Maxwell Bennett Bates

Canadian [1906-1980]

Alberta Society of Artists, Canadian Group of Painters, Canadian Society of Graphic Artists, Royal Canadian Academy of Arts

Max Bates was the first influential and internationally recognized artist to have been born in Calgary (and likely Alberta). This early artistic pioneer and iconoclast, once banned from exhibiting in Calgary, is now considered one of Canada’s most important expressionist painters. Bates was interested in expressionism and modernism at a young age, rejecting the traditionalist Beaux Arts training and British sensibility predominant at the time. Feeling restricted in Alberta, he left for England in June of 1930. Travelling by cattle train and boat, he arrived in London in 1931. Bates quickly became involved in artistic circles and began to exhibit regularly. He found much to admire in the works of the influential artists of the era, and was particularly intrigued by the romantic grotesquerie of Unit One artist Ed Burra. Over the next ten years, Bates is said to have taken in some two thousand art exhibitions, and he exhibited regularly. Bates became a member of the Twenties Group (1932-1939), an association of prominent Expressionists and Surrealists. In an important 1937 exhibition, Bates’ work was exhibited alongside artistic innovators such as Picasso, Matisse, and Kandinsky.

At the outset of WWII, Bates joined the British Territorial Army, ultimately enduring five years as a prisoner of war, working in labour camps. While later in life Bates claimed that the essence of his artistic vision had not changed since 1930, he did concede that this experience intensified his art. It certainly would have enhanced his understanding of suffering, the human condition, and man’s potential for inhumanity. Bates returned to Calgary following the war, in January 1946, and joined his father's architectural firm, where he had earlier apprenticed. He would spend the following 15 years working as both an architect and an artist. As an architect, his most notable achievement was St. Mary's Cathedral (Calgary), which was completed in 1957. As an artist, Bates continued his training with expressionist Max Beckmann at the Brooklyn Museum Art School in New York (1949). He had his first Canadian solo exhibition in 1947, at Canadian Art Galleries, followed by a show in Vancouver and Saskatoon. The years between 1954 and 1960 were a particularly productive and notable period. The end of the decade brought a retrospective touring exhibition of his work (Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery, Regina), and an appointment to the RCA. Bates suffered a stroke in 1961, and moved to Victoria B.C. the following year. Here, he spear-headed the Limner Group, and continued to exhibit regularly, at Vancouver’s Bau-Xi Gallery and Calgary’s Canadian Art Galleries.

Max Bates came to be highly regarded and influential within the artistic community. The use of allegory, symbolism, and archetypal figures were often characteristic of his work, as was Bates’ idea of man being worked on by forces outside his control (the theme of destiny versus free will). He is well known for his expressive figurative work, which is characterized by bold colour, and distortions of plane and form. His strange and sometimes hideous figures are exemplified by twisted, distorted or angular features, that invariably elicit strong emotion. At its core, this work is shaped by social conscience. Poet and life-long friend of Maxwell Bates, P. K. Page, once said of Bates’ work:

"As a social commentator he is immediate, biting, sometimes almost too wry to be borne. O.K., O.K., so we are misshaped, idiotic, pompous, vile, but are we not sometimes beautiful, sometimes… And his canvases reply to us 'No. Not you. Not now…’ But to linger on his satire is to miss what I believe to be the larger symbolism. Anyone who has had a vision of what man could become must thereafter see him in his partial evolution as deformed. ‘Man, poor man, half animal and half angel’ Vile only in relation to his possibilities. I believe this to be the essence of Bates’ message, appearance and life style."

Since 1960, Max Bates has been the subject of numerous retrospective exhibitions, including: Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery (Regina); the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Winnipeg Art Gallery; Vancouver Art Gallery; and Art Gallery of Alberta (Edmonton). He was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal in 1971, and that same year, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1980. His work is found in numerous public collections including: National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa); Glenbow Museum (Calgary); Art Gallery of Greater Victoria; Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto); and Tate Gallery (London).

Literature: “Maxwell Bates in Retrospect 1921-1971” (Vancouver Art Gallery; 1973); “Maxwell Bates: A Canadian Expressionist” (Art Gallery of Alberta; 2004); “Maxwell Bates: Canada’s Premier Expressionist of the 20th Century: His Art, Life and Prisoner of War Notebook” (Nancy Townsend; Nancy Townshend and Snyder Hedlin Fine Arts; 2005); “Maxwell Bates: Landscapes/Paysages 1948-1978” (Nancy Townsend; Medicine Hat Museum and Art Gallery; 1982).

We are currently seeking works by Maxwell Bennett Bates to be included in future auctions.

If you are interested in selling with us or wish to get our opinion of the value of your artworks please contact us for an appointment to evaluate your artwork for auction.

A Few Notable Results from our Auctions

Maxwell Bennett Bates

WOMAN OF NICE; 1973
oil on canvas
36 x 30 in.

Sold for $ 12,000 (hammer price) – December 2019

Maxwell Bennett Bates

THREE GIRLS
oil on board
20 x 16 in.

Sold for $ 9,500 (hammer price) – May 2017

Maxwell Bennett Bates

COUPLE IN FANCY DRESS; 1970
oil on canvas
16 x 12 in.

Sold for $ 9,000 (hammer price) – May 2016

Maxwell Bennett Bates

WOMAN IN STRIPED DRESS; 1974
oil on canvas
24 x 20 in.

Sold for $ 7,000 (hammer price) – November 2018

Maxwell Bennett Bates

EVENING STAR; 1962
oil on canvas
24 x 30.25 in.

Sold for $ 7,000 (hammer price) – November 2018

Maxwell Bennett Bates

AUTUMN STILL LIFE
oil on board
20 x 24 in.

Sold for $ 6,250 (hammer price) – November 2014

Maxwell Bennett Bates

WOMAN ON BLUE SOFA; 1961
oil on board
19.5 x 15.5 in.

Sold for $ 6,000 (hammer price) – May 2018

Maxwell Bennett Bates

POLYNESIAN GOD; 1957
oil on board
24 x 15 in.

Sold for $ 6,000 (hammer price) – November 2018

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