April 07th, 2008
Last August, Robert Bateman was visited at his home on Saltspring
Island, British Columbia. He and his family had just returned
from a three-week canoe trip on the Nahanni River, and planned on
being home for only five days before leaving for ten days on
Hornby Island. During the interim, there were deadlines to be
met, so the following interview was conducted while Bateman
painted in his spacious studio overlooking Fulford Harbour.
You recently joined dozens of artists for a "paint in" at the
Carmanah Valley, on the west coast of Vancouver Island. What
prompted your participation?
I've gone out of my way to see and be in rain forests since
visiting my first one in Mexico, in 1953. Of all I have ever
seen: the old Belgium Congo, South America, Australia, coastal
forests, et cetera, the Carmanah Valley is literally the nicest.
Using "nice" in the sense that it means precise — compact and
There is so much to most rain forests that you can't comprehend
them, often you can't even see the trees too well. But the
Carmanah was almost like being in a church with great Romanesque
or Gothic columns. You are looking through aisles of space with
these beautiful columns rising up from the mossy floor.
The approach to the big spruce area — the biggest Sitka spruce
in the world — is part of the joy and beauty. To walk down the
slopes and through this valley, through tall cedars and firs and
spruce, is an important part, not to mention the scientific and
ecological reasons for preserving the slopes. They are part of a
watershed that could be destroyed if those slopes are logged. It
will totally change the drainage patterns and dry up the ground
water. It will cause more run-off and erosion, and you'll get
blow-downs of the fairly large trees near the big ones. When they
are gone, the big trees will blow down and that will be the end
What resulted from your visit?
A diptych — a two-piece painting. The larger part shows the
clearcut atrocity of wastage. Clearcut is appropriate and
probably good forestry practice in some places, but I think in
many cases the reason we have used it in British Columbia has
more to do with sloppiness, laziness and greed than good forestry
practice. If they do it for good stewardship reasons, I have no
objection to clearcutting; if they do it for sloppiness, laziness
and greed, they should stop.
The subject of the major painting is almost nothing but dead
wood, eroded slopes, chunks of soil and rocks all spilling down.
Everything is dead except at the very bottom centre there is one
lone piece of green. It's a skunk cabbage, which grows along
stream beds and wet, shaded areas in the forest. This poor little
skunk cabbage still thinks there is a stream there because for
generations its genes and roots have always been there. That
stream is now dead, but the skunk cabbage doesn't know it yet.
And it will be dead, too, before summer ends.
Across the top, in the longest, thinnest painting I've ever done,
is the Carmanah's forest floor. A lot of artists went for the
height of the trees, but what impressed me was the complexity of
the forest floor. This lavish, rich, mossy carpet with many
different kinds of plants and species of things, all forming a
very delicate understory. To convey the scale I put in a person
and a pileated woodpecker. The woodpecker is really too small to
notice, but the person looking at it might convey the size of the
To log the Carmanah watershed and preserve that handful of big
trees is like bulldozing down St. Peter's Square and the facade
of St. Peter's Cathedral, then putting a big hotel right up to it
so you can get access from the lobby into the nave of the
You often use Scandinavia and Germany as examples of countries
practicing sensible resource management. Where does Canada stand?
There is work to be done in educating politicians that our
forests and seas are the two greatest problems facing the planet
right now. The big resource base, the economy that Canada has, is
definitely on a different scale than Europe, but we are rapidly
moving in their direction — we are running out of resources and
our population is going up.
We have to stop treating our tree resources as if they are mines
that can be mined to the very last of the old growth, then move
into South America or Southeast Asia and cut down their old
growth trees until they are all gone. If we care for our
grandchildren, as they do in Europe, we must plan not just our
forests, but everything to do with our economy.
Will you continue backing high-profile fund-raisers for
conservation and environmental projects?
Yes. We should all do what we can to help worthy causes. I could
spend the rest of my life doing nothing but fund-raising
paintings and prints. I wouldn't mind doing it, but it would bend
my production into a commercial direction, so I've limited the
number of fund-raising subscription prints to two a year.
I know what to paint in order for these things to sell at art
auctions: bald eagles, wolves, chickadees and cardinals. But what
would happen to my creativity? It would be quite a danger if I
felt I had to paint them because I want them to sell. I have
never painted for the market; only to please myself.
I've had flops at fund-raising auctions because I tried taking
risks instead of going with the obvious and easy things. A
Hamilton Spectator headline once stated that a particular art
auction was a flop, Bateman's prices are falling, et cetera. I
had done a painting of a very dark subject — the skeletons of
dead trees standing in a pond and a tiny little beaver going by.
The auctioneer had a heck of a time selling it, which was very
humiliating. It doesn't do me any good, and does even less for
I doubt that the same can be said for "Midnight — Black Wolf."
I didn't do that as a fundraiser; I did it because I wanted to.
When this particular collector said he would take any wolf, I
said, "Well, the next idea I have in mind is a black wolf on a
black background. It's going to be very dark and very blue, and
the wolf will be a little bit spooky looking. You might not like
it, but that's fine — I'll keep it in my collection."
Mill Pond Press thought it sounded like a good idea for a fund
raiser on a subscription basis, but I was really doubtful. They
figured it would sell about ten thousand, but it sold more like
thirty thousand — the biggest print response of anything I've
been associated with except that Canadian Wildlife Habitat stamp,
which went to about fifty-two thousand. Half the money went to
help preserve the wolf and wilderness for wolves in Canada, and
half to the United States.
What is this present painting?
A screaming bald eagle on top of a Douglas fir. This will be made
into subscription prints to raise funds for Earth Day, next April
In a 1985 newspaper interview you stated "the '70s saw no major
giants emerge in art. And there have been none in the '80s either
up to now." Has anyone surfaced since then?
