Published on the Saffronart Blog on October 29 2013.
London: The frenetic, art enriched environment of the Frieze week bought with it an intensely engaging evening at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. The panel discussion drew together three different academics; all tied together through their knowledge of the prolific Indian artist Francis Newton Souza. The speakers: Gilane Tawadros, the Founding Director at Iniva, London; Zehra Jumabhoy, PhD candidate at the Courtauld Institute of Art; and Philip Vann, an art historian from Cambridge analysed how Souza’s paintings fit into debates about Black-ness in British Art from the 1960s onwards.
This discussion was timed to coincide with Grosvenor Gallery’s exhibition, F.N Souza: Black on Black Paintings, which was on view till 28 October. A selection of the Black on Black Paintings were also featured in their gallery’s booth at the Frieze Masters. The exhibition attempts to resurrect Souza’s 1966 exhibition Black Art and Other Paintings at Grosvenor Gallery. Since then, this is the first time these black monochromatic works have been presented together. Created in London, between 1964 and 1965, these artworks marked a significant period in Souza’s career.
Black is the most mysterious of all colours. Renoir found it impossible and said a spot of black was like a hole in the painting. I cannot agree: colour is now disturbing in a bad way. –F. N. Souza, Paint it Black, Review of Black Art and Other paintings, The Observer, May 15, 1966
The panel discussion discussed Souza’s amalgamation of Indian modernism with the Post-War climate of grimness as the source of inspiration of his Black Paintings. Souza’s time in London, from 1949 to 1967, involved spending a great deal of time at the National Gallery, confronted by works of European masters, most notably Rembrandt, Vermeer and Goya. Some critics think that Francisco de Goya’s Pinturas Negras or black paintings, painted in the final years of the Spanish artist’s lifetime, had an enormous influence on Souza’s Black Paintings. Other critics argue that it was Ad Reinhardt, who also did a series of black works, who influenced Souza. Though the source of inspiration behind these works is disputed, one thing that stands clear is Souza’s intention to jolt the consciousness of the viewer.
Another important aspect of Souza’s work that the discussion brought to light was the role that race played in the creation of his Black Paintings. Souza’s work existed in the structural framework of Post-War British politics. At this time incidents like the Notting Hill race riots of 1957 and general discriminatory attitudes towards non- British perhaps played in the mind of Souza. His paintings could be seen as the culmination of his interest in the politics of colour.
Stylistically difficult to execute, as well as view, these works provide a dimension to the artist’s own troubled life which was filled with financial difficulties and personal problems. This body of work requires a lot of participation on part of the viewer in order to reveal itself. The interaction between the light and the textured brushstrokes require a certain angle, which can be caught by the eye only when viewed from certain positions. Souza’s partner at the time, Barbara Zinkant wrote, “Souza would place lamps around the paintings and would view them from different angles”.
The talk provided a structural framework through which Souza’s Black Paintings could be viewed. The discussion was followed by a question and answer session, which was led by the Director of the Courtauld Institute of Art, Professor Deborah Swallow. The audience engaged in the discussion by providing alternate points of view to the discussion.