“Somewhere behind any serious portrait painting there is a wish to gain command of a person [...] But in Souza you can see the real thing operating, you can see him closing in on his images as though they could save his life, or backing away from them as though they could kill him. Souza himself has said that he has made of his art 'a metabolism. I express myself freely in paint in order to exist.'” (A. Forge, 'Round the London Galleries', The Listener, 28 November 1957)
Head of a Woman was painted in 1956, at the apex of Francis Newton Souza’s artistic career. During this period, Souza enjoyed critical and financial success for the first time in his hitherto struggling career. Only a year earlier, Souza held his first solo exhibition at Victor Musgrave’s prestigious Gallery One in London. This landmark exhibition drew praise from John Berger, the renowned art critic, who devoted a whole article to the exhibition in the New Statesman. Further acclaim came from key art critics of the time including Edwin Mullins and David Sylvester, who likened the expressionistic, grotesque nature of Souza's work with that of Graham Sutherland and Francis Bacon. The exhibition also marked the beginning of a decade long association with the iconic gallery, cementing Souza’s position amongst the city's cultural intelligentsia.
1956, the year this portrait was painted, was pivotal for Souza. On one of his trips to Paris, he came face to face with his first major patron, Harold Kovner, a wealthy New York hospital owner. “In 1956 Harold Kovenor, a wealthy American had come over from New York [to Paris] to find a young artist whom he could take up. He saw [gallery owner] Iris Clert, who showed him all her pet abstracts, artist by artist. Kovner was unimpressed. Finally, and with some reluctance, she led him downstairs and produced several paintings by Souza. Kovner jumped. Within 24 hours he had met Souza, given him money, taken away some pictures, made arrangements for the future, and was flying back to New York […] It enabled Souza to live without acute financial worries for the first time in his life.” (E. Mullins, Souza, London, 1962, p. 26) Kovner commissioned many of Souza's most significant works over the following four years, allowing the artist to embark on some of his most ambitious and fruitful paintings during this period.
Head of a Woman epitomizes an artist at the peak of his powers freed from financial constraints and unleashed upon his work with a new, voracious appetite. The subject of this portrait, represented as a half-length bust, captures Souza’s most iconic artistic qualities. Rich impasto broken with thick black lines reveals a menacing mask life face that borrows from primitivism with its elongated totemic snout, and wildly barbed black hair. Picasso's influence is seen in the darkened elliptical eyes, encircled by exaggerated lashes that slice through the cheeks and face. Souza extends these lashes to look partly like the tears of a stricken woman, and partly like hyperbolic instruments of seduction and violence in an almost ironic, paradoxical take on the trope of the femme fatale.
Unusually for Souza, who depicted women as creatures of beauty, purity or desire, the subject in this painting is represented in the vestments of the Catholic Church, and even wears a rosary around her neck. Set against a chalky white and blue background, this portrait embodies intentional paradoxes, bringing together the feminine, the primal, the deadly, the desolate and the religious in what is perhaps one of the finest examples of the genre to come to auction.