9 October 2015

Souza's Mary Magdalene revisited

In the light of a similar work becoming the highest selling for an Indian artist

Revisiting a controversial subject can be even more controversial especially if the artist in question is F N Souza, the enfant terrible of Modern Indian Art and now the highest priced Indian artist if one goes by auction results.  The artwork titled ‘Birth’ that apparently sold for Rs 27 crores is an excellent example of how a section of the art fraternity, previously in denial, has now done a complete volte-face by acknowledging the fact that a painting combining three or even four different composite pictures can indeed be a genuine work and a record-breaking one at that.

In the aforementioned context, to dispel Goebbels law — “speak what is untrue several times over and it becomes the truth”, we revisit a similar monumental work from the same period that was chastised as anomalous, weak and suspect simply because it represented all the Souza characteristics – a landscape, Christ and a woman – on one canvas. The work in question is ‘Mary Magdalene’ and it has taken another work called ‘Birth’ to demystify the myth surrounding similar compositions of Souza, which by all accounts were rare but not really unchartered territory. On the contrary in the 1950s, when both these works were executed, Souza was known to have been deploying a specific style of compositional pattern, wherein he divided the visual space into two or three parts. On the top half he usually depicted a distant landscape whereas in the bottom half he presented the protagonists against a flat background, quite reminiscent of the Indian miniature painting traditions. At times he deftly interlinked the two spaces with drips of colour or a simple wedged line. 

'Birth' by F N Souza, 1955

'Mary Magdalene/Crucifixion' by F N Souza, 1956

If “in terms of scale, subject, period and provenance Birth represents the magnum opus of Souza’s career”, the 1956 painting depicting Crucifixion/Mary Magdalene is not far behind as not only its period and provenance but also the subject is of great importance as it freezes the presence of Magdalene on the eve of the hapless night of Crucifixion. All further depictions, labels (Suruchi Chand et al) and conspiracy theories can only be attributed to the significance of the subject, as recurrent themes were a well-documented part of Souza’s oeuvre.

Related Posts:
1. Picture is looking less perfect for Indian art - The Mint, 26 July 2008