Beyond the Canvas
Molly Lamb Bobak, the only Canadian woman named an official war artist of the Second World War, brought a unique vision to her work.
AFTER LANGUISHING IN STORAGE for almost four decades, Private Roy has been very busy, touring at least thirteen cities over the past decade. The popularity of the Molly Lamb Bobak painting has to do with both its artistic merits and the fact that curators use it to highlight the stories of those who have often been left out of our national, largely male and British, military narrative.
Few who attended the Exhibition of Canadian War Art at the National Gallery of Canada a year after the end of the Second World War would have expected to come face-to-face with a powerful depiction of an African-Canadian female soldier, a member of a miniscule minority in the nation’s only female military service that accepted African-Canadians in the Second World War. Lamb Bobak (née Lamb) was a Canadian Women’s Army Corps officer herself, and her painting Private Roy is the only named portrait of a member of the CWAC, the recording of which was Lamb Bobak’s remit after she became the only Canadian female official war artist in the Second World War.
In Canvas of War: Painting the Canadian Experience, 1914 to 1945, by Laura Brandon and Dean F. Oliver, the authors note that Canadian war artists were ordered to depict according to their “artistic sense ... the spirit and character, the appearance and the attitude of the men, as individuals or groups of the Service to which they are attached.” Thus, Second Lieutenant Lamb Bobak was authorized to produce what Brandon, a retired curator of war art at the Canadian War Museum, called in an interview with Canada’s History “a master class in composition, with the shelves in the back framing CWAC Private Roy and making her stand out.” Had Lamb Bobak depicted the light falling on Roy’s face realistically, the dark circles around her eyes would not exist. Instead, following the lead of expressionist painters like Oscar Kokoschka, Lamb Bobak manipulated the “lighting,” creating a matte field.
This field turns the simple white of Roy’s eyes into a piercing expression. This expression prompted art historian Tanya Schaap, in her 2015 essay, “‘Girl Takes a Drastic Step’: Molly Lamb Bobak’s W110278–Diary of a CWAC,” to imagine Roy, who stands with her strong arms crossed, asking the viewer, “Why are you looking at me? Have you never seen a black servicewoman before?”
In the decades that followed her painting Private Roy, Lamb Bobak painted the funerals of former Governor General Vincent Massey, former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, and her own friend Richard Hatfield, who served as premier of New Brunswick from 1970 to 1987. Her brush left us stunning crowd scenes, including from Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Fredericton in 1976, military commemorations, and the lighting of a Christmas tree in Fredericton. She produced at least a thousand watercolours of flowers, some wild and unique to New Brunswick, some not. And she became the country’s most financially successful female artist of her era.
If any Canadian artist was to the art manor born, it was Lamb Bobak. Born in 1920, she was the daughter of Harold Mortimer-Lamb and Mary Williams, who was not MortimerLamb’s wife but became the family maid. Her father’s leading position in British Columbia’s mining industry insulated him against the opprobrium his unconventional lifestyle might have engendered in staid Vancouver — and it provided him the means to pursue his interest in photography and the freedom to voice support for the Group of Seven and for Emily Carr long before they were popular.
At his home in Burnaby, B.C., Mortimer-Lamb hosted Carr as well as A.Y. Jackson and other members of the group. Molly’s poor grades in high school led Williams to enrol her in the Vancouver School of Art, which her father had helped to found. After she had a disappointing first year, a new teacher, Jack Shadbolt, fired her ambition by telling her that he liked a line in a sketch she had drawn of a classmate. He then told her
that to make the sketch better she had to understand the skeletal armature and musculature that lay beneath the skin, Lamb Bobak recalled at a 1978 talk at the McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario. Shadbolt, later an important painter in his own right, soon became another habitué of the salon-like gatherings at Mortimer-Lamb’s residence, where even during the Depression, Lamb Bobak remembered in her 1978 memoir, Wildflowers of Canada: Impressions and Sketches of a Field Artist, the tables fairly groaned with “eclairs, cakes, sandwiches, a big jug of milk and a bigger teapot of Nabob orange pekoe tea.”
