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Biographical Notes

Maxwell Bates

Born in Calgary, Alberta, Dec. 14th, 1906. Earliest memories are of patterns and colors of curtains to bed room, illuminated by early morning light. I have been mainly self-taught and the process began with bound volumes of The Studio, beginning with 1904, that my father had brought out from England and continued to have sent out. With these was a volume of Daumier's lithographs. Even now it is hard to find a single picture that is not familiar in the twenty volumes. I began to look at these at the age of about five and continued for ten or twelve years making copies with pencil, pen and ink and watercolor. At the same time I drew soldiers, knights, etc. and fortresses in every way self-contained (the castles contained everything necessary to withstand a long siege within their walls, waterwells, cows, vegetable garden, etc.). This seems to be an early realization that I was in a hostile world.

Later I became most interested in the drawings of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Goya, Daumier, Forain, and the paintings of the last three along with Degas and the Post-Impressionists, but I hadn't separated these from hundreds of others until I had left high-school. Alongside the realization of the dangers of the world, and contrasting with it, was an interest in the unusual, the strange or foreign, sometimes in the bizarre, that has continued to the present time. These interests are all found in romantic as opposed to classical artists. I owe a debt to those old Studios and a greater debt to the public library which I began to visit several times a week from the age of about fifteen. When old enough to get a card in the adult section I read everything there was in the art section, at the same time reading literary criticism, philosophy, psychology and the Russian novelists. I began to write poetry, and have continued intermittently to do so ever since. At this time (20) I wrote a Chinese play called "Sky Flowers" (kites) which was read by a little theatre group at the public library. I have always had interest in religion, but my ideas on it are unorthodox and mystical. For me religion and philosophy are the same: a search for the real and the valuable.

It was probably in 1926 that my interest began to shift from the old masters (as I saw them in reproductions) to the modern movement, and I began to paint Fauvist paintings of figures and groups of figures. This time was tremendously exciting. I knew of no-one in the movement (in Canada) or of anyone sympathetic to it, except W.L. Stevenson who I had met at the public library looking at books on art. For the next four or five years we discussed the latest reproductions and our own work two or three times a week. Stevenson's painting were equally 'extreme' to people who saw them in the local exhibitions.

In 1926 Lars Haukaness an old Norwegian artist (pupil of the Swedish Impressionist Fritz Thaulow) founded the art department at the "Tech". We attended for two years, two nights a week (there were no day classes in those days). First year drawing from casts, second year from casts and models. Before the Tech we had drawn men in the basement of the public library as members of the Calgary Art Club. Objections were made to using a public building to draw naked models and we moved to the first Calgary Museum. An exhibition here caused several irate citizens to write to the papers; two of them suggested that I be detained in an asylum. The painting was "Male and Female Forms" - actually quite abstract or non-objective. This was in 1928 and resulted in a decision of the Calgary Art Association that Stevenson and I be barred from exhibiting in public buildings. Stevenson and I went to Chicago in 1929 and were greatly impressed by the modern collection in the Art Institute. During this period I exhibited at the Opportunity Gallery in New York and in a collection of Canadian painting at the National Gallery.

In June 1931 I left Calgary for England as a cattle hand in a colonist's car attached to a cattle train. After leaving school (matriculation level) I had assisted my father in his office as a draftsman, but by 1931 architectural work was scarce. In London I found that I could sell the paintings I had brought with me for small sums. In 1932 I showed six paintings in an exhibition "Three Painters and Three Sculptors" opened by the sculptor John Skeaping at the Bloomsbury Gallery. In the same year I became a member of The Twenties Group and exhibited with them at the Wertheim Gallery regularly until 1939. Until 1934 I managed to live by painting with rather unpleasant interludes as a vacuum cleaner salesman and as a water-softener salesman. However this greatly increased my knowledge of London which I came to like. My work was sold to the Wertheim Gallery (they gave me a one man show in Manchester in 1934, and a one-man show in London in 1938) and to a few collectors at low prices. However paintings were selling like potatoes in those days of unemployment and depression. One of the collectors still had 16 of my works (I believe he is now one of the Trustees of the National Gallery) and another has about 15. I had a number of painter friends also living on the starvation level...I used beaverboard as a support and bought powder colors at an ironmongers.

In 1934 I took an opportunity to become an architectural assistant with a firm doing mostly ecclesiastical work. I continued painting in my spare time, exhibiting a group of paintings at the Chelsea Studio Club in 1935, and several in the Artists' International in 1937 (most of the important European contemporaries were represented: Picasso, Matisse, etc.) J.H. Gibbons, the architect I worked for, used sculpture in his work and I learned some of its practical aspects. With him I attended meetings of the Art Workers' Guild (as a guest) composed of architects, sculptors and painters. The Wertheim Gallery included my work in travelling shows one of which went to Hawaii, another to South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. I now have 6 items in the art gallery in Auckland, New Zealand. Some 50 works owned by the Wertheim Gallery were stored during the war were destroyed by bombing...

[As a POW] at a salt mine in Thuringia I found out what it is like to do heavy manual labor for five years. I had often drawn and painted workmen and felt there was some advantage in being one and having to punch a time clock. I did many drawings and portraits of other soldiers and German guards. I painted backcloths for plays made of lengths of building paper. For a time I had classes teaching prisoners to draw. I was registered as an architect in the U.K. in 1942.

I arrived in Canada in January 1946. 1949 to 1950 I spent several months in New York and attended day classes at the Brooklyn Museum art school under Max Beckmann and evening classes under Abraham Rattner.

Ideas on art formed between 1926 and 31 in Calgary have not altered appreciably to the present time. Living in Europe merely confirmed them. Early subject matter was principally the human figure and street scenes. I have always been interested in colour. After my return to Canada along with the subjects that I have always used I painted a certain amount of landscape and still-life. From about 1954 scarecrows and puppets became frequently used (both go back to at least 1948) and both are symbolic of the condition of man at the present time (puppets represent man as a victim of irresistible forces; scarecrows attempt to protect their heritage). The scarecrows are religious and, at times, become crucifixions. Other symbols developed in the fifties are tin cans and bread. The first represents assembly line, mechanical living and the second what the industrial revolution has not yet destroyed of immemorial attit

- Unpublished

- Maxwell Bates Fonds, box/file 15.12, Special Collections, University of Calgary Library.


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