A window on the world of nature

Brian D. Johnson November 11 1985

A window on the world of nature

Brian D. Johnson November 11 1985

A window on the world of nature


Robert Bateman was painting on deadline. Sitting in his mother’s dining room in Toronto, Canada’s foremost wildlife artist was brushing a grey wash across the pencilled wing of a Canada goose when the doorbell rang. The owner of a small Ontario gallery had come to pick up the painting, a miniature that Bateman was to have ready for a show the next day. “As you see it, it is a drawing with a little bit of wash,” said Bateman. “I wouldn’t mind taking it a bit further.” While the man waited, Bateman spent 10 minutes adding more paint—black and white for the feathers, some blue for the water. Finally, he gave it an approving look and signed his name to a work that would later sell for $3,800. The artist, who is currently on a gruelling two-month tour to promote his latest book, said, “I had the afternoon off to paint.”

Over the past decade the Bateman signature has become one of the most valued properties in Canadian art. His original paintings have sold for as much as $102,000 and even photographed reproductions for more than $4,000. The first book showcasing his

work, The Art of Robert Bateman, has sold 165,000 copies in three languages since 1981. The second volume, The World of Robert Bateman, boasts an initial pressrun of 135,000—a record for a Canadian art book. And Bateman, 55, is now engaged in one of the most aggressive promotional campaigns ever undertaken by a Canadian artist: a tour through 40 North American cities. The Toronto-born painter with Robert Redford looks attracts adulation that is unusual in the art world. Last month in London, Ont., more than 1,600 fans showed up for a Bateman slide show. Said his publisher, Morton Mint, president of Penguin Books Canada: “It’s like a cult.”

With his meticulous renderings of mammals and birds dramatically posed in their natural surroundings, Bateman has become one of the world’s pre-eminent wildlife artists. Roger Tory Peterson, American painter and naturalist, has said, “If I could paint like another wildlife artist, it would be Robert Bateman.” But the most ardent testimony comes from collectors. Toronto teacher Kerri Thurston, 36, first encountered his work

eight years ago. Since then she has bought seven reproductions priced from $325 to $800. “I’m an addict,” said Thurston. “I have a special section for the polar bears, and at the end of the day I just sit with a drink and look at them.”

But despite Bateman’s extraordinary popularity, the art establishment has greeted his work with indifference and hostility. David Burnett, former curator of contemporary Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, turned down a proposal for a Bateman show in 1982. Burnett acknowledges the painter’s talent but dismisses his work as “descriptive painting that doesn’t challenge the mind.” Even some of the Canadian artists whom Bateman most admires express little appreciation for his work. Toronto painter Harold Town calls him “a good illustrator—no more, no less.” And the internationally renowned Alex Colville told Maclean’s, “To me Bateman’s stuff is less interesting than photographs taken by a good photographer.”

At the same time, some of the methods that Bateman has used to amplify his commercial success have drawn an-

gry criticism. The main source of controversy is his practice of issuing signed and numbered reproductions of his paintings, referring to them as “prints,” and allowing dealers to sell them for hundreds of dollars each. Traditionally, artists have used the word “print” to refer only to an image printed directly from an original plate handcrafted by the artist—such as a copper etching, a stone lithograph or a silkscreen. And a signed and numbered edition is usually limited to fewer than 100 impressions in Canada. Bateman’s photomechanical reproductions roll off a printing press in standard editions of 950 copies per image. Declared Glen Warner, Toronto author of Building a Print Collection: “It’s a great opportunity for the artist to make a lot of money. But reproductions have no intrinsic value, and a lot of the buyers don’t know that.”

Bateman sloughs off such criticisms. He says that artists, critics and curators harbor a general prejudice against wildlife art and resent its soaring popularity. As for the controversy over his reproductions, Bateman argues that his paintings lose little in photographic translation. The acrylic surface of the original is flat, and so is the copy. “My texture,” he explains, “is the same as a refrigerator.” Countering charges that the prints have no intrinsic value, he replies, “Anything is worth what the market will bear.”

Although gratified by his popularity, Bateman claims that success has left him unchanged. “I’m exactly the same as I was when I was 13,” he said. “I have the same motivation—to do art and to explore nature.” The son of an electrical engineer, Bateman grew up

in a Toronto house backing onto a ravine. He began bird-watching as a young child, and his sketchbooks date back to the age of 12, when his mother enrolled him in a junior naturalists’ club. At 18, Bateman parlayed his developing expertise into a job in the museum’s ornithology department.

But as he became exposed to the prevailing currents in modern art, Bateman decided he needed to paint “something more exciting than a bunch of little dickie birds.” As a geography student at the University of Toronto and later as a high school teacher, he continued to work as a field naturalist, trapping and stuffing small mammals for museums and drawing and paint-

ing accurate portraits of specimens. But as an artist he was experimenting, mimicking the Group of Seven, the Impressionism of Claude Monet, the Cubist distortions of Picasso. Then, in 1963 he encountered the work of the American artist Andrew Wyeth—a jolt of realism that convinced him to fuse his passion for art with his knowledge of nature. “With Wyeth,” said Bateman, “suddenly the art world gave the Good Housekeeping seal of approval to someone who was painting the real surface of the planet.”

