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From one enfant terrible to another: Decoding the mystery of FN Souza’s sketch of a Russian composer


Pablo Picasso might have had something to do with it.
I thoroughly enjoyed visiting the recently-concluded “In/Of Goa: Souza at 100”, an exhibition of the artworks of the celebrated Goan artist Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), on the occasion of his birth centenary at Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts.
The exhibition aimed “to shed light on the profound influence of Goa, Souza’s birthplace, on his artistic journey” and it succeeded well in that objective. One work that seemed almost an outlier of sorts was an A3-sized pen-and-ink drawing titled simply “Igor Stravinsky” and signed “Souza 56”.
The collection had loads of nudes, of course, and self-portraits and landscapes. But there were just three named portraits of men: one, also in pen-and-ink of St Francis (the “other” Francis!) Xavier, another of British artist, writer and photographer John Rivers Coplans (1920 -2003), Souza’s contemporary and friend. These two have an obvious link to Souza. But why Russian composer and conductor Igor Fyodorovich Stravinsky (1881 -1971)? Souza was well-known for his eclectic taste in so many spheres, which would have included music. But as far as I knew, there was no documented affinity for this specific composer or his work.
In his extremely interesting and informative lecture “An introduction to the live of FN Souza”, Conor Macklin, director of the Grosvenor Gallery London, (which boasts on its website of “close ties with the artist and always endeavour to have a range of his work at the gallery”) had told us some entertaining stories about Souza in general and about some works in particular. After he had led the gathering on a walk-through of the exhibition, I asked him about the Stravinsky portrait. There was no specific anecdote, he said, apart from an obvious admiration Souza must have had for him.
I went home and tried to investigate further. I came across this on the Saffron Art, a co-sponsor of the Sunaparanta exhibition, and “a leading international auction house, and India’s most reputed, with over four hundred auctions to its credit. Its flagship gallery is in Mumbai, with offices in New Delhi, London, and New York”:
“Known for the highly critical and frequently disfigured portraits of clergymen and members of the upper echelons of society that he painted in the 1950s, it was very rarely that Souza created an image in appreciation of someone. The present lot, a portrait of the revolutionary composer and pianist Igor Stravinsky, seems to be one of the exceptional works that was borne of the artist’s admiration rather than his unsympathetic disgust.

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