Maxwell Bates was an expressionist painter and architect, who worked in a variety of media. Bates, with A.W. Hodges, co-designed St. Mary's Cathedral in Calgary. His father, William Stanley Bates, was himself a prominent architect in early Calgary who designed the Burns Building (1912) and the Grain Exchange (1909).
Bates studied with Lars Jonson Haukaness at the Provincial Institute of Technology and Art in Calgary from 1926-1927. He and W. L. Stevenson met twice a week to study impressionist and post-impressionist painting. In 1928, Bates' abstracts first appeared and due to their modernity the works (along with those by Stevenson) were banned from exhibiting with the Calgary Art Club. In 1929, both artists made a trip to the Art Institute of Chicago to study impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, the work of Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, and Monet.
In 1931, Bates went to England to study painting and architecture, where he supported himself as a door-to-door vacuum salesman while exhibiting his art work at the Wertheim Gallery. From 1932 to 1939, he was a member of the "Twenties Group", associating with such young British artists as Barbara Hepworth and Victor Pasmore.
When World War II broke out, he enlisted with the British Territorial Army; he was a POW in Thuringia from 1940 to 1945. This experience was captured in his 1978 book A Wilderness of Days.
“The art Bates created over the rest of his life attests to what he learned from his experiences of forced marches, near starvation, the constant presence of death, and hard labour in the camps. He did not return home to paint the dominant Canadian tradition of landscapes empty of people. He painted people to portray their suffering or their hypocrisy and vanity, and when he painted people in a landscape he imbued both with a shared, uncanny quality of unsettlement and hauntedness (Grace, 391-2).”
After the War he returned to Calgary. In 1949-50 he studied with Max Beckmann at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. In 1953 fate sent Bates and John Snow (1911-2004) an unexpected gift in the form of two old lithograph presses and several well-worn limestone blocks from Western Printing and Lithograph Company. When Bates and Snow heard the company was disposing of the disassembled equipment, he and Bates “whisked down with a truck.” With help from a Western Printing employee, the presses were reassembled in Snow’s basement. Snow and Bates began experimenting with fine-art lithography and soon were well-known for the process.
In 1959 the Bates and his wife left for a European tour and in 1961 moved to Saanich, near Victoria, BC. 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 was awarded the order of Canada in 1980. His work is represented in numerous public collections in Canada and abroad, including the Tate Gallery and the National Gallery of Canada.
Bates, Maxwell. A Wilderness of Days: An Artist’s Experiences as a Prisoner of War in Germany. 1978.
Grace, Sherrill. Landscapes of War and Memory: The Two World Wars in Canadian Literature and the Arts, 1977-2007. Edmonton: UofA Press, 2014.