Bateman began to develop his own style of realism during a two-year teaching stint in Nigeria starting in 1963. His paintings of African wildlife were exhibited in Nairobi, and after his return to teaching in Burlington, Ont., his renderings of animals and landscapes became popular locally. He finally achieved international recognition in 1975 with a sell-out show at the Tyron Gallery in London, one of the top showcases for wildlife art. Bateman left teaching, and the value of his work soared: Winter Cardinal sold for $2,500 in 1979 and changed hands for $48,000 18 months later. In 1981 he promoted The Art of Robert Bateman like a show-business trouper. Said Ramsay Derry, who wrote the texts for both books: “He’s a bit of a ham, with an astonishing enthusiasm for meeting the public.”

With disarming humility, Bateman preserves a folksy image for his fans. Last month he devoted an entire lecture in Hamilton, Ont., to a slide show documenting his recent move from Burlington to Saltspring Island, B.C. The father of five children, Bateman now lives with his second wife, Birgit Freybe, in a lavish cedar home over-

looking the Pacific Ocean. There, he composes his canvases by layering translucent and opaque acrylics with brushes and sponges—a method he likens to that of Dutch painter Jan Vermeer. With various paintings in progress at once, Bateman completes an average of 10 large canvases a year. He usually paints with one ear tuned to the radio and easily engages in interviews while working. “Part of my philosophy of life is to get as much as I

can out of every minute,” he explained. “I’m really achievement-oriented.” That includes a youthful desire to explore. In 1957 he travelled around the world by Land Rover and since then he has made excursions to places ranging from Alaska to the Falkland Islands. “I suck a place dry like an orange,” he said. “I’m a professional appreciator.” There is still a touch of the taxidermist in the way Bateman poses his subjects in their immaculate settings. Working from numerous photographs, he renders wildlife with anatomical precision but arranges composition according to abstract principles. What distinguishes him from most other wildlife painters is his attention to landscape. He renders grass and rocks with the same accuracy that he brings

to a fox’s coat. And the animal’s markings may be echoed in the geometry of the landscape. Said Toronto wildlife artist Glen Loates: “Bob has reintroduced the environment into wildlife painting. He captures the feeling of the land, and the animals are sometimes secondary.”

Bateman’s success is part of a general surge in the popularity of wildlife art, perhaps corresponding to public concern for the environment. And increasingly he is using his status to promote various causes. Monte Hummel, Canadian president of the World Wildlife Fund, estimates that the painter has contributed about $1 million to conservation. Bateman’s latest gift is a large painting of a panda, which was sold to a corporate buyer to help fund the creation of panda reserves in China, where the species is in danger of extinction. Bateman’s print publisher, Florida’s Mill Pond Press, has produced a “limited edition” of 5,000 panda reproductions which will bear Bateman’s signature and sell for $365 each. The revenue from the prints will go to Mill Pond and Bateman, although buyers will pay an extra $100 to the wildlife fund. Even 3 more ambitious is a 50,000-copy signed and I numbered edition of z Mallard Pair—Early Winter, an image Bateman painted for Canada’s first Wildlife Habitat Conservation Stamp. He will spend most of February in Florida signing the reproductions.

Such extravagant projects infuriate some artists. Declared Town: “Bateman is unctuous in his concern for the environment but he has no concern for the destruction of the noble tradition of printmaking.” Bateman sees nothing wrong with selling mass-produced reproductions as prints but he is uncomfortable with the way speculators buy and sell them on the secondary market: “It’s like a feeding frenzy among sharks.” He cites one case of a speculator who started a rumor that his prints were worthless, stockpiled them, then resold them at inflated prices through newspaper ads. Burlington gallery owner Alice Peck

stopped selling the reproductions when “people who couldn’t afford it were buying them and stacking them under the mattress like stocks.”

But Toronto gallery owner Barry Thomas estimates that only 10 per cent of his customers are speculators. And some fans are so dedicated they will buy new items unseen. Said Thomas: “People will look at the list and say, ‘Oh, a couple of seagulls. That sounds nice. Put me down for it.’ ” A lot of buyers, Thomas admitted, are “not sophisticated enough” to know the difference between an original print and a photographic reproduction. Bateman, however, sees no reason to limit the accessibility of his paintings. “I guess bubblegum cards wouldn’t be a good idea,” he said, “but the fact that they are multiplied all over the map is terrific.”

Clearly, Bateman wants to be seen as more than a wildlife painter. He constantly refers to the dominant influence of such artists as Paul Cézanne and Picasso in his paintings. Although he may never get the kind of respect he is seeking, he already has achieved serious recognition in his field: next year the Smithsonian Institution in Washington will mount a major threemonth show of his work. And, ironically, he has helped popularize the nostalgic tradition of wildlife painting by harnessing it to modern print technology. Artist or artisan, Bateman has opened an impressive picture window onto the natural world.

—BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Toronto