At a time when most art students spent endless hours copying the great masters and drawing from plaster casts, Shadbolt introduced his students to plein-air (outdoors) painting and the works of Paul Cézanne. “In his mature works, this Post-Impressionist broke the pictorial plane and reassembled it to show how we perceive objects over time and in space,” noted retired art historian Stuart Smith, who was a colleague of Molly’s husband, Bruno Bobak, at the University of New Brunswick (UNB) and a friend of both Bobaks for decades. By following Cézanne, and by manipulating perspective so that the objects appear to be on a tilted surface, Lamb Bobak makes it seem as if the objects, like the still-life scene in front of Roy, are about to slide to the floor. This is a hallmark of many of Lamb Bobak’s works.
Late in December 1942, a year after graduating from art school, Lamb joined the CWAC. Almost immediately, she began keeping what she called a “war diary,” with the intent of using it to support her bid to be named an official war artist — there being no restriction against a woman being appointed to the Canadian War Art Program that had been established a few months earlier. Laid out like a broadsheet newspaper, Lamb’s war diary, which she titled W110278 — not so coincidentally, her service number — ran to almost two hundred cartoons and watercolours that detailed the CWACs’ lives and foibles. A sketch made after she arrived in Vermilion, Alberta, shortly after she signed up (and which she later worked up into the 1944 oil painting Gas Drill) shows a group of befuddled “guppies” (raw recruits) learning to don their gas masks at minus thirty-seven degrees Celsius. Lamb increases the deviation from what the company sergeant major would have expected by having one of the guppies preen. Visual parodies like this show Lamb “criticiz[ing] the institutional conventions to which she must adhere,” wrote Schaap.
Such drawings so impressed Jackson, an advisor to the Canadian War Artist Selection Committee, that he recommended Bobak to H.O. McCurry, the committee’s chair, who put her on the list to become a war artist. However, Colonel A.F. Duguid, the director of the Army Historical Section that included the war artists program, believed “from the Army’s point of view [that women’s] appointment was not desirable as the artists were at the scene of combat.” Lamb thus did not become an official war artist until after hostilities ended in Europe in April 1945.
In the interim, McCurry, who was also the director of the National Gallery, arranged to pay for Lamb’s painting materials. The gallery was doing the same for the well-known painters Pegi Nichol MacLeod and Paraskeva Clark, who were painting war-related works but, since they were not soldiers, could not be appointed as official war artists. McCurry also arranged for Lamb to be transferred out of the army trades school in Hamilton, where she produced meat-cutting charts for the CWAC School of Cookery, an assignment Lamb likened to “hell” in a 2010 interview with reporter Marty Klinkenberg. Assigned to the Army Show (a theatrical and musical review), Lamb designed some four hundred costumes and sets, including those for the performance put on for British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and American President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the September 1944 Quebec Conference (at which, among other war-time issues, the two warlords discussed how Germany would be administered after its defeat).
Recalling that show on May 7, 1998, Lamb wrote in her thirty-year-long private diary that it was a “complete disaster.” Yet she had warm memories of another show that featured the comedy team Wayne and Shuster because it afforded her the opportunity to discuss Cézanne with Johnny Wayne.
By the time Churchill and Roosevelt met in Quebec
City, Lamb’s work had already been in the public eye for six months. In March, her oil painting Meal Parade, Hamilton Trades
School had tied for second prize in the 1944 Canadian Army Art Show. The painting depicts a sinuous line of male and female soldiers waiting to enter the mess hall; the soldiers face each other in little groups and chat, which is a leitmotif that runs through Lamb’s painting of crowds. (Bruno Bobak, whom she would meet and marry in 1945, won the first prize, which prompted Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain and an early proponent of the war artists program, to place the combat engineer on the road to becoming an official war artist.) During the summer of 1944, the Art Gallery of Toronto, precursor to the Art Gallery of Ontario, bought three of her CWAC drawings, and the magazine New World published six others.
The well-deserved praise Jackson and a small number of art historians have heaped on the young artist’s visual renderings of CWAC life has obscured Lamb’s sophisticated use of what art critics call intertextuality — the incorporation and reinterpretation of established paintings and texts for her purposes. Lamb’s watercolour in the war diary of her first meal as an officer, for example, borrows heavily from Leonardo da Vinci’s
The Last Supper. She groups the uniformed figures the same way da Vinci did the apostles, even echoing the positions of their hands. The newly minted Second Lieutenant Lamb occupies Jesus’s position, though instead of his mournful face hers resembles that of Tintin, the beloved Belgian boy detective, down to his befuddled expression. She even gave herself a semblance of his famous cowlick.
