History Lessons, No 11: An Interview with F.N. Souza

F.N. Souza, Self-Portrait, 1961, oil on board, 61 x 76 cm. Courtesy: The Ruth Borchard Collection and Piano Nobile, London

‘Where’s my M.B.E.? Where’s the retrospective at the Whitechapel?’ In this interview from May 1966 – while settled in London, shortly before his move to New York – the artist and founding member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group discusses alcoholism, the native jealousies of the British artworld, and life as a compulsive painter.

Barrie Sturt-Penrose You are widely known in this country and abroad. There is usually some confusion about your background. Perhaps you would sketch in some of your background as an artist.

F.N. Souza I’m surprised there’s confusion as I am not an Eskimo of African descent. Nor do I claim parthenogenesis. A lot has been written on my background, and there exists a biography as well as an autobiography.

BSP When you first arrived in this country you were unknown and poor. How long was it before you came to the notice of gallery owners, collectors and the critics? Perhaps you could say something about your early years in Britain leading to the present time.

FNS I came to this country in 1949 and lived in dire poverty for six years, until 1954. Six years of starvation, rags and cigarettes picked up from the gutters. But somehow I kept on painting and never took a job. Then a chance meeting with Victor Musgrave led to a sell-out show in his gallery, Gallery One, in 1955. I made a good bit of money from subsequent shows in the following years, and, during this time, I was lucky to meet an American businessman in Paris who became my patron until 1960. He bought everything I cared to send him, often before it was painted. I used to call him the Pope. Unfortunately, during these years, I took to drink. A bug craving for alcohol got into me and I couldn’t stop drinking. I squandered some £10,000, drinking myself to death in Paris, Majorca, Rome, Bombay and London– in Bombay despite the Prohibition. By the end of 1960, I got the shakes so bad, I couldn’t hold a brush. I asked myself a simple question one terrible hangover morning: ‘Do you wish to become a famous drunkard or a famous painter?’ I decided to take a cure for alcoholism, and I did, though not through Alcoholics Anonymous. Between 1962 and 1964 I bought a large house, a new car and some more property. I mention this not for its achievement, but as contrast, in a short time, to the destitution of alcoholism. I travelled widely, to the amazement of my friends abroad who couldn’t believe I had changed to a chronic teetotaller. I got divorced in 1964, and married a young girl of 17 the following year, thereupon, my past has begun to lay claims through various litigations which can mean scrapping the lot and starting from scratch: a prerogative artists must use from time to time to maintain complete freedom.

BSP Following your outstanding success at Gallery One you became known as a controversial painter. Although few could ignore your work people either grouped for you or against you. Do you still find that people are partisan in the way they look at your paintings?

FNS I never realised they were. Thanks for telling me. Success among painters largely depends on the dealers who handle their work. Gallery One, as you know, during the decade of its art dealing, was the most controversial gallery in London. Robert Fraser’s and Kasmin’s galleries have benefited from the existence of Gallery One: Kasmin, in fact, began on its staff. But to answer the question, I’m not really aware of people grouped for or against me. My independent cast of character will never admit that dealers and critics can make or break a painter. Roger Berthoud wrote this about my work: ‘His canvases are very strong meat indeed. I confess it has taken me a year or two to acquire a taste for his work.’ If an art critic took that long, people in general would take longer to digest my stuff. And the ones against me, I should think, are the ones without guts to hang strong meat in their homes.

BSP How do you like living in England? Is it very different from living (say) in India where you have recently enjoyed considerable success in exhibitions? You have lived in Paris but you keep coming back to Britain. Is it because your work is understood more easily in this country?

FNS My work should be easily understood in any country on the premise that art is universal. Of course, I like England, but I haven’t tried Mexico or New York yet. History shows that artists migrate to find a market if there isn’t one at home. At first I tried Paris not knowing the market there had flagged, whereas in London it had started to flag. There’s no place for the artist in India. The hungry can’t eat pictures. People there need bread. Even strong meat will not do: they’ll bring it up. Tourists and American diplomats in India buy paintings. Wealthy Indians are devoid of culture. Only recently, one or two from the wealthy class have begun collecting modern art. I keep coming back to Britain for personal reasons. I would find no difficulty in communicating with anyone in the world who has some knowledge and liking for art.

BSP A painting of yours was recently included in the Tate’s collection. Have you had a raw deal from the Art Establishment in this country?

