Robert Bateman Is More Than A Wildlife Painter

By Peter Worthington

His name and works are known worldwide, with one-man shows in museums across the U.S., Britain, Japan, Europe, Africa. His work is depicted on money and postage stamps, with originals in various private collections (Princes Philip and Charles, the late Princess Grace of Monaco, Prince Benhard of the Netherlands).

He is, of course, Toronto-born Robert Bateman. Museums love Bateman while art galleries tend to denigrate artists who put animals or birds in their paintings. Art is a matter of opinion. A mixture of taste, preference, mythology and hype–it must be, when the signature on a painting can increase its value from $30,000 to $50 million (e.g. Massacre of the Innocents whose value rose once Rubens was confirmed as the artist).

Bateman and his friend George McLean are in a class by themselves as wildlife artists. Neither needs a pretentious curator to interpret them, as is needed to explain what the dabs, lines and blobs of much of modern art actually mean.

There’s a lot more to Bateman than painting. He started as a school teacher, and likes to remind interviewers that he’s taught art, but not studied it. No art school background for him.

“An artist draws and paints because he has to,” he says. “It’s within him, part of his make-up. Like writing, perhaps.”

He started painting seriously when he was 14 and he quips that “I taught for fun, I painted for real.” It’s made a pretty good living for him, but he’s still the teacher, a naturalist, who knows more about nature than many who make their living from it.

He started out as an abstract and modernist painter, and learned much from the likes of Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol (“the last of the modernists”), Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Japanese calligraphists, and others. At age 32 he realized that his niche was representational art, influenced by abstractionists, modernists, cubists, whatever.

That helps him sell, but it doesn’t help get his work into the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) or the National Gallery in Ottawa, where artistic bigotry and snobbery reign. Galleries in Victoria, B.C., appreciate him, as does the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) which is more open-minded to public tastes, and recently showed the work of George McLean and Chris Bacon.

Bateman likes to refer to the “high priests” or “priesthood” of the art establishment which, unlike most artists, tend to be “exclusionist” of what they disapprove, and include or accept only that which they can interpret or explain to the great unwashed public.

Bateman’s success as one of the world’s most celebrated artists hinges more on his presentation than on the details of his paintings. “In fact when someone says ‘I love your work, it’s so detailed,’ it’s almost an insult,” he says. “I want people to see the whole thing– the space, the emptiness if you like, which I learned from abstract painters.

“To concentrate on details alone, is like saying ‘I love your sweater, because it has so many stitches.’ ” He adds there are thousands of artists painting chickadees, cardinals and wolves, every feather and hair in place, which the public likes, but not all catch the imagination and add another dimension. He hopes his work goes a step further, and when it does he credits the modernists of the past.

His wife, Birgit, adds that Bateman “doesn’t tell long stories, he tells wide stories,” in that they are not narrow and precise, but wide-ranging and free-flowing.

Of course he is a conservationist, and a valued member, director or advisor of some 40 conservation organizations. A particular outrage for him is drift netting that kills unknown thousands of sea birds, fish, whales, ocean life. One of his paintings graphically depicts this, with a whale dead in the net and a seagull too, with the strands of the net barely visible across the whole painting. “To me it’s like a crucifixion,” he says.

His love for Africa is reflected in his early paintings when he was a teacher in Umuahia, Nigeria, in what was to become Biafra and a raging civil war that resulted in mass starvation and atrocities 40 years ago. The genocide in Darfur today concerns him, and he has affection for Eritrea. Outrage bubbles that a monster like Robert Mugabe could destroy a potentially wonderful, productive country like Zimbabwe.

Bateman has fought prejudice all his life–the sort of prejudice that insisted nature painters couldn’t use a small brush, but had to work with a big brush and sweeping strokes as the Group of Seven did.

Bateman recalls that someone once said “you know you’re seeing masterpiece when you see a work for the first time and it looks effortless. I hope when people see my paintings, they don’t see the effort I put into it. There’s got to be a sense of mystery too.” Maybe there’s a parallel in sports–Joe DiMaggio tracking down a fly ball make it look ludicrously easy, while lesser players look as if they are struggling to make an exceptional play. It’s that way with art too. Van Gogh’s sunflowers or starry nights look easy and deceptively simple.

A conversation with Bateman ranges all over the place. When he talks of “mystery” in painting, I’m reminded of three of his works. One is the Black Wolf, painted against a black forest background, with your perception dictated by your mood of the moment. Another is of the Mountain Goat on a precipice, which gives the viewer vertigo. The third is a Polar Bear in an Arctic blizzard. In all, the imagination runs amok.–Toronto Sun