UNHOLY TRINITY: Souza, Sotheby's, and Me
(Or: How I Missed My Chance to Make a
Quick Killing in Modern Indian
Because of my habit of rummaging in other peoples' garbage, my wife used to say that strolling down the street with me was like walking a dog.
"We can't go two blocks," Jeannie would joke, "without you stopping to check out the trash."
"But you have to admit I find some great stuff. What about all the books I find for you?"
Then one day, in 1996, I noticed a rather large painting leaning against a garbage can outside a building on East 83rd Street, just around the corner from our apartment. It was an oil, I could tell from sniffing it (which may confirm, I suppose, the canine tendencies my wife attributes to me), and it was as bad as bad can be: an architectural atrocity of spiky spires and angular outlines. It looked like an ersatz Bernard Buffet, if you can imagine anyone bothering, the resemblance enhanced by the big showy signature and date "Souza '57" placed prominently at the top of the composition.
I turned it around and saw scrawled on the back "The Castle" and the same signature with the initials "F.N." added. Since the masonite support was nicely mounted, I was debating whether it would be worthwhile to cover the awful picture with a coat of gesso and paint something more appealing on it, when the name of the artist suddenly struck me as vaguely familiar.
I took the painting home, and since I had not yet succumbed to the Internet, still snobbishly regarding it as a symptom of post-literate culture, scanned the indexes of several art books until I found a reference to an F.N. Souza in Race, Sex, and Gender in Contemporary Art by Edward Lucie-Smith. Reproduced was a painting even more atrocious than the one I had found. It was called "The Goddess Kali, 1962," and it depicted a dwarfish female nude with grossly exaggerated genitals. (Apparently, Hindus are not as touchy as Muslims about the depiction of their deities, or surely some equivalent of a fatwa would have been declared against the artist.)
The brief text next to the color reproduction stated that Souza was an Indian painter prominent in London during the 1950s who, because he was a figurative expressionist, had "suffered from the backlash against overtly emotional, densely textured painting triggered by the rise, first of Pop Art, then of various types of minimalism." Armed with this information, I made a quick phone call, then walked my find a few blocks down York Avenue to Sotheby's and straight into the office of a man named Carlton C. Rochell, Jr., then head of that auction house's Asian Departments worldwide.
Oddly, Rochell didn't ask how I'd acquired the painting, and as far as I was concerned the less said about its provenance the better. (If anyone wished to assume that I was parting with a family heirloom, I would be the last to disabuse them of that notion.) He simply propped the picture up against a chair, squinted at it for a few seconds to confirm its authenticity, and estimated its value at between two and three-thousand dollars. He then asked if I would be willing to consign it to him for inclusion in an upcoming auction of Indian and Southeast Asian art.
While the estimate was more modest than I might have hoped, it was "found money," as they say. So, I was delighted when Sotheby's notified me a couple of months later that the painting had sold for twice its highest estimate and a check for $ 6,000 soon followed.
* * *
For almost a decade I entertained friends and acquaintances with this anecdote, including how, just before walking over to Sotheby's, I noticed a scratch on a dark area of the painting and, fearing it might decrease its price at auction, was tempted to perform a bit of last minute restoration with a black Flair pen. But then I flashed back to the guilty memory of one Ash Wednesday during my teenage years when, to get my mother off my back about going to church for ashes, unbeknownst to her I scooped some soot out of the gutter and smeared it on my forehead. And I realized that, since art had always been more sacred to me than Catholicism, I couldn't bring myself to "touch up" even a painting as bad as this one. Having always felt somewhat holier than thou when it came to art, it was enough for one day to discover that I was not above speculating about a work's price, rather than its intrinsic value, without also committing a mortal sin of quite that magnitude.
Anyway, the story of the found painting became a conversational set-piece of mine, always ending with the punch line, "And now whenever we go out, Jeannie always reminds me to check the garbage!"
* * *
I finally stopped gloating earlier this year, when I read in the May 2006 issue of ArtNews that another painting by Souza, "Man with Cross, 1961," had recently sold at Sotheby's for $ 284,800. We were sitting at a table in the cafe of our local Barnes & Noble bookstore when I read it, and I suddenly felt as though some passerby had casually set my hair on fire. Recoiling from the shock, I made an involuntary movement, almost knocking over my tall English breakfast tea. Jeannie looked up from her magazine, alarmed, and asked what was the matter with me.
