Francis was as fast with his friendships as he was fickle with his females. He was frank, impulsive, egoistic and iconoclastic. The son of a teetotalling Goan Catholic schoolteacher, Francis loved alcohol and hated the church’s dogmatic impositions. He claimed once that he painted murals on the walls of his mother’s womb. As a trained artist, he chewed on various artistic pastures — Byzantine murals, Gupta figurines, Khajuraho reliefs, and the works of Picasso, Gauguin and Cezanne. But he spat out everything in his unique style.
The bold and brutalistic curves of that life and style are on show in the Capital at ‘Volte-Face’, one of the largest exhibitions of the master’s works ever.
Francis was nothing if he was not a rebel. He was thrown out of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s School for drawing lewd graffiti and from the J.J. School of Arts for having joined a Quit India movement demonstration. "He came back from college that day and painted his mother, a seamstress, as a towering figure in ‘The Blue Lady’. Curiously, it’s a female form that stayed with him throughout his life," says curator Yashodhara Dalmia. The form recurs through the 208 works that Dalmia has chosen for the show from the Dhoomimal Gallery’s collection of more than 400 works by the master.
Souza’s focus on a Euro-centric modernism became the guiding light for the Progressive Artists’ Group (which included M F Husain) that he founded in 1946. It’s also one of the reasons that made him the first among the collective to move to the West, in 1949 — first to London, then in 1967 to New York.
Dalmia says Souza’s London period was his most fertile one artistically. But Shelley Souza, 58, the artist’s eldest daughter who looks after his estate in New York, disagrees. She writes on email: "The body of work Souza left in his estate reveals exquisite mastery of line and form — so much so that a large number of the drawings he created in America during the 1960s, 70s and 80s can be compared to Matisse, Picasso and (Willem) de Kooning. The lines of these drawings are as unlike his lines in drawings from India in the 40s, and from England during the 50s, as are Hans Holbein’s portraits from Picasso’s."
Outside art, too, Souza caused fights. He is said to have had six children, two marriages and several flings. Uma Jain, 65, chairperson of Dhoomimal Gallery who in 1993 introduced Souza to Srimati Lal, his last mistress, says, "There was always someone by Francis’s side." Yet when he died in Mumbai in 2002, there were no friends or family next to him.
Among the women who attracted Souza’s roving eye was Kajol. When Uma Jain’s son Uday, then 12 years old, didn’t agree with Souza’s sizing of the actress’s beauty, the master told him, "When you’re my age, all women will look beautiful."
Francis the not-so-finicky fantasiser would’ve been 86 this Monday.