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Art Detective Searches For The Assassin of Bates

By Robert Amos May 12, 2003

} Art Detective Searches For The Assassin of Bates Have You Seen This Painting? Nancy Townshend has come to town to do some detective work. Among other things, she is looking for a painting by Maxwell Bates titled Assassin (60 x 50 cm., 1959). Townshend wants it for an exhibit she is curating titled Maxwell Bates: At the Crossroads of International Expressionism. The Alberta government is making this show a feature of next year's Provincial Centennial celebrations. It opens at the Edmonton Art Gallery February 13, 2004 and will next be seen in Calgary at the Nickle Arts Museum. A central Canadian venue, probably the McMichael Gallery outside Toronto, is planned. I hope we'll be seeing it in Victoria, too. Bates was born in Calgary in 1906, the son of an English-born architect. Young Bates was precociously talented and, after learning what he could in Alberta, he set his eyes on the prize. In 1931 he worked his passage on the proverbial cattle boat to get to Europe and study art. In London he sold vacuum cleaners to survive. His persistence and talent were soon rewarded when was taken up by the rich and well-connected Lucy Wertheim. Bates sold his paintings through the prestigious Wertheim Galleries in Manchester and London. It is no idle boast to call him an international artist. Bates enlisted to fight in the second World War and was almost immediately captured by the Germans. He then spent five years as a prisoner of war, literally working in the salt mines. It was a period which deepened his philosophical leanings. With liberation came his return to Calgary and a career as an architect - living up to his father¹s wishes. There was no market for modern art on the Prairies. In 1949 he managed a period of study in New York with Max Beckmann , an expatriate German Expressionist painter of the first rank. During the 1950's Bates travelled extensively in Europe. Back home, he painted many telling and imaginative images of life on the Prairies...and the life of his mind. Felled by a major stroke which left him somewhat paralyzed on one side, in 1961 Bates retired from architecture and moved to Victoria. From this point, painting took over his life. He joined - and named - our local art group, The Limners. During the 1970's his work was shown nationally with considerable acclaim, earning an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Calgary. In 1980, the year of his death, Bates was awarded the Order of Canada.The influence of Maxwell Bates on the best minds of our community was extensive, and his influence lives on with many who met him. Michael Morris, (another world-famous artist with deep Victoria connections) was a protege of Bates in his teenage years. With his first-hand experiences and first-rate mind, Morris is helping Nancy Townshend with her research. He told me that he is impressed by Townshend. 'She is tireless in her enthusiasm. She is a servant of Maxwell Bates.' 'I'll tell you why,' Townshend chimed in. 'Bates is quintessentially a Calgary artist. And I am a fourth-generation Calgarian. Colonel McLeod, who named Calgary, is my great grandfather.' Calgary isn't widely aknowledeged as a cultural town. 'Our city has gotten derailed and I am adamant that this artist will not get lost,' Townshend insisted. Bates could quite easily 'get lost'. Being western Canadian has limited his access to celebrity. The World War II cut short his career on the international stage. Calgary lost track of him when he moved to Victoria. Thus, Bates' considerable achievements as a painter have been stripped of context. 'Art's all about context,' Morris emphasized. 'We don¹t really know what we have here. It's time to reassess Bates¹ place locally, nationally and internationally.' Simply put, Bates was a brilliant exponent of a vitally important part of the art history of the twentieth century - Expressionism. 'There is an expatriate aspect to him,' Morris continued. 'He was a loner. Loneliness is a theme in Bates' work. There's never anything self-pitying, though. It's ironic. Irony and paradox, that's what takes [Bates' art] out of being over-sincere, over-serious. That's what ties his works to their time in a way they can't escape.' As far as I know, Bates , almost alone in Canada, was an Expressionist, an artistic form which Morris called 'the first truly international style.' As an adjunct to her research, Nancy Townshend is forming an association she calls Friends of Maxwell Bates. And to further the project, Jonathon Lathigee of the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria is working with the University of Calgary Press to create an extensive and very interesting web site devoted to the artist. This site will soon be launched on the internet under the auspices of Canadian Heritage Information Network's Virtual Museum. Victorians who have something to contribute - a painting by Bates in the Expressionist mode, or reminisences of the artist - are invited to get in touch with: Nancy Townshend (ntownshend@shaw.ca)   or Michael Morris (mwmorris@island.net). And if you know where the Assassin is to be found, be sure to let them know. ___________________________________________ Copyright © 2003 Robert Amos Robert Amos is an artist and art writer who lives in Victoria, B.C.. He can be contacted by e-mail and you can view his paintings at www.robertamos.com