F.N. Souza (Indian 1824-2002), Still Life (skull, cross, oil lamp), 1986, oil on canvas, 120 x 60cm. (47.2in. x 23.6in.)
Provenance: The property of Dr. Premlata Goel, widow of the distinguished art critic, K.B. Goel; Gifted by Souza to his close friend, the art critic, K.B. Goel (1930 - 2018).
The genre of still life painting provides a glimpse into Souza’s psyche; questions of religion and morality tormented him throughout his life.
In this still life by Souza, as in others by him, there is a compositional quality which is his hallmark. The assemblage of objects reveal the precision of his mental processes and remarkable draftsmanship. In the work, on the table religious symbols are interspersed with other objects reflecting Souza’s Catholic upbringing and the influence of the Church on his adolescent mind.
“The Roman Catholic Church had a tremendous influence over me, not its dogmas but its grand architecture and the splendour of its services." (Edwin Mullins, Souza, Anthony Blond Ltd. London 1962, p. 42). In another instance, Souza describes dining at a priest’s home in Goa, “Sunday evenings, the vicar invited me to dine with him […] A laundered tablecloth was spread only when he [the Vicar] had guests, a luxury he permitted himself with touching simplicity.” ('Nirvana of a Maggot', F. N. Souza: Words and Lines, Villiers London 1959, pp.17-18).
Writing on Souza’s still life compositions, the distinguished critic Geeta Kapur notes that ‘they are mostly ornate vessels and sacred objects. These objects retain their ritual aspect both on account of the visual description and composition... They are moreover, clustered formally as if on the shelf of the sacristy…’. (G. Kapur, Contemporary Indian Artists, Vikas Publishing New Delhi 1978, pp. 29-30)
This work is predominantly painted in tones of yellow. The skull makes its presence felt in one corner - a striking reminder of the certainty of death. This symbol dating from antiquity is known as a Memento Mori, Latin for “Remember that you will die”. In the opposite corner, juxtaposed to the skull, is the large vase full of flowers symbolising the blossoming of new life. It occupies much of the space in the foreground with the bright red flowers. The thick wooden cross stands firm next to this vase. The oil lamp beside the skull illumines the entire scene.
There is a more restricted yet judicious use of colours for a work of this period. Here, it is a subtle yellow shade that fills the entire background, dominating the painting. This seems to signify the dispelling of darkness and dark thoughts. Souza must have been in a happy state of mind while painting this work.
This juxtaposition of ideas, hope and despair, light and dark, life and death is expressed with effortless ease and clarity. Souza signs off the work in his inimitable style; thick black outlines the foreground forms effectively enveloping them. They are remarkable for their energy and geometric visual harmony.