I walked in one day, because I saw the golden nude through the glass window of the exhibition gallery. But it was weird, I thought, seeing myself in the woman. The golden nude was different,” said Jugneeta Sudan on her first encounter with Francis Newton Souza at an art exhibition in Goa. No artwork of his hangs in any public gallery. When people speak about Souza, they say two things in the same breath — that he is one of the most brilliant artists of modern times and that he cannot be displayed in living rooms. “A very paradoxical statement,” says Sudan, during her talk, “Making Women Visible” at TIFA Working Studios, in Pune.
“They stood tall, self-possessed or in a matter-of-fact way. A few stood laughing – a maddening laughter or a triumphant one — but surprisingly not one seemed shy, shamefaced, self-conscious or sheepish. An air of confidence infuses the body language of the nudes. They were not titillating, sexually arousing or erotic in the cliched sense,” she added to art lovers in the audience.
Goa-based Sudan added that Souza seemed to portray women more naturally than any other female portrait artists she had seen in Western art history. “He was inclined towards the sculptures of Indian temple art but with a distinctive modernistic twist. Souza’s women have been singing with utmost intensity for the last 80 years. Has anyone heard them?” she says.
Souza resurrected women from the miasma of obscene sexuality and made them sing. His women are visceral, vital, volatile, vivacious and fruitful. But the viewer, groomed on three millennia of patriarchal art where female sexuality stood for man’s fancy and fantasy did not understand it. “He was ostracised for the sexually explicit portraiture. The world was not ready for what he was telling us. So he packed his bags and moved to London to explore a ‘freer’ art world,” says Sudan.
She traces the origins of the first female nude, wherein Greek sculptor Praxiteles broke the three-century-old tradition of women representation in Greek and Egyptian artwork. Aphrodite of Knidos created by Praxiteles was the alternate idea to male heroic nudity. After the 300-year-old tradition was shattered by the sculpture, many more artworks depicted female nudes such as Sandro Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, Titian’s Venus of Urbino, Francisco Goya’s
The Nude Maja, and Paul Gauguin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching. However, the nudes also depicted sin, shyness, shame and modesty. This evolved into paintings such as Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of Life, Gustav Klimt’s Girlfriends and Amedeo Modiglian’s Reclining Nude wherein a trend was set that lasted for over 1500 years. In India, artists like Mahadev Vishwanath Dhurandhar and Raja Ravi Verma gave tough competition to their western counterparts.
But Souza had a vision that was years ahead of his time. At the age of 16, when young boys struggled with their sexuality, Souza had sketched his first nude. He absorbed the world of devadasis, and goddesses like Durga and Kali, and expressed the hypocrisy of Catholicism through his art. “He was also among the first artists to draw women heads and show pregnancy and childbirth. The last recorded art on the same was during the Iron Age.”
Sudan compared similar artwork by Paul Cézanne’s The Bathers and Henri Matisse’s The Joy of Life to FN Souza’s representation of women bathers. “Souza’s women startled viewers and critics alike. None of the images of women matched for the audience nurtured on paternal values. On the contrary, these women were distinctive yet typical, perplexing and totally original,” says Sudan. The ferocious rigour of Souza’s vision points towards a free society made of liberated men and women. “Souza’s women were strong and singular. He liberated himself through his women.”