A calling to paint the wild

Hubert de Santana November 23 1981

A calling to paint the wild

Hubert de Santana November 23 1981

A calling to paint the wild


Hubert de Santana

A bull elephant looms out of a yellow dust cloud; one tusk is broken and the ancient hide is deeply creased and grooved, like the sides of an extinct volcano. It is a study in primeval majesty. Two moulting gentoo penguins shelter in a grisly wreckage of whalebones, as if in the ruins of a marble cathedral. Under a white pine in a misty field in southern Ontario, the artist walks with his Labrador retriever through a Gothic filigree of goldenrod and Queen Anne’s lace.

The artist is Robert Bateman, the most popular and successful wildlife painter in Canada.

This has been a crowning year for Bateman, who until 1976 taught geography and art in high school to support himself and his family. A painting of a family of loons was commissioned from him by

the Canadian government, and sent to Prince Charles as a wedding gift. A recently published coffee-table book, The Art of Robert Bateman (A Penguin Canada-Madison Press book), is a runaway bestseller. Its huge print run of 45,000 copies sold out before it was even pub-

lished. An exhibition of 72 Bateman paintings, Images of the Wild, will be on display at the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Ottawa until Nov. 29, after which it will travel across the country. Says Tom Beckett of the Beckett Gallery in Hamilton, one of Bateman’s dealers: “The excitement he has generated has brought a surge of new people into art galleries who would never ordinarily be there.”

The Ottawa show attracted 10,000 viewers in the first month, 10 times the normal attendance at a museum show. People ooh and aah at the meticulous attention to detail: the waterdrop glistening like a pearl in the feathers of a pintail; the throb of a vein in the flank of an African topi; the-verdigris of the legs of a Canada goose. But Bateman is anxious that the viewer’s understanding should reach beneath the surface of the paint to the abstract

design of the composition. Robert Bateman is a handsome, energetic man who looks far younger than his 51 years. His manner is open and friendly, entirely without affectation. In an informal tour of the show he stops before a picture of mountain goats on a steep ledge, entitled Sheer Drop. “I don’t think that art should be comfortable and pleasing and pretty all the time,” Bateman remarks, and tells that when the picture hung in the offices of Mill Pond Press Inc. in Florida, secretaries would pass it with averted eyes, because it gave them vertigo. The painting looks as if it was done from direct observation; but like most of his work, it was contrived entirely from the artist’s imagination. The composition was inspired by abstract paintings—vertical slashes with jagged shapes on contrasting backgrounds—by the American artist Clyfford Still. Bateman translated the slash into a waterfall he had seen in the Rockies and added the goats, which he painted from drawings and photographs.

This carefully calculated approach sometimes results in a loss of spontaneity. Occasionally Bateman succumbs to the temptation to paint something cute and cuddly, such as Among the Leaves, which shows a baby cottontail rabbit. Bateman defends the painting: “It’s impossible to do a baby bunny that’s not cute, unless you do it dead, with flies all over it.” He maintains that the expression on the rabbit’s face is one of “frozen fear.” But when he succeeds, he succeeds brilliantly. His best work combines exquisite painterly detail with strong underlying design. His training as a naturalist serves him well. Says Louis Lemieux, director of the National Museum of Natural Sciences: “His strength as a painter is that he manages to create for the viewer an impression of how the animal or the bird sees his own environment.”

Born in Toronto in 1930, Bateman grew up in the comfortable neighborhood of north Forest Hill, in a house overlooking a ravine teeming with wildlife. The eldest of three boys, he remembers the Don as “a lovely clear little brook where I once caught a painted turtle. And now it’s a sewer.” His interest in natural history and art was something he was born with, like a virus in the blood. “I was incredibly prolific in my youth,” Bateman recalls. “I painted every hawk and owl in North America by the time I was 15 years old.” Encouraged in his naturalist pursuits by his parents, he spent his Saturday mornings at the Royal Ontario Museum as “back-room boy,” talking to the staff. Terence Shortt, then chief illustrator and head of the department of arts and exhibits, remembers Bateman as “a very clever draftsman, a person who had a great desire to learn as much as

he could about birds and mammals.”

In his late teens, Bateman spent his summers as a “Joe boy,” peeling potatoes and gathering data in Algonquin Park in the company of biological scientists. He paid homage to the Group of Seven by going out in a canoe to sketch and paint, making it a point of honor to finish each of his paintings in the field. Though he rarely paints in the field now, his knowledge comes from firsthand observation, from sketches and specimens gained on expeditions. A Bateman painting is characterized by accuracy. A geologist could identify the rock strata; a botanist could name the plants; ornithologists and zoologists could identify the species of birds and mammals at a glance.

