The Young Man and the Sea

Water and ocean appear frequently in the art of Robert Pope. They reflect his need to connect images with a sense of place, his native Nova Scotia, a peninsula surrounded by the North Atlantic. The artist presents his environment as an ever-changing water-world, open to voyages of the imagination. This blog looks at different uses of this water imagery, and how these changes affect the meaning we read into them.

Robert Pope. Study for Harbour, 1985.

In 1985, Robert developed an image called Harbour. A couple seen from above view a dazzling array of irregular shapes and foamy swirls in moving water. The hypnotic patterns invite a state of reverie, reflection and daydream.  Robert wrote in an artist’s statement from this time: “I believe we take aspects of our physical environment as metaphors for our experience. Our lives are directly affected by the economic and environmental benefits of the sea. We are drawn to its beauty and danger. Its ancient rhythms reflect our notions of life and eternity.”

 

Robert Pope. Surf, 1988

In his painting, Surf, an enormous wave crashes between a couple. The water voices their sense of  exhilaration, passion, annihilation. The painting is from a series based on Elizabeth Smart’s experimental novel, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Here is a sample quotation: “But I have become part of the earth: I am one of its waves flooding and leaping. I am the same tune now as the trees, hummingbirds, sky, fruits, vegetables in rows. I am all or any of these. I can metamorphose at will.” (p. 43)

In this context, the word “metamorphosis” indicates the transformative power of love, both in its positive inspirational aspects and its obsessive, self-destructive aspects. The painting uses water as a symbol of this transformation. The crashing wave also alludes to Hokusai, the great Japanese artist (1760-1849) who worked in the genre known as ukiyo-e. Ukiyo-e translates as “pictures from the floating world,” meaning the in-between world, the not-quite respectable world of pleasure, travel and adventure opening up to the newly prosperous middle class. In Hokusai’s most famous image, The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Hokusai contrasts the violent and transitory effects of water with the calm permanence of the distant Mt. Fuji. Robert looked for similar contrasts in his own work, but with more of a focus on human psychology.

Robert Pope. Metamorphosis, 1986

Robert Pope. Sketchbook studies for Metamorphosis, 1988

In the studies at right for the painting Metamorphosis, the water’s abstract patterns turn a woman’s face into a jigsaw puzzle–a woman drowning in love. Smart writes how she “craves violence for expression, but can find none. There is no end. The drowning never ceases. The water submerges and blends, but I am not dead. O I am not dead. I am under the sea. The entire sea is on top of me.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 118-119) The mood becomes darker here, though Robert’s image suggests birth as well as death. The water functions almost as a mask. Through psychological projection, the water becomes symbolic of a state of mind, the unconscious and its powerful effects on human character.

 

Robert Pope. Patient Daydreaming, 1986

Robert was being treated for cancer at this time. (He died in 1992 of the side effects of the treatment for Hodgkin’s Disease.) Above is a sketchbook drawing done from his hospital room in Princess Margaret’s Hospital in Toronto. He is dreaming of escape to another place, turning his confined room into the cabin of a fantastic ocean voyage.

Robert Pope. Intravenous Solution and Ocean, 1991

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Robert’s subsequent series “Illness and Healing,” the ocean landscape gives way to a hospital landscape filled with busy doctors, staff, technicians, patients and visiting family. Yet water imagery reappears in one key image. An I-V pole stands before a window, with the ocean visible beyond. The painting contrasts interior with exterior, contrasts vertical pole with horizontal waves, contrasts medical instrument (science) with nature, contrasts the liquid in the solution bag (feeding into the patient’s bloodstream) with the limitless waters beyond.

In a sketchbook Robert copied the passage: “God come down out of the eucalyptus tree outside my window, and tell me who will drown in so much blood.” (Elizabeth Smart, p. 35) Underneath, Robert noted: “Blood is a simultaneous symbol of birth, life and death. Water operates the same way, a life-giving substance that one can drown in.” The picture Intravenous Solution and Ocean shows no patient, but indicates a dream-like interior where an awkward instrument provides an artificial life-line. The image suggests end of life, which mysteriously may not be the end. The water encourages the viewer to think of infinity, continuity, cosmic forces transcending the limits of our perspective of individual being.

