F N Souza is among the few Indian artists who created a deep impression in Europe’s art world. Francis Newton Souza was born in the year 1924 in Saligao, a small town in Goa. He studied in JJ School of Art in Mumbai and eventually became the driving force behind the Progressive Art Group of which he was the founding member. The Progressive Artists Group brought together artists like M F Husain, S H Raza, HA Gade, SK Bakre, KH Ara and later, Krishen Khanna, Akbar Padamsee, Tyeb Mehta, Ram Kumar and Bal Chhabda.
As an artist, Souza was an iconoclast and always provoked the intellectuals and threw challenges to art lovers. He led a very unconventional life and shuttled between Bombay to London to New York. Souza's biography says that he left the country in 1949 to settle in London. He had his first solo show at 'Gallery One' in London and around the same time his autobiographical essay 'Nirvana of a Maggot' was published. His 1959 book 'Words and Lines' was well received in the literary circle.
In the year 1967, F N Souza left Europe and moved to New York while continuing to keep in touch with India. Souza was a rebel and non conformist and these views clearly reflected in his works. He is best known for his inventive human forms particularly the heads and he is known for distorting the heads or portraits in a grotesque style that most art lovers were able to relate to relatively easily. Two Souza works at ITC Maurya display quintessential 'portraits' or 'heads' as they are called. One is of a young woman and the other is of a man. One can see that he was deeply influenced by the folk art of Goa too. The subjects he covered spanned still life, landscape, icons of Christianity, church facades and one of the most recurrent themes in his paintings were heads and nudes.
F N Souza died in 2002 and he is the only Indian artist to have a room dedicated to his works in London's Tate Modern. However during his lifetime, Souza's exhibitions in India were received half heartedly but the price of his works shot up dramatically after his death. In 2008, Souza’s spectacular painting 'Birth' set a world auction record for Indian Modern and contemporary art by selling for US$ 2.5 million at a Christie's auction.
It is only befitting that this year, the Dhoomimal Art Gallery, the oldest in Delhi, held a huge retrospective in April called Volte-Face: Souza's Iconoclastic Vision. Back at a show in 1976 in Delhi, Souza was hardly understood and sold just a few canvases. It is ironic that three decades later, the artist has finally received his due.