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Painter Tony Scherman.Joy Von Tiedemann

Tony Scherman’s paintings and works on paper were both admired and celebrated for their unique technical qualities and intellectually rigorous subject matter. The painter, who died of cancer on Feb. 28 at age 72, made a significant contribution to contemporary painting with his inimitable work. Mr. Scherman’s career spanned five decades with over 100 solo exhibitions in North America, Europe and China. His works were acquired for international public galleries and museum collections in Europe – including Centre Pompidou in Paris – the United States and all the major Canadian galleries. Although accolades were never a driving force for Mr. Scherman, he was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy in 2005.

Antony Scherman was born in Toronto on Aug. 13, 1950. His father, Paul Scherman, was an assistant conductor and violinist with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. When Tony was five, the family – including his mother, Donna (née Creed) Scherman, and older sister, Theo – moved to Europe. Paul worked as a conductor in Paris and Vienna but relocated to London, England by 1958 to join the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Tony arrived to live with his father shortly thereafter. His mother died in 1959. Childhood and teenage experiences in Europe and being in the orbit of his father’s professional work fed Mr. Scherman’s cultural imagination.

London was becoming vibrant after the drabness of the immediate post-Second World War period. Visitors to the family house in Notting Hill Gate included singer Ella Fitzgerald and jazz drummer Art Blakey, and musicians from the explosive early-1960s London blues and pop music scene, such as guitarists Ronnie Wood (who would continue to visit in Toronto) and Jeff Beck, singer Eric Burdon and many others.

Early on, Mr. Scherman was determined to become an artist. He studied in London at the Byam Shaw School of Art and the Royal College of Art, where he received a master’s degree.

Not long after graduation he was included in the noted and controversial 1976 survey exhibition The Human Clay, organized by American expatriate artist R.B. Kitaj for the Arts Council of Great Britain. Mr. Scherman was the youngest of the 48 artists and in heady company with established artists such as Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and David Hockney. His painting The Kitchen was acquired for the Arts Council collection. The exhibition toured to other public galleries in England, Wales, Scotland and Belgium. In 1976, he returned to Toronto with his wife, British artist Margaret Priest.

At a time when the death of painting was still being announced – first proposed around 1840 when photography appeared and subsequently repeated by critics eager to predict the next new thing – Mr. Scherman continued with image painting without hesitation or concern for what was critically fashionable; abstraction still held sway in the 1970s.

“I continue to draw from life: a piece of meat that I will cook. I also work from photography or from film stills, a whole range of sources,” Mr. Scherman once said. “Everything between the paintings – the drawings – is everything in my life. The questions I have, what is real and not.”

Tony Scherman working in his studio on some encaustic paintings, on April 29, 1999.Tibor Kolley/The Globe and Mail

His preferred medium was encaustic wax mixed with colour pigments. Unlike the fluidity of oil and acrylic paints, encaustic is applied hot to the canvas. Mr. Scherman mastered this unforgiving medium (imagine trying to write a letter with a melting candle). He layered and scraped back the wax, building thick and textured surfaces over time. He spoke of this physically demanding approach as having results that could not be foreseen. There is no mistaking a Tony Scherman work, but he once stated that “your true style is an expression of your being, [it] is not some concoction or a superficial veil … as some critics would have us believe.”

He drew inspiration from historical European art – such as the Spanish painters Francisco Goya and Diego Velázquez, who dared to be different in their times – which he channelled through literary sources. He was a voracious reader; it was his research. This included Greek mythology and the Shakespearean tragedies Macbeth and Hamlet. These he made relevant to the contemporary world through the timeless themes of the psychological impact of political power and ambition, madness and revenge, using his source material in fresh ways. In his Macbeth works, he painted moments from Banquo’s funeral, which does not appear in Shakespeare’s play. All of Mr. Scherman’s mature work began with the question: Can this have consequence and beauty? In 2004 he stated “How do you know when you are looking at the beautiful? There is a pain in beauty, as there is pain in love.”

Mr. Scherman began painting historical subjects in the late 1990s, examining the scars on the psyche of humankind in all of its ethical dimensions, and what he regarded as the banality of evil, a concept proposed by the influential German-born philosopher Hannah Arendt. Subjects from the French Revolution (the “dress rehearsal” for the horrors of the 19th and 20th centuries) were blended with figures from the Third Reich in Mr. Scherman’s body of work.

In 2007, he chose the American Civil War because, as he told Lilly Wei for an essay accompanying About 1865, an exhibition of his work in New York and Toronto, “It was the first war fought on moral terms … premised on the belief that slavery was a non-negotiable evil.” Its tragic aftermath is still being played out and unresolved today.

Many of the paintings were close-up cinematic portraits of both major and minor characters. Some were composed with startling impact, such as Napoleon’s Last Shave, St. Helena (the island where Napoleon was exiled by the British in 1815, and where he died in 1821). He would also use his favourite subjects, food, animals and flowers, as metaphors. In one Civil War painting titled Army Beef, the cut of beef depicted is a reference to the low-grade meat fed to soldiers, whom in warfare were treated as cannon fodder.

His French Revolution works were summarized in the richly illustrated book Chasing Napoleon (1999), with essays and interviews by American, European and Canadian writers. The related exhibition toured to university and public galleries in the United States and Canada.

Napoleon's Last Shave, St. Helena.Tony Scherman/Courtesy of Leonard & Bina Ellen Art Gallery, Concordia University, Montreal

Mr. Scherman also explored his own themes through psychologically charged portraits. The Blue Highway paintings (1999-2002) were “metaphysical” depictions of people who had suffered from the theft of their soul through celebrity overexposure, including Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain. As he stated on his website, it was his attempt “to build a bridge for the soul to come back to its lawful place.”

In his work, Mr. Scherman embraced the deep well of human anxieties, including his own. His last works were titled The Coming Good to assert an inescapable paradox: What is good for one is not necessarily good for all. Mr. Scherman commented on the Metivier Gallery website, “Given the state of affairs in the world today [it] is either an auspicious phrase or a deeply cynical one, or both.”

In the 1980s Mr. Scherman taught at the University of Guelph and the University of Toronto. His lectures and studio critiques were legendary; former students spoke passionately of the inspirational tough love. After stepping away from teaching, he was a sought-after speaker. Mr. Scherman was fierce, engaging, inspirational and thought-provoking. His talks were interwoven with philosophical and ethical musings and injected with his self-deprecating humour. He once remarked privately, “some days it’s difficult enough to make a bad painting let alone a good one.” There were no sermons about art.

To be in the circle of his private life, his love, compassion and empathy for family and others, was a gift. There were memorable meals, as he was an inspired cook. Dinner conversations were always fluid. Once in a while he would take the lead and expand on a philosophical proposition: Ideas mattered to him. Sometimes you could feel a bit behind, but never left out.

Mr. Scherman leaves Ms. Priest, his wife of 50 years; their three children, Leo, Georgia and Claudia; four grandchildren; his brother, Marc; and extended family.