Water appears in different ways in the art of Robert Pope. Water provides a sense of place. Water is playful, transformative, unpredictable and dangerous. Water is composed of patterns that are hypnotic and graphically compelling. Water assists the psychological projection of mental states. Water serves as a kind of mediation of unspeakable feelings between two figures. Water evokes a dream of escape, an invitation to daydream and imagination. Water suggests new perspectives on our fixed notions of time and being. These new perspectives have religious overtones, as well as being a statement of creative possibilities for artist and viewer.

 

 

 

 

Poesia: Art, Love & Inspiration


The figures are half submerged in shadows. The landscape features lush trees, a distant shepherd and flock, a water fountain, a luxuriously clad musician and friend and two naked goddesses (who may or may not be visible to the self-absorbed gentlemen). It is a tantalizing picture of love, music, nature and inspiration. This poetic painting, so moody and mysterious, suggests mythology without illustrating a specific story.

Giorgione, Fête Champêtre, 1509-1510

Nature imagery and love poem combine in Renaissance art in an “enigmatic pastoral” genre often referred to as poesia. This blog looks at two more recent examples of poesia to demonstrate the adaptability of this remarkable genre.

In modern times, the painters Manet and Munch revolutionize the lyrical mood of these pastoral images by introducing troubling contemporary elements, suggesting strongly the need for love, but implying that love is imperfect or imperfectly fulfilled.

Edvard Munch. Dance of Life, 1900

In the image above, Munch’s dancers move from the youth on the left to the lonely widow on the right in a symbolic cycle of life. The moonlit landscape, a meadow that overlooks a beach, casts an eerie spell on the figures who move as if in a trance through their allotted roles. Munch turns poesia into an allegory, where love is seen as a kind of obligatory social expectation and those who fall outside the norm of it find themselves unhappily cast out.

Robert Pope. Orchard, 1987.

The Canadian artist Robert Pope (1956-1992) added his own take on this ever-changing genre. The above image shows a landscape that both separates and connects figures who stand as if awaiting the signal for a duel. The artist turns natural elements like the apple tree into a mandala-like signifier that must mediate the unspeakable feelings of his spellbound lovers. The landscape is charged with energy and significance, but the meaning is ambiguous. Like the Giorgione, the image is moody and mysterious. Like Munch, the image of love unfolding suggests both anxiety and compulsion.

In Orchard, there is a mythic allusion to Adam and Eve and the forbidden tree of knowledge. Like other peosia images, Robert’s Orchard departs from the mythic source to tell its own story. Robert was inspired by Elizabeth Smart’s novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), the story of an unhappy love affair between a poet and a married novelist. The figures in the painting are poets, much as the figures in the Giorgione’s poesia are musicians. By creating a series about poets who break a taboo by falling in love, Robert returns to Giorgione’s theme of artistic inspiration, but complicates it by suggesting that the practitioners of art, poetry and love enter a dreamscape that is dangerous and possibly forbidden.

The Garden of Eden is ultimately a story of acquiring knowledge and self-awareness, a knowledge that makes people human, but also separates them from nature. This separation is symbolized by the expulsion from the garden. Poets and artists see the world differently. Instead of accepting exile and taking pride in our separation from nature, poets dare to dream of reuniting with nature, of re-entering the garden. Robert’s Orchard suggests that the landscape, so central to the poesia genre, may not symbolize an idyllic safe-haven for poetic inspiration, but rather a kind embattled almost unrecognized zone to sneak into at night at the user’s peril.

Poesia is a genre still vibrantly alive in contemporary art. The license these poetic images take with mythology allow them a flexibility to adapt to new circumstances and changing attitudes. At its best, the genre is mysterious and paradoxical, exploring both social and rebellious elements in processes of love, art and creativity.

A retrospective of Robert Pope’s work is currently on view at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax and will be on view until December 9, 2012. More info on Pope’s work and his legacy can be found at the Robert Pope Foundation website.