On the page where she first sketched Gas Drill, she shows a secure grasp of literature when she riffs in her diary about the cadence of Wilfrid Owen’s famous First World War poem Dulce et Decorum Est:
“They fumble with respirators, and drop their capes on the ground.
“Their hands freeze hard before they can get into their mitts again.
“Then hundreds of amusing orders are shouted to them, making them hysterical inside their gas masks.”
In her entry for August 19, 1943, Homer Lamb, one of her many pseudonyms (including Freud Lamb and Renoir Lamb) rewrites Jesus’s trial before Pontius Pilate, adding a Bren gunner hiding behind olive leaves. Upon hearing the
“lynching mob” shout “Crucify him!” the gunner pulls the trigger, and “steel-slugs spit from my Bren and the crowd screamed and fell in the dust. And Pilate, white, looked dazed and all lay trembling in the dust. … But he in the purple robe stood still. Still crowned with thorns.” An assiduous reader of the newspapers, Lamb knew that the words “lynching mob” could not help but reference the lynchings of African Americans in the American South. While Homer Lamb’s imagined destruction of this mob does not result in the freeing of Jesus, it is nonetheless a piece that shows Lamb Bobak’s own attitude toward racial prejudice as shown by Private Roy. Lamb’s views can also be seen in the fact that, twice during the war, she went to see the African-American bass-baritone Paul Robeson, whose efforts for civil rights were already famous. Forty years later, after the re-election of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Lamb Bobak noted in her diary: “Went to bed scared about the fate of blacks in the USA.”
Lamb spent six weeks in England before she was allowed to go to Europe late in the summer of 1945. While in England, she documented CWAC duties in works such as #1 Static Base Laundry, Canadian
Women’s Army Corps Folding Sheets. She spent another six weeks in Europe. In her depiction of the central figure in
Canteen, Nijmegen, Holland, Lamb adheres to the expected gender depictions of the period: Thin, shapely women work in canteens while brawny women fold sheets. She also painted haunting scenes of ruins in Bremen and other bombed out German towns.
Unlike millions of other Canadian women who were shunted out of the workforce and back into the home after the war, Bobak’s status as an artist did not end when she was given an early discharge mid-1946 because she was pregnant. Even though her pregnancy made buttoning her uniform difficult, she attended the gala opening of the Exhibition of
at the National Gallery. Some months later, with her infant son, Alexander, in tow, she painted a twelve-metre mural for the federal Department of Trade and Commerce. The piece was destined for an exhibition for Australia, and her sketchy knowledge of our national winter sport led her to equip players in the scene with field hockey rather than ice hockey sticks. She learned about the mistake after the mural was completed. In May 1947, Ottawa’s The Gallery mounted a show of the watercolours Molly Lamb Bobak and Bruno Bobak had painted in their few spare moments.
In 1949, at Lamb Bobak’s urging, the Bobaks moved to Vancouver, where Bruno soon began teaching at the Vancouver School of Art. Around this time, finding her paintings were too “subjective” (in other words, realistic), Molly experienced a crisis in confidence. Her unease ebbed after Shadbolt advised her to think less about the subject in front of her and more about the language of painting — how colour, lines, and shapes in a two-dimensional medium create the illusion of three dimensions. Not long after speaking with Shadbolt, Lamb Bobak painted North Vancouver Ferry, in which, puckishly, she renders the head of a man changing a light bulb as a light bulb. Lamb Bobak’s work so impressed the French philosopher Jacques Maritain that he arranged a French government scholarship for her, which allowed the Bobaks to spend part of 1951 in France.
In the 1950s, Lamb Bobak’s figurative works — flowers, cityscapes and crowds — were included in five international group shows and thirty in Canada. Her success in this period is all the more notable given that her Impressionist-inspired loose brushwork and subject matter stand in stark contrast to those produced by abstract expressionists like those who formed Painters Eleven in Toronto in 1953. Her success also stands in contrast to the difficulty American abstract artists Lee Kastner and Elaine de Kooning experienced in getting art critics and dealers in New York — who by the mid-1950s were buying the works of Kastner’s husband, Jackson Pollock, and de Kooning’s husband, Willem de Kooning — to take the works of female abstract artists seriously.