Bateman’s insatiable curiosity about the natural world has made him the most adventurous and widely travelled artist in Canada. He has explored Ungava in northern Quebec and the Hudson Bay lowlands. He has sailed and snorkelled in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef; canoed up the Amazon; landed among penguin colonies in the antarctic; hiked in the Himalayas; made safaris in East Africa; studied the wildlife of the Galapagos Islands.

At the University of Toronto, Bateman studied geography and took Saturday classes in painting from artist Gordon Payne and evening life drawing classes from Carl Shaefer, who helped him master the art of the quick sketch. “The most exciting wildlife is always on the move ...

I can capture an image of something I’ve only seen for two seconds, such as a bird flying by.”

In those days, however, wildlife was relegated to the sketchbooks, and serious painting was

quite another matter. Bateman experimented with everything from cubism to abstract expressionism, and gained a thorough grounding in modern art that he believes distinguishes his work today from “just a couple of birds on a branch.” The turning point came in 1963 when he saw the Andrew Wyeth show at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo. “Here was an artist who had the courage to show the surface of the real world with abstract shapes. And all of a

sudden the naturalist and the artist in me dovetailed, and I began to paint as I do now.”

With his new style, he started slowly to gain the cult following he has in North America today. In 1964, he began exhibiting at the Fonville Gallery in Nairobi, Kenya. His contract there was bought out by the Tryon Gallery in London, England, one of the most famous galleries of wildlife art in the world. “I had an international reputation as a wildlife artist long before anybody in Toronto had heard of me,” Bateman says.

He was not entirely unknown in Canada. A 1967 show at the Alice Peck Gallery in Burlington, Ont., was immediately sold out, as were exhibitions at the Pollock Gallery in Toronto in 1969 and the Beckett Gallery in Hamilton in 1971. At one point, Bateman shows in Canada, England and the U.S. were becoming barbaric, with buyers shoving and elbowing each other. To prevent mob scenes, there is now a preview of each exhibition, at which prices are set. The names of interested buyers are then pulled out of a hat. At the last Bateman show in the Beckett Gallery in 1980, there were 20 paintings and 300 names in the hat. The dizzying spiral in the price of Bateman’s paintings can be gauged from the example of Winter Cardinal, which was sold in England in 1979 for $1,800. Just two years later, it changed hands for $35,000.

Bateman lets his dealers set the prices and claims to have little interest in the commercial side of his art. “I’ve never painted for the market; I’ve always painted for myself. And if the bottom fell out of the market, I’d still go on painting.”

For all his commercial success, Bateman has not, on the whole, been accepted by the Canadian art establishment. He refuses, however, to accept the inferior status usually accorded to wildlife painting and compares his work to that of the 19th-century Japanese masters, Hokusai and Hiroshige. “It has content, drama, public appeal and it’s fairly complex. The art establishment hasn’t tended in the past three decades to cotton on to these qualities in art. They prefer other things that are quite esoteric and hard to follow: a gesture or a blob.”

He lives with his second wife, Birgit, 35, and two sons, Christopher, 5, and Robbie, 2, in a three-storey open-plan house on the Niagara escarpment, about 64 km west of Toronto. His 10acre property is thickly wooded with birch, ash, white pine, willows, maple and beech. Bateman designed the house himself, and it reflects his eclectic tastes. There is a Japanese-style reflecting pool outside, with a Shintostyle courtyard. Inside, the walls are decorated with Chinese paintings, Japanese woodcuts, Cape Dorset prints, Bateman paintings and wall hangings made by his wife.

Bateman’s paintings suggest that he is a passionate animal lover, but he is more Charles Darwin than Dr. Doolittle: “I don’t love animals in a sentimental way. I’ve got a lot of the scientist in me. I’m not heartless, either. I could never point a gun at a deer and kill it.” His love of nature has a strong esthetic component: “I choose what I paint simply because it looks good.”

Once he has decided on a subject, he works out the compositional detail in pencil, on small cards. Then he begins to paint on gessoed masonite panels. His favorite medium is acrylic, and he uses many glazes. As visual aids he uses sketches, slides, photographs, Plasticine or clay models, stuffed birds and frozen birds. “The first five per cent and the last five per cent I enjoy—the middle 90 per cent is usually a grind.” In part to relieve the grind, he works on five to 10 pictures simultaneously, producing about 10 major paintings a year and several smaller ones.

Bateman has been crisscrossing the country in a gruelling series of booksigning and lecture tours, and he is longing to get back to his easel. He’s going to spend the next year painting just for the family, with no shows. In 1985 they plan to move to Saltspring, one of the Gulf Islands in British Columbia, where Bateman has bought a waterfront property. And he will paint. His head is brimming with ideas: “I want to be able to paint anything I please: a mouse, or a rabbit, or a moose or a rhinoceros. I want to be able to feast on everything.” t;£>