Maxwell Bennett Bates

Maxwell Bennett Bates

1906 - 1980

“I am a product of the period of Art Nouveau, pared down by the prairie wind.”…Maxwell Bates

Born in Calgary in 1906, Bates was one of Canada’s early modernists and one of the most powerful artists of his generation. A painter, printmaker, architect and poet, Bates brought European modernism to western Canada.

Bates’s conservative home city was not receptive to his work, and in 1931 he moved to England where he was more successful, showing at Redfern Gallery and Bloomsbury Galleries within the year, as well as being invited to join the prestigious Twenties Group which showed regularly at the Wertheim Gallery. He enlisted at the onset of the Second World War, and would be captured soon thereafter, spending five years as a prisoner of war at Thuringia. His art from this time is a remarkable reflection on war history.

Freed in 1945, he returned to a more receptive Calgary, where he met fellow modernists Janet Mitchell, Jim and Marion Nicoll and Jock Macdonald. Macdonald established them as the Calgary Group, adding Luke Lindoe and others to the mix. Canadian Art Galleries, Calgary’s first commercial venue, would give Bates solo shows in 1947 and 1948. His work, in which he used altered perspectives, quirky, unusual plays of colour, multiple planes of space, broken up form and dissembled objects focused on Canadian images of Alberta landscapes, working class and farm people, family scenes, social scenes, and still life.

Bates was an important teacher and a pioneer lithographer, and with John Snow brought the first lithographic press to Alberta. Bates studied with Max Beckmann at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in New York, and worked as an architect in Calgary, designing Saint Mary’s Cathedral. His first wife, May, died in 1952, and in 1954 Bates married Charlotte Kintzle. By the mid 1950s Calgary’s artistic leanings were again growing conservative, and when Bates’s Girl with Yellow Hair (Collection of the Glenbow Museum) was sold to the Allied Arts Centre, its modernism created a stir of controversy.

In 1959 the Bates’s left for a European tour and in 1961 moved to Saanich, near Victoria, British Columbia. Here he would meet Herbert Siebner, Myfanwy Pavelic, Karl Spreitz, Richard Ciccimarra, Robin Skelton and other artists who shared his enthusiasm for modern art and would form The Limners, a loose organization of modernists intending to support each other in bringing their work to the public eye. He showed regularly at Bau-Xi Gallery in Vancouver, in Calgary at Canadian Art Galleries and across Canada. In 1967 he was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal. He received an LLD from the University of Calgary in 1971, and in 1973 a major exhibition of his work was held at the Vancouver Art Gallery. He published A Wilderness of Days, a memoir of his time as a prisoner of war in 1978, and was awarded the order of Canada in 1980, shortly before his death. His work is represented in numerous public collections in Canada and abroad, including the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada.

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