September 22, 2012 – 3:59am BY ELISSA BARNARD ARTS REPORTER | AT THE GALLERIES, THE CHRONICLE HERALD
Painter’s ‘wonderful portfolio’ transcends lost battle with cancer
A detail from Metamorphosis, acrylic on paper, by Robert Pope, which is part of a new exhibit called Metamorphosis: The Art of Robert Pope, running at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia to Dec. 9.
ROBERT POPE’S powerful and bleak paintings from series on accidents, a tormented relationship and cancer reverberate from the walls at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
All three of the series were made after he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 25 in 1982. Pope successfully fought Hodgkin’s lymphoma but died from complications at the age of 35.
That was 20 years ago. His legacy includes the Robert Pope Foundation, his book Illness and Healing: Images of Cancer, given to Dalhousie University medical students in their first year, and the comfort his images give to families experiencing cancer, with their patient’s perspective on diagnosis, treatment, fear, grief and family stress.
However, “his legacy is more than that,” says Tom Smart, curator of Metamorphosis: The Art of Robert Pope, at the AGNS to Dec. 9.
“His legacy is this wonderful portfolio of work that takes the big myths and translates them into contemporary life, and he’s a very fine draughtsman. We wanted to place him in the context of the whole of his work.”
The exhibit of 50 paintings and drawings includes the 2008 gift of the Illness and Healing images to the gallery by the Pope family and borrowed works. It tells the story of Pope the artist.
Smart, who is familiar at the AGNS as curator of touring exhibits on Mary Pratt, Alex Colville, Miller Brittain and Tom Forrestall, has brought his intellect to bear on Pope’s work, all of which is marked by the artist’s knowledge of his own mortality and his interest in framing contemporary life within the structures of myth.
During an interview in the fourth-floor gallery, Smart walks over to the massive 1991 charcoal drawing titled Aesculapius.
In it, a snake entwines itself around an IV pole held by a gaunt-looking man. This image refers to the myth of Aesculapius, which underlies Pope’s Illness and Healing series.
In the myth, a pestilence ravaged the city of Rome, and a Roman delegation went to the Delphic oracle, who told them that Aesculapius, Apollo’s son, had the power to stop the deaths. One night, one of the envoys had a dream — Apollo appeared holding a staff with a serpent entwined around it. He promised that his son would go to Rome disguised as a mighty serpent.
The dream proved true. Believers brought the Cult of Aesculapius to Rome and the city was rid of the devastating plague.
“He’s trying to show that this myth has a relevance to his experience of the medical profession trying to heal the plague of cancer,” says Smart.
In his studio, Pope had the page from Ovid’s Metamorphosis that tells the story of Aesculapius. The rod entwined with the snake remains today as the symbol of medicine’s power to heal.
Smart is amazed by this drawing of a figure described in a dense black that moves horizontally to a wispy grey then fades to white.
“It’s just a tone poem, there’s hardly a line in it. You see a young man in quiet contemplation, and it’s almost a dream image and it goes away as dust.
“There’s a transience to it, but there is a very beautiful intelligence behind the drawing.”
Smart never met Pope. If he could today, he’d ask him “how was he able to draw so well only using tone. There are barely any lines in his drawings. It’s as if he is drawing with powder. Miraculous.
“He became a very fine watercolourist, but it’s the drawing underneath that holds the work together.”
Pope came at art from a literary and philosophical background. His father William, a minister, founded Lancelot Press out of the family home in Hantsport. Pope also worked as a graphic artist, designing book covers for Lancelot Press.
“The discussions at the dinner table of the Pope family, I think, were really rich,” says Smart.
Pope graduated with a degree in math and physics from Acadia University before arriving in 1978 at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
“At the time, I think he’s working against the grain. He’s at NSCAD and it’s all conceptually based. He brought this deep understanding of technique to Conceptualism.”
Pope was a figurative painter using allusive imagery, and he was a naturalist at a time when it was not in vogue.
“It would have been discouraged,” says Smart.
“He found a way through it because of his drive, his artistic vision, his sense of his gifts, and he had a message. His creative strategy was interpreting these myths in contemporary terms. There’s a great rich vein of this in Canadian literature.”
However, there is not in Canadian art.
“He was interested in taking Greek and Roman myths and the big stories and translating them in contemporary terms.”
All of his work also has an undercurrent of loss and loneliness.
Pope’s first major series of paintings was the 1988 exhibit A Seal Upon Thine Heart, based on his interpretations of Elizabeth Smart’s poetic prose novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, which has echoes from Solomon’s Song of Songs.
“The Elizabeth Smart story is one of an overwhelming need of a woman and a man to have a relationship, and it’s a catastrophe,” says Smart, whose family is not related to Elizabeth’s.
Pope staged models, who were people he knew, in theatrical settings, creating “a surreal theatre, these strange alienating spaces, these existential spaces that are vacant but full of feeling,” says Smart.
“It’s an episodic narrative. It may be autobiographical. It’s the story of a contemporary young couple facing tragic issues around a relationship.”
Pope’s second major series of paintings from 1988 revolves around car accidents. He had been looking at Andy Warhol’s prints of automobile accidents.
“He got Department of Transport photos of car accidents.”
One of those photographs is in a display case of Pope’s source material and preliminary sketches.
“He’s taken the motif, cleaned it up and built a crowd of people around it in a surreal landscape.
“How do people respond to death and catastrophic loss? He uses a surreal theatre, and there’s this kind of neutrality.
“When you’re around the angel of death, you look at it in a very, very dispassionate way.”
Pope carried this personal knowledge of mortality though both series.
Then he turned his artistic vision on the experience of cancer from the patient’s perspective for quiet and disquieting images. In this series, a doctor places a stethoscope on a patient’s bare chest, a husband and wife embrace behind an IV stand, an angry black dog barks in a graveyard with the Victoria General Hospital buildings looming behind.
“He was such a young man when he got it,” says Smart.
“It was terrible. He wants to give a patient-based perspective of an interaction with the medical profession in all of its dimensions. These paintings are morbid in the true sense.
“It’s very moody, very sad, very melancholy.”