* * *
I don't think I'll be regaling anyone anymore with what a clever scavenger I am. In fact, I am writing this simply to unburden myself, as I often do when frustration at some characteristically rash act of minein this case, unloading the painting for quick cash, rather than holding onto it on the chance that its value might appreciatemakes me feel on the verge of exploding. I am not at all sure if I will ever publish it, but if I eventually do and you are reading it at some future date, it is probably because my innate exhibitionism has once again triumphed over shame and good sense.
In any case, after feeling stupid and smarting over the whole thing for a while, I decided to call Carlton Rochell, who now has his own gallery, Carlton Rochell Asian Art, in the Fuller Building on East 57th Street. I wanted to see if he could provide me with a logical explanation for the huge discrepancy between what "my" Souza sold for and what other works by the same artist had recently commanded at auction. I figured anything less than his being able to convince me that the value of East Indian contemporary art had skyrocketed beyond anyone's expectations would be cause for taking legal action, although on what grounds I still was not sure.
But when I called the gallery I learned that Rochell was traveling abroad and would not be back until the following week. This gave my paranoia plenty of time to run rampant. Now it suddenly seemed suspicious that Sotheby's had accepted my Souza, no questions asked. Did big time auction houses normally just take works of art that walked in literally off the street, without questioning their provenance? Couldn't I have been some junkie who had climbed into a rich collector's apartment through a window and snatched the painting right off the wall? Certainly I looked scruffy enough, hardly your high-end art collector in my usual sneakers and denim ensemble. So why didn't Rochell express the slightest interest in how the painting had come into my possession?
I also remembered reading about a scandal at Sotheby's a few years ago involving the alleged smuggling of works of art stolen right out of churches in Italy, as well as collusion and price-fixing cases against the auction house that had forced its former chairman, Bernard Taubman, to hand in his resignation. At one point I had even received a notice in the mail inviting me to join in a $512,000,000 class action suit against Sotheby's by some 100,000 buyers and sellers. I had laughed it off at the time, thinking my sole transaction with Sotheby's so relatively minuscule that it wasn't even worth taking seriously; if there were an award or a settlement, how much could my cut possibly be? Besides, far from feeling wronged by Sotheby's, I felt I had been the beneficiary of an unexpected windfall.
But now I wondered if it wouldn't have been possible for an auction house to fake a sale by having some in-house shill bid on the work, then put it on ice for a few years, and later sell it under the table for a small fortune. It seemed entirely plausibleespecially if the poor schmuck who had consigned the piece, yours truly, was convinced that it had sold better than anyone expected and was led to believe that he was the one who had gotten over on them.
* * *
From what I can gather, Francis Newton Souza, who was born in a small village in Goan, India, in 1924 and was buried in 2002"with barely a mourner at his graveside," according to one acquaintance was something of an East Indian Gully Jimson. For like the eccentric bohemian protagonist of Joyce Cary's novel The Horse's Mouth, Souza was wildly self-dramatizing, given to making pronouncements like, "I want to do everything: to make others suffer, to make myself suffer. I have no desire to redeem myself or anybody else because man is by his very nature unredeemable, yet he hankers so desperately after redemption. I want to hang myself on the cross with both my hands and feet nailed to it..."
Souza was raised as a Catholic, and crucifixionsas viscerally grisly as Gruenwald's in his own more hamhanded waywere among his favorite themes. In fact, his mother, who had been left destitute when her school teacher husband died, and had also lost a daughter a year before the boy's birth, pledged her son to the priesthood after he survived a virulent case of childhood smallpox. But the boy, who would confess later in life that he drew his mother while she bathed "through a hole I bored in the door" and speculated that he had probably even "painted on the walls of her womb," was expelled by the Jesuits for making pornographic drawings on the walls at school. Catholicism, he would later declare, had failed to convince him "that the glorious eroticism of Indian art was the work of the barbarous heathen." And the tension between that early religious repression and his lusty nature would furnish inspiration for much of his strongest work..
Souza found his true vocation at age sixteen in the Sir J.J. School of Art, in Bombay, but was soon expelled once againthis time for leading a student demonstration of the "Quit India" movement that infuriated its British principal.
