Untitled (Man in Blue Tunic)
signed and dated 'Souza 61' (upper center); further inscribed '23" x 42" - / 0026' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
41 ½ x 23 3/8 in. (105.4 x 59.4 cm.)
Painted in 1961
Private Collection, New York

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Nishad Avari
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Lot Essay

Francis Newton Souza painted this special portrait in 1961, having at last cemented his position within London's artistic circles. The 1960s in London represented a vibrant moment of exchange between likeminded artists and their contemporaries. Souza was, at this point, recognized as a member of the now renowned ‘London School’, and was totally immersed in the bohemian creative circles of hedonistic Soho. It was in this heady period that Souza's style, particularly in terms of portraiture, dramatically evolved, most notably in his use of thinner lines and multiple oval ocular forms in his portraits. The year that he painted this portrait, Souza stated, “I started using more than two eyes, numerous eyes and fingers on my paintings and drawings of human figures when I realised what it meant to have the superfluous and so not need the necessary. Why should I be sparse and parsimonious when not only this world, but worlds in space are open to me? I have everything to use at my disposal” (Artist statement, F N SOUZA, exhibition catalogue, London, 1961).

In this portrait, Souza brings this new dynamic style to his signature works that depicted the heads and torsos of male figures, particularly those associated with power and religion. Here, the tall pseudo-autobiographical figure is dotted with almost demonic eyes, placed high in his forehead. Dressed in an ornate blue tunic and standing against a bright red tapestry like background, this figure is evocative of members of the Roman Catholic Church. Souza, having been brought up in Catholic Goa, a former Portuguese colony, was obsessive about the rituals and vestments of religion. In his critically acclaimed 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, 1959, p.10).

For Souza, religious figures such as priests were objects both of veneration and repudiation, a paradox he wrote about in his semi-autobiographical essay, Nirvana of a Maggot. He discusses a friendship he struck up with a vicar on a trip to Goa, writing, “The vicar of the village church was a man of great religious fervour, unlike those others one meets in Goa who take priesthood and make it a mercenary end. The sacerdotal profession is a lucrative business there. The vicar and I became fiends […] a sinner could be a good friend of a saint and a saint must necessarily be a friend of the sinner” (Artist statement, Ibid., p.15).

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