FN Souza, Black on Black: Frieze Masters

17 - 20 October 2013

"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)


Grosvenor Gallery presents its forthcoming exhibition, F.N Souza: Black on Black Paintings, opening on 17 October 2013. The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue and will coincide with Frieze Masters (17 - 20 October 2013, Regents Park, London) where we will also be showcasing a selection of Black on Black Paintings by F.N Souza.


In 1966 Souza's solo exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery was entitled Black Art and Other Paintings; a series of monochromatic works in thick black impasto oil. This show puzzled critics and artists and still carries on till this day. We are recreating this historic exhibition. Souza is no longer regarded as a British painter rather an Indian artist, an issue we want to challenge.


What motivated Souza to embark on such an uncommercial and difficult project we do not know. However we do know that prior to this exhibition he was at the height of his fame and had museums and major collectors seeking his works.


The clear link would be to Yves Klein and his exhibition, 'Propositions Monochromes' of 1957 and 'Le Vide' of 1958 which Souza visited as he was collected and supported by Klein's dealer Iris Clert. However the link stops there as Souza's paintings depart from Klein's conceptually and aesthetically.


Another source could be the New York painters of the day, notably Ad Reinhardt who did a series of Black works, but where Reinhardt and for that matter Malevich believed that Art was superior to the everyday life, Souza's outlook was entirely opposite. As Toby Treves points out that Souza claimed his work is ultimately about the significance of life and that the visual intensity of his paintings was intended to jolt the nervous system like an electric shock into the visceral awareness of life.


Some have said Souza's influence is from much before, from Goya's Pinturas Negras, others from Picasso's Blue period. They could also be a reflection of life in the 60's for a Black artist. Souza was an outsider in London; his shows were frequently reviewed as "Indian Painter."  He addressed these issues. His Crucifixion of 1957 hanging in the Tate is a contemporary version of Christ, violently disfigured and black, nothing like the Renaissance portrayals of Christ.  Birmingham Museum have the painting Negro in Mourning, 1958 the same year as the Notting Hill Riots. Regardless of what we can read and the various ways of interpreting the works the primary reward is the experience of seeing them in real life. They require patience and concentration but once the eye catches the forms and texture the image emerges, and we suppose that is what Souza wanted us all to do, was to stop and look at the works.


'You have to admire Souza's courage. He comes from India into a post war Britain and paints black on black. To paint without colour: was he brave or crazy a genius or a fool? Or both? Souza was like a tightrope walker teetering between madness and inspiration. The Black on Blacks represent the moment when you take your breath and wonder when the man will plunge. This work is not for the faint of heart. There is no safety net. Its scary stuff' - Kito de Boer, September 2013