Look, you don't just waddle into some gallery and buy a Bob Bateman painting that's for sale. You may have to fight, man, fight, for the privilege (he's sold some for $60,000 each).
At one gallery he offered 20 paintings but 300 people submitted bids and they had to have a lottery among the intending buyers. If you were lucky in the draw, you got to buy a picture -- otherwise you were one of the 280 that went home sore.
"I was perfectly happy teaching high school teen-agers," he said on a visit to Washington (the Smithsonian will mount a large Bateman show from Christmas to Easter and details are being worked on) "and if you want to know what I think, it's that people make themselves miserable by being upwardly mobile. I never cared at all about upward. And it's the same about criticism; sure, it can hurt your feelings for a critic to pan your pictures.
"It's respectable now to paint realistically. Yeah, I know some people think my pictures are photographs. If I'm lucky an art critic may be lured to a show and say it's bad -- that's about the best I hope for, and usually they won't even go.
"But there was once, I remember, in some big show about birds in art, that a woman critic from The Washington Post showed up and wrote that the show was awful, but she did see something she liked in my picture of penguins sitting around in a bunch of dead whale bones. She, at least, saw the picture wasn't just two pretty birds sitting on a branch."
You won't believe it, if you see his superrealist paintings of lions, birds, moose, polar bears and so on, all of them looking more real than a color photograph, that his early enthusiasms (and he still loves them) were the painters of the Sung Dynasty, and van Gogh and Braque. His own early work was Cubist, Abstract Impressionist, and almost everything else that differs from his present realist style.
He paints on Masonite panels which he covers with three coats of commercial gesso (there are Renaissance recipes for making your own gesso and he tried it, but to hell with it) so the surface is smooth and hard as the finest plaster. He underpaints, overpaints, uses transparent and opaque colors. His works are labored to a fare-thee-well, and are more like late-medieval Limoges enamels than like the paintings you see in most galleries now.
He once was "the white-haired boy" of a fine teacher who now undoubtedly thinks Bateman has lost his blue-eyed (very clear blue, actually, and sunbleached lion-type hair) marbles.
"He used to say if you couldn't paint something with the back of a broom then you shouldn't paint it. Anything that wasn't swift, instant, unstudied, wasn't art, and the worst thing he could say of a painting was that it was 'precious,' by which he meant anything that you hadn't painted quickly with a broom. I met him not long ago after some years and he was polite but sort of gruff -- he's a curmudgeon type -- and I could tell he thinks all my work is precious.
"But as you see I love the Sung painters and Monet and Picasso and so forth. I used to paint like them while I was finding myself, and you have to understand this about me, I wasn't looking around for the next sensation of a style for the art world -- which is what art has been for a long time now -- and I didn't really care what was fashionable and admired. Remember I was just a Canadian guy teaching kids in high school -- and I taught blacks in Nigeria to whom education meant the difference between living in the bush or in a city with running water and all that -- and I just kept on until I found a style that seemed right to me.
"The thing is, I don't trust abstractions in anything. What is wonderful to me is the particularity of everything in the world. Maybe I know too much about wildlife. Do you ever wonder if knowledge is a good thing or a bad? I have been among primitive people, and I don't mean folk artists, but primitive people pretty much untouched by our technology, and admire them endlessly. Don't you think it's odd that primitive people always make art that everybody recognizes as beautiful? It may be a mask, or a boat, or a totem pole, whatever it is, it is vigorous and strong. But then knowledge and technology enter, and I think it's as if they lose confidence, somehow, and they no longer make the curves and angles perfect, but weak and indecisive.
"So I often debate with myself whether too much knowledge of fine details is a good thing. But since I was a young boy in Ontario I have studied wildlife, spent endless hours in the field and studying skins and museums and books, so I know what a primary feather of a certain hawk looks like.
"Some painters who don't know that can make beautiful paintings, conveying a bird in flight and for some people that's perfect and right. But for me, I see and respect so much the difference between one bird and another, one hawk and another, that I want to set down not just the beauty of birds in general or in the abstract, but the beauty of that particular hawk, or whatever it is."
But he never thought other people should paint as he does. He likes paintings in which some guy has taken a huge brush and dipped it in a bucket of bright green paint and gone whammo across a white canvas. Likes that kind of stuff just fine. Seems to like everything just fine.
He has a wife and five kids, some by an earlier marriage, and has a place out from Toronto described as sort of Japanese-Tudor-Something Else but which in fact looks beautiful and right and not at all upchuckable.
Some people will never be able to take what they call the overpolished, overmeticulous paintings that he turns out agonizingly. To them his work is remarkable, all right, and almost incredible in its accuracy, but they will always regard it like a flawless model of Ulm Cathedral made of matchsticks by some fellow over a period of 27 years. Amazing, but so what.
But others -- the ones that will kill (as it were) to possess a Bateman picture, see the work as unique in the world. You take some guy who thinks the chief glory of this world is, say, a blue tree toad or something, he will look at a Bateman and say thank God, for once in his life he's found a painting that really does God justice.
All of which amuses Bateman. Really amuses him. He doesn't know how much his pictures sell for, he doesn't set prices, his agents do. He doesn't really care much, either. In his loose easy way, talking with anybody at all who comes along about anything in the world that comes up, he is a driven man. He paints at home with kids making a racket (his house is designed for people to shout in, he says, an impressionistic rather than a realist statement, but you get the idea) but with every painting he goes through a period of depression and joy, and it's not all fun by any means.
Like anybody else he has barriers. He loves chamber music, baroque music, and bluegrass music. He does not like opera at all.
"It's too distanced. The huge Isolde singing the lovesick young girl, it's too distanced from reality for me, I can't enjoy it."
Too much artifice in opera. But the 57 layers of paint and the 6,000 pinnae of the hawk's fourth primary -- that's not artifice at all, that's not distanced at all. That's just the way it is. That's why Bateman paints it that way.