For a time, he embraced Marxism, joined the Communist Party of India and painted socialist realist canvases centering on injustices of class and caste. But finally finding the constraints placed on artistic expression by the Party as puritanical in their own way as those of the Jesuits, he quit the party and, in 1947, founded the Progressive Artists Group with other emerging painters such as S.H. Raza, and K.H. Ara, and M.F. Husain, who is now recognized as a major figure in his own right.
With characteristic orneriness, Souza would later rail against "the leftist fanaticism which we had incorporated into our manifesto at the inception of the Group." Yet there was no denying that its formation was a giant step, marking the very advent of modern art in India, where easel painting had previously been all but nonexistent. The only genre of large scale painting was the murals on the walls of temples and the more palatial residences. Otherwise, painting was limited to traditional miniatures, which were stored in albums for the private pleasure of connoisseurs. So by adopting the aggressive scale and freedom of Western painting, the Progressive Artists Group was declaring war on their own native tradition, even as they sought, according to M.F. Husain, to incorporate "elements of Indian folk art and tribal art" into their modernist experiments.
As Prajit Dutta stated in the catalog of the exhibition "Ashta Nayak: Eight Pioneers of Indian Art," an exhibition of seminal works by Souza and some of his contemporaries, seen last year at Gallery Artsindia, on lower Fifth Avenue, in New York City, "1945 through 1955 was a heady decade for modern Indian art. Out of those grand coincidences of historythe Freedom Struggle, the Second World War, the Great Bengal Famine and India's Independence emerged a flurry of activity and growth."
Yet the euphoria was apparently limited to the artists themselves. Outside their select circle, India's cultural provincialism remained too stifling for a temperament such as Souza's. In 1949, after two of his pictures were removed from an exhibition in Bombay for "obscenity," he threw up his hands and relocated to London. (Here an analogy might be drawn to James Joyce fleeing Irelandexcept that unlike Joyce, who chose "silence, exile, and cunning," Souza retained a vocal affection for his childhood home of Goa and visited it from time to time, even as circumstances forced him to spend most of his adult life abroad and to die in New York City.)
His early years in London were impoverished. There, his old friend Victor Anant recalls, he acquired a habit of "theatrically picking up cigarette butts from the road," a habit in which he persisted for many years. Being verbally as well as visually gifted, Souza was encouraged by the poet Stephen Spender to try his hand at commercial writing and was eventually able to eke out a modest living through freelance journalism. By the mid fifties he was also selling the occasional painting and becoming known in the London art scene, according to M.F. Husain who has been quoted as saying, "Francis Souza was my mentor. I came into the art world because of him. He saw my exhibition in 1947 and encouraged me. He is the most significant Indian painter, almost a genius..."
Souza's strident humanism found itself in fortuitous company when he was included in group exhibitions with leading British artists such as Francis Bacon, Henry Moore, and Graham Sutherland. His first solo show in 1955 in the fashionable Gallery One was favorably reviewedby David Thompson, who wrote: "By some curious law that seems to operate among great painters, those with the most macabre or violent images to express often paint in an unusually exquisite or tender manner. In his new paintings F.N. Souza, an artist always remarkable for harsh and thorny imagery, and able to use it to express feelings of anguished rage, paints with a sort of acid tenderness..."
The somewhat more befuddled assessment of John Berger, one of the world's best known art critics, was "Souza straddles many traditions but serves none" a memorable quote that contributed further to his growing fame. Souza's published writings also contributed to the sensation he caused in the London art world. (Typical of his style was the title of his autobiographical essay: "Nirvana of a Maggot"). He often wrote his own exhibition catalogs and was fond of promoting himself, according to the writer Theodore Mesquita, as "the descendant of the Devil and the Dadaists, an enfant terrible all the more dangerous because he belonged to the oppressed races. He managed in his writing to convert his racial malediction into angry genius, which he had contrived, accumulated and dispensed into visual and verbal benefactions."
By the mid-sixties, along with the Beatles and fashion photographer David Bailey (the model for David Hemmings' role in Antonioni's flashy period film "Blow-up"), Souza was a fixture of "Swinging London." His paintings were selling to notable people like the composer Benjamin Britten and the architect Erno Goldfinger, and he found a regular patron in the wealthy American collector Harold Kovner. But in 1967 his talent for creating a sensation backfired disastrouslyalthough it's hard to believe that Souza's marriage to a seventeen year-old girl could cause such a stir in an era when London was literally exploding with libertine energy.
