This exhibition marks the twentieth anniversary of the death of the Halifax artist Robert Pope who, during his all too brief life, (he was thirty-five when he died), used his art to trace his journey through the very dark path of his own ten year battle with cancer. It is a melancholy exhibition filled with many dark images, but his was a very brave look at the face of death. I should state from the outset that I needed to see this exhibition as I Iost a daughter to breast cancer on Christmas day 2009 and have never really recovered. Pope’s images brought back many painful memories. Cancer is not pretty. Hospitals and cancer wards are places best avoided. I dare say that people like me, and there are many, likely see Robert Pope’s art differently than those whose lives until now have not been touched by cancer.
Many of the works in the exhibition are in black and white and some of them small in scale. These were the works that I was drawn to, and in particular, the charcoal drawings; two of those that I came back to again and again were Three Men (1990, 32 x 38.2 cm) and Erica (1990, 36 x 36cm). The three men, in the drawing of the same name, are in a car at night, an older man, driving; a man in the back looking on with concern at the third man, in the front seat, throwing up in a hospital pan that was likely the result of a procedure such as chemo or radiation. In Erica, a small bald child in a hospital bed very lightly touches an IV monitor. She appears to glow as if she were lit from within. Sober images both, but there is no lacking in beauty.
Beauty may appear to be a funny word in relation to Pope’s artworks. When I remarked to a friend at the exhibition that a painting was a pretty picture another viewer chided me, how could I say that about a work whose subject was about cancer and dying? Easily as art can transform the ugly to the beautiful. One only has to think of Goya’s black paintings to see what I mean and Pope’s art works are in that great tradition of Goya. Pope has managed to take suffering, much of it his own, and turn it into objects, his art, that reflect what is good about human nature, and isn’t that one of the jobs of art?
One painting that did resonate on a personal level was Radiation (1989, 76.2 x 101.7cm). It is a mainly black and white painting of a man on a table in a darken room undergoing radiation treatment. Two red laser lines cross his body to mark the spot were the radiation is aimed. As someone who has undergone similar treatment, the painting hits home. Just looking at that work brings back the feeling of the coldness of the table and the smell of the hospital radiation lab.
There are other ways of looking at this exhibition than the rather morbid personal way that I approached it. The show is titled Metamorphosis, a word that the artist used, which means a change of form by natural or supernatural means. There are butterfly images in the exhibition. A pupa transforms itself into a butterfly and flies away to a new life. Perhaps this is what Pope thought about with his fight with cancer. I certainly would like to think that the death of my daughter was, for her, a release from pain and suffering and, perhaps, a flight to a better place somewhere else. Art I am sure was a release for Pope and what he shows us is a lesson for us all and is best summed up with the words from Corinthians One (15:55): “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”
METAMORPHOSIS: THE ART OF ROBERT POPE
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia
15 September-9 December 2012