I've tried to pay quite close attention, but I haven't seen anyone
emerge. It's getting more fruitless and dreary to try following
what's going on in the so-called avant-garde, which I believe
died a few years ago.
What is your definition of a "giant?"
A painter whose works would be in demand in the world's major
museums. The way Andy Warhol was, and Rauschenberg and
Lichtenstein. There isn't anyone any more — we are into rehashes
instead of anybody moving ahead and making original contribution.
It may not be over forever — but it may also be over
forever. Since the days of van Gogh and the others, aficionados
have led the way by helping to educate the people. They said,
"Look here at this guy Gauguin or van Gogh or Tom Thompson!" They
started out being appreciated by a small group, then the public
eventually caught up with them. They helped take something that
was relatively difficult because it wasn't photographic realism,
and brought public taste into a little more esoteric level.
I look at the avant-garde that has tried to continue doing this.
It's futile because it became based on a very tenuous
philosophical thesis: "If it's been done before it's not worth
doing again." Therefore, the only thing of any interest or use is
something that has never been done before. It becomes futile
because then the only artists who get encouragement are ones who
do things that have never been done before. You end up with
hopeless things where they dig a hole, then fill it in again.
I think people should be interested in a variety of things:
abstract art or art that has a message, or is very loose, or
painterly, whatever, just as long as it's good and has its own
integrity. Popularity isn't enough. There is a lot of schlock and
garbage in wildlife art and western art and abstract art. I think
we suffer from the tyranny of the masses in what we are forced to
swallow in the look of our landscape and the choices we are
Despite your own obvious and continuing popularity, why are you
often targeted by art critics?
I am honoured that they consider me interesting enough to target.
Critics make their reputation, especially among their peers, by
being against anything that is popular and by trying to lead the
public by the nose into tougher, more difficult areas. You have
to be an iconoclast to make your mark as a critic — shake up the
My Smithsonian show got quite a long article by the Washington
Post art critic. He didn't like it. His main objection was it was
too nice, too attractive, too big, too gloriously displayed, and
it didn't have enough of the underside of nature — the suffering
and dirtiness and messiness. That was a very valid criticisms
because my show was slanted 100 per cent toward nice or elegant.
The show curator didn't like my dead gull or the vulture and
wildebeest skull. I don't even know if the penguins and whale
bones made it, because there was penguin poo and barf from the
Another criticism was completely mind-boggling. The art critic of
the San Francisco Chronical gave what sounded like a good review
until he got to the last sentence. He highlighted certain
paintings and had good things to say about my skill and accuracy
and concepts and so on, but the very last sentence was, "However,
in spite of all these things, this is, after all, not fine art
but mere illustration."
I started thinking about this — because maybe he was right and I
wanted to validate it in my mind. What I came up with was the
definition of the word "illustration" and the problem with the
word "mere." I don't happen to think my work is illustration. To
me, illustration is where you have a reason for the piece
being outside of the artist. In other words, it's a commission by
a publisher or a magazine or whatever. For example: Random House
wants to illustrate Robert Louis Stevenson's "Kidnapped," so it
approaches N.C. Wyeth and says, "We would like you to illustrate
this book, so please read it. Preferably, we want one picture of
Blind Pew, and one of Long John Silver drawing his knife," et
cetera. So Wyeth comes up with this art based on Stevenson —
which is illustrating Stevenson's thoughts, not his own. That is
what an illustration is.
By that definition I don't do illustrations. My paintings are
done for my own reasons. This art critic said, "Fine art is
about itself, not about something else." So I thought: All right,
let's take examples some of illustrations. What was the Sistine
Chapel ceiling? Didn't Pope Julius the Second ask Michelangelo to
illustrate the bible and the creation of man on the Sistine
Chapel ceiling? That's clearly an illustration.
How about Da Vinci's Last Supper? Absolutely an illustration.
With all those characterizations of Judas and Peter it was
illustrating from the bible. All through history, art has been
illustrations. Therefore, what is so mere about the Sistine
Chapel ceiling? What does he mean by "mere illustration?"
You can go to your local furniture store and see all kinds of
Hong Kong original oils, abstracts painted with a palette knife.
Nice big smears of colour you can buy for 40 bucks, framed, to go
above your couch. Those are "fine art" and the Sistine Chapel is
"mere illustration." I wouldn't mind being classed as an
illustrator if it put me in the same category as Michelangelo and
Da Vinci, I just don't happen to have ever been an illustrator.
What accounts for the continuing popularity of so-called
I think even the art critics would agree — and probably sneer —
that a lot of wildlife art's popularity is sentimental. And one
shouldn't knock sentiment. It's an attachment to a more
beautiful, more perfect world — as they think the world should
be. They want a piece of that in their living room, not a picture
of the shopping mall right outside their window.
I am often asked if I feel my work helps people appreciate our
fragile planet and the beauties of nature. Maybe there is a bit
of truth to that, but I think it's more the other way around.
People see places where they used to have picnics when they were
kids are now garbage dumps or suburbia or urban malls. They
realize it's precious and fragile and they value it more.
What lies in Robert Bateman's future?
I plan on doing a few things that are perhaps a little more
difficult and a little less popular as far as subject matter
appeal. More paintings that are totally unmarketable, but are
interesting because they make a point. Up until now I've done
very few — a dead gull on Lake Erie, even unpleasant paintings
like the vulture and the wildebeest skull. I enjoyed the visual
aspects of that, a rather interesting project artistically. I
have several things in mind for future paintings — an injured
bald eagle that's been shot by some yahoo; a sea lion wrapped up
in nylon netting. Driftnets — another great disaster.
I would like to manage my life so I don't get bent into a
commercial direction — and so I can continue being a free
Essay Date: 1989