Still Life with Bread and Fish represents a compositional cornerstone in Francis Newton Souza’s oeuvre and the foundation upon which the artist built some of his most significant biblical compositions. Souza had a strict Catholic upbringing in Portuguese Goa and as such became heavily influenced by the pomp and ceremony of the Church. “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." (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 42)
Still Life with Bread and Fish references the biblical miracle in which Jesus feeds a multitude of five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish. The accompanying vessels on the table suggest the liturgy of the holy sacrament of Communion. Even the greens, blues and yellows on the palette are suggestive of stained glass windows of Catholic churches. Souza’s treatment of the white almost chalk like background, however, owes more to his influential contemporary Francis Bacon (1909-92) with whom he had a long standing relationship having exhibited together in 1954.
Souza reveals through this painting his ability to transcend genres. This still life of kitchenware and food becomes a commentary both on religion, humanity and the nature of painting itself. The menacing almost grotesque fish with razor, fang-like teeth and serpent-like loaf of bread, that appears to writhe on the table, reveal a wry yet sinister gravitas. Souza would himself state that “Painting for me is not beautiful. It is as ugly as a reptile. I attack it […] It is the serpent in the grass that is really fascinating. Glistening, jewelled, writhing in the green grass. Poisoned fangs and cold blooded […] treacherous like Satan, yet beautiful like Him.” (Artist statement cited in E. Mullins, Souza, 1962, p. 30) Souza here paradoxically uses the still-life genre to expresses dichotomies of good and evil; the divine and the human and the grotesque and the beautiful.
One of the largest examples of the genre from the period, Still Life with Bread and Fish was painted in 1962, the same year Anthony Blond published Edwin Mullins’s key monograph Souza, in which the present painting is illustrated. By the early 1960s, Souza was enjoying domestic and international acclaim. Having had his most successful solo exhibition to date in 1961 at Gallery One, Souza went on to have several exhibitions in galleries across Europe. The present painting is an example of a seminal subject at a moment for an artist unquestionably at the peak of his powers.