After all, in India marriages of mature men to much younger brides are hardly frowned upon. But ignoring this cultural difference in a manner that smacks of racism, the British tabloids vilified him as though he were the American hillbilly rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 14-year-old cousin. One dares say Souza was crucified by the scandal sheets like one of his own writhing Jesuses.
This analogy might have pleased the artist. Pointing out that his "most enduring themes revolve around his Roman Catholic background and his antagonism towards it," Theodore Mesquita wrote that Souza's "relation and identification with the picture of Christ" could be interpreted as "an effigy of his existence through which he ponders." At the same time, Mesquita suggests that Souza saw the plight of modern man as existentially more daunting than that of Jesus, when he wrote an obviously autobiographical passage that went "and you there on the top in a single furnished room, smoking, standing at the window, expressionless city-man that you are, your suffering is far more complex than the obviously simple tortured expression of one crowned with thorns and impaled with nails."
Hounded out of England, Souza fled with his young bride to New York City, which he reportedly loathed and continually referred to as "the concrete jungle." Yet, since he made his final home here, one must wonder why he never exhibited in the city during his lifetime. Even after the rise of Neo-Expressionism and multiculturalism, while still known in London, where several of his paintings hang in the Tate (which gave him a posthumous exhibition in 2005), he remained virtually invisible in the New York art world.
* * *
"Souza's years in New York City were not a happy time for him," said Priyanka Mathews, the director of Gallery Artsindia, when we met recently. "He came here with great hopes, but his marriage failed and he ended up living very poorly and in ill health."
Although she is too young to have known Souza personally, Priyanka's gallery (along with Sundaram Tagore in Chelsea, one of the two leading venues for Indian modern art in Manhattan) handles some of his work. And like everyone else in the Indian émigré arts community, she has heard all the juicy stories.
With the relish we all reserve for those whose miseries fame makes colorful, Priyanka spoke of the artist's legendary drinking binges and womanizing. She told a story about a young married couple who loved Souza's work and finally got a chance to visit with him. Although the details now escape me, the gist of her gossip was that the husband "discovered his wife with Souza, naked, in a compromising position."
According to Priyanka, Souza could get away with the most outrageous behavior because people in the Indian art scene looked on him as something of a god. He was the first to break out of the colonial mode in his art and even his outrageous personal life seemed to symbolize a new kind of freedom.
"So it's very sad how it all ended," Priyanka says. "Toward the end of his life he was living somewhere on the Lower East Side, spending all of his money on booze...He literally drank himself to death."
In the one photograph I have been able to locate, he has the bleary, bloated countenance of the heavy drinker. He has a gray stubble of beard and sports a straw sombrero that makes him appear more Mexican than Indian. As if to do the Buddhist concept of "the third eye" one better, he has painted two extra eyes onto his forehead and added superfluous lines to the ones time and hard living have already carved into his face. A perfect shambles of a man, he looks deranged, a little dangerous, like a defrocked shaman. Not even a writer intent on capturing his likeness in print can regret being deprived of the opportunity to contend with him.
Yet, even after all that Priyanka Mathews told me about his final years, Souza's obscurity, the fact that no one I mentioned his name to among my circle of acquaintances in the New York art scene had even heard of him, still seems puzzling. After all, he was such an assertive personality that it's hard to imagine him keeping a low profile anywhereespecially in the art capital of the world. And while his work may be uneven, it is possessed of a brash vigor that many here would find appealing. He was at least as good as Schnabel or Basquiat and probably couldn't have been much more of a pain in the ass. One would have thought some savvy New York art dealer would have been willing to put up with him in order to capitalize on his reputation abroad. Even his personal problems could have been an asset, providing the kind of bad boy charisma that invariably titillates the press.
I certainly found Souza an engaging character, once I started researching this piece. I enjoyed the grandiose audacity of his pronunciamentos, such as, "Renaissance painters painted men and women, making them look like angels. I paint for angels to show them what men and women really look like." And even if I wasn't initially bowled over by much of his work, I came to appreciate what George Melly once referred to as his "wonderfully sour colour sense and a slashing line."
