Published: June 23, 2003
– Artist first, wildlife artist second, Robert Bateman’s distillation of the essence of an animal goes far beyond getting the detail of fur, feather or fin, and his compositions are founded upon the larger harmonies often associated with abstraction. “Robert Bateman: A Retrospective” at The Bruce Museum of Arts and Science, will remain on view through August 3 before moving to its last venue, the Houston Museum of Natural Science (August 30 to November 30). It includes 35 paintings, as well as one sculpture, several sketches and a few prints, all dated from 1948 to 2000.
Animals, known to steal the scene in film, probably have a similar effect in art. The “art” can get lost with all the attention going to the animal upon a cursory appraisal. Bateman’s work, however, invites lengthy contemplation. These are not maudlin works fawning over themselves to borrow interest from the animals. They are thoughtfully structured paintings that show a thorough knowledge of the anatomy, behavior and specificity of animals, painted by an artist who evolved into painting realistically after years of painting as a modernist, and who even flirted with Abstract Expressionism. (Bateman is to this day mindful of Mark Rothko’s sublime color, Franz Kline’s calligraphic brushstrokes and Clyfford Still’s transcendent abstractions).
Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, and now a resident of a Canadian island off the Northwest Coast, Bateman’s earliest art was inspired by observation of animals. At 8 years old he was enrolled in the Junior Field Naturalists Club at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. He continued in this vein until he entered into a ten-year period of artistic searching in his mid-20s — at a time when there were radical developments in art. Bateman experimented with looser brushwork, as well as nonrepresentational painting, and although he remained an ardent conservationist, he did not paint with the realism that he is known for today. This experimental time, however, most likely strengthened the paintings that followed — when Robert Bateman the artist fused once again with Robert Bateman the naturalist.
The return to realism came from exposure to the oeuvre of an important countercurrent artist at the time, Andrew Wyeth. A 1963 retrospective of Andrew Wyeth’s work at the Albright Knox Museum was a “road to Damascus” experience said Bateman. Wyeth’s tour de force realism stunned him, and changed the direction of Bateman’s work thereafter.
Deeply conscious of the plight of wildlife, Bateman uses his art to further conservation and care of the environment. At a recent talk to a full house at the Bruce Museum, Bateman pointed out that he is for logging and fishing and farming, especially to create jobs for responsible individuals and small companies. What he sees as unconscionable is the massive-scale corporate operations that rely on machine-driven techniques that leave devastation in their wake.
Many paintings in the show take this issue on. One, “Driftnet,” 1993, shows a drowned albatross and dolphin caught as “by catch” in a driftnet. “Carmanah Contrast,” 1989, shows an old-growth Sitka forest in its mystical splendor contrasted with the scene just a couple of miles away of a logged-out barren land with only broken spars and rubble left behind. “Self-Portrait with Ancient Sitka & Big Machine,” 1993, pits a glowering Bateman, as seen from behind, against a gigantic logging machine.
A masterpiece in the show is “Ocean Rhapsody – Orca,” 1999. Measuring 48 by 96 inches, the painting is an underwater view of graceful fronds of bull kelp in the foreground with a killer whale swimming through an expansive gray-blue-green ocean. Bateman is a master of values, making the viewer sense the tons of water and the volume of the space. The subtle changes in color and value, all accomplished without obvious brushstrokes, are amazing. In the murky light the not-too-distant whale is both beautiful and alarming. Bateman captures the moment of time when the underwater viewer has most likely been surprised by the sudden appearance of this leviathan.
Another centerpiece is “Everglades,” a huge canvas that was featured in a landmark Bateman exhibition in 1987 at the Smithsonian Institution (a show that broke all attendance records, even briefly surpassing crowds at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, an unprecedented feat). “Everglades” is an expansive view of egrets standing in a marsh. Very atmospheric, the viewer can see the humidity in the air. Because the egrets are so captivating, only birders notice that Bateman has included several other species of birds in the painting. The more you look, the more you see.
From the Batemans’ private collection is a favorite painting that he and his wife Birgit will never sell. “Gentoo Penguins & Whale Bones,” 1979, shows two penguins that are not yet developed enough to swim, perhaps hatched too late to survive. Their fate is unclear. Heaps of desiccated whalebones create a sculptural but morbid background. Bateman was reminded of the sculptures of Henry Moore when he painted this work.
“Iceberg and Humpback Whales,” 1999, is as much a seascape as it is a wildlife painting. A large iceberg commands our attention. The distant humpbacks slice through the water, with only the backs in view — a real life scenario that is not sensationalistic but sensational just the same.
The Bruce Museum is at One Museum Drive. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 5 pm, and Sunday, 1 to 5 pm. For information, call 203-869-0376 or visit www.brucemuseum.org.
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