It is almost impossible to discuss the work of Bombay born, Goan expressionist painter Lancelot Ribeiro (1933-2010) without touching upon that of his half brother, the more famous, Francis Newton Souza. A 1964 painting by Ribeiro, titled Landscape with Trees, shows the boxy, topsy turvy houses that preoccupied Souza during this period. Vibrant tones, a pointy church steeple, thick black contour lines and leafless, skeletal trees dominate the composition. If one were familiar with the elder artist and not the younger, they could certainly attribute the work to the elder. Many of Ribeiro’s early works do bear strong similarities to his brother’s paintings, but as he began to form his own artistic language, the artist proved to be a stylistic innovator until his death in 2010.
It was Souza, having moved to London the previous year to further his career as an artist, who, in 1950, called for his teenage brother to join him there. Ribeiro originally arrived in the English capital not for the art, but for the prestigious accounting schools that could be found here. It was not long before the younger sibling became enraptured by the dynamic London art scene, and left his studies in accounting to attend art classes at Saint Martin’s School of Art between 1951 and 1953. The fresh, impressionable Ribeiro was no doubt receptive to the painting style of his successful older brother. He even worked as a studio assistant for Souza in their early days together in London. Souza’s success and resulting social life meant that he frequently left works unfinished. Ribeiro would complete them, using the painter’s harsh, aggressive strokes to form his church spires, iconographic heads and anti-naturalistic still-lives. His brother would then return to add his hasty signature to the finished piece.
Following National Service with the Royal Air Force in Scotland, and a European tour, Ribeiro returned to Bombay where he continued to paint as well as write, although his original intention was to be a poet. Here he earned his living through his work at a Life Insurance Corporation, though in 1958 he began to paint professionally. 1961 proved to be a significant year in Ribeiro’s career. During this time the artist held his first solo exhibition at the Bombay Artist Aid Centre, was commissioned to do a 12 ft mural for Tata Iron and Steel, Bombay (which now sits in the Group Chairman’s Office of Bombay House), was sponsored by the British Council, Bombay and the Max Mueller Bhawan, New Delhi for his poetry readings, and was included in the exhibition Ten Indian Painters, which travelled throughout Europe and the United States. When, in 1962, Ribeiro returned to London, he had established his name in his home country. Having been married in India that same year, the artist was joined by his wife, Ana Rita, in early 1963.
As one of the original Indian painters to earn recognition in the west, Ribeiro co-founded the Indian Painters’ Collective in 1963, and would later help to form the Indian Artists’ United Kingdom Group in 1978. Like his brother, the overwhelming body of his work concentrates on three subjects: landscapes, still lives, and heads. Examples from the 1960s show the hatched lines, rough strokes, jagged edges and highly frontal quality of his mentor.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Ribeiro’s landscapes began to take on a highly different form. He replaced his previous focus on architecture with an interest in the soft curvilinear forms of the earth. In a 1980 work titled Accented Landscape II, there are two distinct layers to the painting. Pink and blue pigment have been seemingly scraped across the surface of the canvas to form the base, leaving areas of white exposed through the thin oil paint. This more rapid under-painting has then been drawn over with a series of carefully delineated, thick, black strokes evoking the contours of the land, the gentle rippling of water, or the precise, and one of a kind pattern of a fingerprint.
In later years he began to distinguish his work through his interest in technical experimentation. Finding that traditional oil painting would hamper his desired compositions, Ribeiro began to undergo tests with the synthetic plastic bases that are used in commercial paints. With polyvinyl acetates he conducted exercises in various levels of plasticity painted over several different types of surfaces, such as canvas and wood. The freedom he found with these quick drying paints allowed him to produce unique new effects that furthered the development of his own artistic voice.
Works following these technical developments have a more controlled quality to them with respect to his early oil paintings. He continued to produce works according to the three categories, combining his early painterly language with a more evident self awareness. One of his very late paintings, Ragastan Man of 2007, a work of acrylic on canvas, looks superficially like a Souza head. Bulging almond eyes and its startling frontal quality are no doubt a nod to his elder brother. However the precise application of paint in which areas of colour remain isolated from each other, resisting mixture, and the plasticity of the image are print-like in nature.
Ribeiro’s modesty and inability to sell himself left him as one of the more obscure figures of post-war Indian painting in Britain. That is not to say that the artist did not achieve his own minor success. He had a large German following and exhibited in shows in Frankfurt, Heidelburg and Marburg. An important exhibition held at the LTG Gallery in New Delhi in 1998, was concurrent with a period of economic strife, and could be considered a factor in his poor sales. As commercial interest in modern South Asian painting has grown in the West, Ribeiro has remained under the radar. To revive interest in the artist, a 2013 retrospective of Ribeiro’s work was held at London’s Asia House between May and June, and a follow up exhibition is set to be held in New Delhi in November.
By Ellen Von Wiegand