He could certainly draw beautifully when he wanted to. The erotic ink drawings in the collection of Gallery Artsindia, if not as masterful as Picasso's, rival for their linear grace anything by Hockney or Cocteau. That said, in contrast to the powerful 1959 oil on board "Crucifixion" in the collection of Tate Britain, and "Man With Cross," the 1961 work that fetched $248,800 at Sotheby's, some of his late paintings have a tossed-off look. They look facile and distracted, like the work of a man trying desperately to capitalize on having a great future behind him.
It's quite possible that I never would have been aware of F.N. Souza as anything more than a name I vaguely remembered reading in an art book, had I not found one of his paintings discarded beside a garbage can and blown the chance to parlay it into a small fortune.
* * *
When I finally reached Carlton Rochell by phone, the first question I asked him was how much he estimated the painting that I had brought to him and that Sotheby's had auctioned off for $6,000 would go for now.
"I have no idea," he said. "You see, I don't handle contemporary Asian art anymore. I think you'd be better off asking some of the people at the auction houses about that."
While it is true that his own gallery, Carlton Rochell Asian Art, specializes in work prior to 1850, this answer struck me as disingenuous, since Rochell worked for Sotheby's for 18 years, actually founded its Southeast Asian Art Department and, according to The International Herald Tribune, had "raised his auctions of Indian art to world eminence." Indeed, the website for his own gallery will tell you, "Both the highest-grossing auction of Indian and Southwest Asian art ever held and the highest price ever achieved at auction for an individual work were supervised by Mr. Rochell." (Being a recent convert to Googledom, I also learned such irrelevant yet nonetheless interesting ephemera as the fact that, in 1992, Rochell became engaged to the daughter of the actor Charlton Heston.)
No matter how many different ways I rephrased my original question, Rochell repeated "I really don't think I should comment on that," stoking my paranoia by sounding like an evasive politician. When I persisted, asking him if he didn't think it was extraordinary that an artist whose work had once been estimated so modestly by an expert like himself had appreciated so astronomically, he said, "Not really. The prices for Asian art have jumped up in recent years. It started with Chinese contemporary art but now it's all across the board: in India, Thailand, Cambodia, Indonesia...But that's true in general, even in Western contemporary art. Check it out."
Check it out? While I had to laugh at this most Waspish of art dealers patronizingly affecting the jargon of the homies who hustle fake Rolexes on Canal Street, maybe Rochell was simply telling me it was about time I woke up: Did I really need him to explain the birds and bees of art marketing to me, as though it was some great mystery?
All I had to do was go online and read a two-year old dispatch from United Press International to learn that "Indian contemporary art is the fastest growing category in Asian art," and "From Singapore to Hong Kong, London and Germany via the Middle-East to New York, contemporary Indian art is increasingly painting itself in global hues, while its rising demand is fetching record prices for sellers."
Citing the same sale in which my Souza went for a song, the article goes on to say, "For instance in 1996 there was just one auction of Indian art for the global art mart that fetched about $800,000. By the end of 2004, the number of auctions, according to art market sources, is set to climb to 12 that could fetch a total revenue 'scaling $11 million'; that's nearly a 14-time jump."
Souza was called "India's most important and famous modern artist" in this article, and a May 2006 dispatch from the London Times, headlined "Souza Rules the Roost at Sotheby's," reports that the artist's painting "Amsterdam Landscape" sold in the UK for a record £624,000 pounds.
"We are delighted with the results of today's sale, which confirms the underlying strength of the market for modern and contemporary Indian paintings, a collecting category that has experienced remarkable growth in recent years," a spokesperson for Sotheby's crowed. "The overall driver for this trend has been the growth of the Indian economy and raised awareness of Indian artists in the 20th century."
And there you have it. Pretty simple, isn't it? The only reason to make it more complicated would be to blame something, or someone, else for one's own poor judgmentor perhaps it would be more accurate to say, one's lack of clairvoyance. Who knew that Indian contemporary art was going to go through the roof? Certainly not the auction houses that were selling paintings by Souza and other major figures in the low thousands just a decade or so ago; not even Carlton Rochell, who precipitated the trend when he founded the Southeast Asian Art Department at Sotheby's in 1988. Could it be that Rochell is so reluctant to talk about it simply because he's kicking himself even more than I am!for what could have been, had he known then what he knows now?
Only one thing is certain: Wherever he is, Francis Newton Souza is having the last laugh.
* * *
- Ed McCormack