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Head of a Man is an oil painting on hardboard by the Indian artist F.N. Souza. As its title suggests, the painting depicts a man’s head rendered in thick black impasto on a black background. The style of painting is expressionist, with bold, energetic brush and palette knife strokes forming thick outlines that define the contours of the man’s shoulders and his face, as well as his facial characteristics, such as the large eyes, nose, lips and ears. Regarding his choice of the colour black, Souza stated in 1966: ‘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’ (quoted in Grosvenor Gallery 2013, p.46).
Head of a Man was made by Souza in London in 1965. It is part of a series of paintings that Souza produced in the 1960s that were all created using black paint on a black background. These works were made in preparation for Souza’s 1966 solo exhibition at the Grosvenor Gallery in London, entitled Black Art and Other Paintings. Although these paintings share an all-black palette, the works are stylistically diverse, ranging from the more cubist Black Valentine 1965 to the impressionistic Vase with Flowers 1965. Their subject matter also covers a wide thematic range, from landscapes, heads and nudes to religious scenes and still lifes. In 2013 Barbara Zinkant, Souza’s wife, explained how the artist experimented with the way light interacted with the black paintings, using ‘various brush and palette knife strokes to see how the light would reflect on the work … He would place lamps around the paintings and would view them from different angles’ (Zinkant in Grosvenor Gallery 2013, p.34).
The art critic Zehra Jumabhoy suggests that with these works, which were hard to sell and challenging to reproduce photographically, Souza might have aimed to provoke the ‘increasingly conservative British art establishment in the 1960s, who expected an “Indian artist” to paint with a bright, “exotic” palette’ (Jumabhoy, ‘F.N. Souza: Dark Visions’, in Grosvenor Gallery 2013, pp.8–13, p.8). Souza co-founded the Progressive Artists’ Group in Bombay in 1947 on the eve of independence from British rule and became associated with the advance of Indian modernism. In 1949 he moved from India to London and later, in 1967, to New York. The art historian and curator Geeta Kapur has noted that as an Indian expatriate and diaspora artist, ‘Souza was the first Indian artist to become something of a sensation in the West’ (Kapur quoted in Jumabhoy 2013, p.7).
F.N. Souza: Black Art and Other Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Grosvenor Gallery, London 1966.
Aziz Kurtha (ed.), Francis Newton Souza: Bridging Western and Indian Modern Art, Ocean, New Jersey 2006.
F.N. Souza: Black on Black, exhibition catalogue, Grosvenor Gallery, London 2013, reproduced no.2.