FNS Bloody raw! Where’s my M.B.E.? Where’s the retrospective at the Whitechapel? And ever since I crashed into the Guggenheim Award as one of five painters to represent this country, I’ve been consistently kept out of all the national and international exhibitions. Native jealousy in an effort to dampen a trailblazer who is not English. People say: no, no, it can’t happen in England: people are much too civilised here. In fact, I used to think it could happen in every field except art. I am mistaken. The Coventry Cathedral architect has revealed that the City officials wanted to keep Epstein out of the list of commissioned artists because he was a Jew. That painting of mine formerly belonging to Penelope Mortimer, was forced into the Tate, a shotgun presentation no sooner had Rothenstein retired. Before we met, I believe Rothenstein did recommend my pictures for prizes and purchases whenever they appeared in competitions and exhibitions in which he had a say. It was probably on his recommendation I won a prize in the first John Moores Exhibition; and I know for sure the Contemporary Art Society bought my painting acting on his advice. But I met him the first time at an opening of a new night club among naked girls and free sparkling booze. Already drunk well before I arrived at the party, I may have said or done something so obnoxious, I can’t remember what, for as you know the brain does its own censorship. But since that night, Rothenstein and I never got together even if we were in the same room. As for Bryan Robertson of the Whitechapel, I met him also at a nightclub, the Gargoyle, where Victor Musgrave was throwing a party. Robertson told him my work was ‘anti-pathetic to British taste’. As I wasn’t very drunk, I remember saying, ‘British taste being pathetic, I am glad to be anti-pathetic!’ As I have now given up smoking as well, there’s no doubt I’ll be kept out of the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation on which I believe Robertson is a big smoke without fire. Wild people like me continually live on the optimism that fuddyduddies are bound to retire one day or drop dead. I am told by Denis Bowen that the British Council will never buy or include in their exhibitions abroad any artist who is not British by birth. This ‘British’ stuff and nonsense is a laugh when you think of Leslie Howard, the most English of actors who was Hungarian by birth. And all those Polish grandmothers hanging in the family trees of Englishmen!

BSP I know that you feel strongly about art critics. You once said to me that whereas painters were at the constant mercy of critics they rarely had the opportunity to hit back. What is your view of British art critics’?

FNS I’ll take a bash at the question by quoting a few words from a paper, ‘Notes on Analytic Philosophy and Aesthetics’ by Jerome Stolnitz which was printed in the 1963 July issue of the British Journal of Aesthetics: ‘Unless the critic’s judgement reflects an authentically aesthetic encounter with the work, he forfeits his authority over us. If his ostensibly aesthetic judgement is in fact an evaluation in other terms ­– economic, moral, snob-appeal – then he is guilty of vulgarity.’ p.218. On the strength of this indictment almost all the critics in London are guilty, but some are more guilty than others. John Russell of the Sunday Times for instance, reviewing the Tate Gallery Exhibition of American painting wrote in 1956 that Jackson Pollock should be slapped. But no sooner had Marlborough put on a posthumous Pollock show in 1961 than Russell came out with banner headlines: ‘The Agony of Jackson Pollock’ and a blah of praises, without mentioning his earlier insulting remarks about this artist. I am well aware one can reverse one’s evaluation logically, the classic example being T. S. Eliot’s revaluation of Milton after eleven years. Then there is Terence Mullaly of the Daily Telegraph. Robert Wraight the saleroom correspondent of the Arts Review wrote to the Telegraph that Terence Mullaly went out of his way to point out that a painting of mine had fetched only £18, without mentioning that a ‘second Souza, of considerably smaller size had fetched £100. This letter was not published’ says Wraight in his column in the Arts Review last year. John Berger gave me a long review in the New Statesman as long ago as 1955. But after I met him over dinner the same year and told him about my own Marxist theories, he never wrote another line on me; Stolnitz could have added ‘Political’ vulgarity. But we are getting something more absurd from critics like Alan Bowness, who ‘reviews’ the work of other critics, usually American ones like Clement Greenberg. Greenberg apparently names the qualities a painting ‘ought’ to have and then sets out to ‘pick’ the artists as his examples as a reaction to something Greenberg had himself picked before. If this seems confusing let me put it this way: Mr Greenberg is now busy on the lookout to pick some painters who ought to be reacting against the Hard Edge painters he picked, as a reaction to the Painterly Abstractionists he had picked before that! Get it? And the latest pride and joy among art critics, Alan Bowness is bitten by Greenberg, as could be gathered from his contribution in the Observer colour magazine a few weeks ago.

BSP During the last three years there is evidence in the work you have produced (e.g. the Black Art) that you are still searching for the ‘ideal’ style to get your ideas across. Why did you stop producing paintings (e.g. ’55-62) which were very successful?

FNS I don’t get this one. Someone knowing my work so well as you do. I’m glad you think I am searching for the ‘Ideal’ style. Some people probably think I’m stuck. In fact, I am neither stuck nor am I searching. I am a compulsive painter. I am geared to an ever-changing cosmos. I can vividly imagine being a gilled embryo which forms and transforms into many forms, from a miniature dinosaur to a hideous ape. My art is a daily activity. Like Evolution itself, I am neither searching nor stuck. The ’55-62 paintings took some two to five years to become successful and Black Art should take that long to become integrated with the bulk of my art. I never stopped producing successful paintings, but unlike pop art or pop songs, my art is not an ‘instant’ success today and a yesterday’s ‘has been’ tomorrow. I am a born painter: in the tradition of great painters, my greatest work will come as I get older: Michelangelo kept hacking away at 90 on what is probably the greatest work of art, the Rondanini Pieta.

BSP Can you tell me what your basic aim is as a painter?

FNS To paint.

BSP You have said that you paint for yourself. Do you think that the main reason why you are unpopular in certain quarters is the controversial pictures that you paint? Or are there other reasons?

FNS I also said that I painted for angels to show them what men and women really look like. I didn’t know I was unpopular in certain quarters, although I am aware of being unpopular in certain camps. An intransigent individual like me, is bound to be unpopular. I don’t belong to any group and I am proud of it. The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone, to quote An Enemy of the People. A recent book, Private View, shows the most clannish grouping of artists in this country and the authors can’t dismiss what I say as sour grapes because I don’t like grapes, what I’m saying is grapeshot!

First published in Arts Review, 14 May 1966

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