuous traditional sculptures of the Khajuraho temples in India. Projecting this brothel scene in his own context, Souza delivers a raw transfiguration of what he sees as contemporary icons.
Young Ladies from Belsize Park represents a watershed moment in Souza’s artistic career. It carries in both its aesthetic and theme a statement about the artist’s oeuvre, highlighting his influence but also marking a shift in his style. In the catalogue of his exhibition at Gallery One, London, in 1961, Souza sums it up poetically, saying, “It’s all very well to talk in metaphors about having roots in one’s own country. But roots need water from clouds forming over distant seas; and from rivers having sources in different lands.” (Artist
statement, E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p.6)
For further discussion of Souza’s years in London, see lot 230.