In 1960, Lamb Bobak received one of the first Canada Council study fellowships. Since Bruno had already accepted UNB’s offer of a one-year artist-in-residence position, Molly persuaded the council to allow her to divide her fellowship so that she could take part of it before and part of it after his time there. Molly also had to persuade the council that she deserved the same funding a married male artist would receive, so that she could have her family, which now included her preschool daughter, Anny (born in 1957), with her in Europe.
When Bruno’s position with UNB was made permanent in 1962, the Bobaks settled in Fredericton. Molly, who had also taught at the Vancouver School of Art and via educational
television in British Columbia, began teaching part-time at UNB and later taught at art schools in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, and Banff, Alberta.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Lamb Bobak served on a number of national committees, including the board of the National Film Board and Canada Post’s Stamp Acquisition Committee. As a member of the National Gallery’s acquisition committee, she fiercely opposed the 1989 purchase of Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, the infamous abstract work that consists of three long stripes of blue, red, and blue. Lamb Bobak’s opposition, which ultimately cost her a place on the committee, stemmed from her belief that the gallery should purchase Canadian art, and that if the committee was committed to purchasing an abstract work it should have considered one by Lucien Freud. She must have felt some sense of vindication two years later when it was discovered that, since its unveiling, Voice of Fire had been hanging upside down — and that no one had noticed.
Lamb Bobak was regularly interviewed about art on CBC Radio by, among others, Peter Gzowski as well as during the flooding of Fredericton by the St. John River in 1973.
It was no secret in Fredericton that the Bobaks’ marriage was extremely difficult and survived a long-running affair of Bruno’s, something Molly recorded in detail in her diaries from 1969 to 2000. More than once, Molly recorded Bruno’s resentment about her “jollity” and “personality, which seems to get [a positive] response from others.” Though she often wrote of wanting to separate from Bruno and to move to British Columbia’s Galiano Island, Molly chose to stay with her husband. After a particularly ugly fight in August 1977, she admitted to herself one reason for staying: “I suppose I will always stay. [I] want to look after Bruno.” For his part, that same year Bruno told Molly (as noted in her diary) that, when UNB music professor Rick Niall asked how he, Bruno, “could live with such a Dominating woman,” Bruno simply answered that he “could stand it because he really didn’t care” anymore. Indeed, many of Bruno’s paintings, such as the Wheel of Life, can be read as reports of what is left when a marriage turns into a battlefield. His loneliness was evident when, after forty years of marriage, he told Christina Sabat, the arts reviewer for Fredericton’s newspaper, the Daily Gleaner, “I want only to love someone and express myself through my work until I die.” Towards the end of the 1990s, with the sundered marriage of another artist couple, Mary and Christopher Pratt, in mind, Molly wrote, “we’ve stayed more or less together — an arrangement made most probably for convenience & laziness and just maybe for an affection of a kind.”
But it was also her success as a painter that caused Bruno’s jealousy. “I make double the money [he does] ... but I paint,” she confided to her diary in June 1989.
By then, Molly had been selling well for decades. By the mid-1960s, Molly’s works were featured at Montreal’s prestigious Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, and she was later represented by Galerie Eric Klinkhoff. Between 1978 and 1984, the price of an eighteen-by-fourteen-inch watercolour (almost all of her paintings were then of wildflowers) rose by almost 166 per cent, from $450 to $1,200. Oil paintings brought an even
higher sum. In 1984, twenty-two-by-thirty-inch paintings were priced at $3,300, while forty-by-sixty-inch paintings were $9,900. Three years later, she earned three hundred thousand dollars. At the end of 2018, according to auction house Heffel, sales of Lamb Bobak’s works in the resale art market totalled $1.3 million, the highest figure of any female Canadian artist active after 1975.
Between 1969 and 2002, Lamb Bobak painted more than a thousand watercolours of flowers, most of them portraying varieties native to New Brunswick. Her paintings of cosmos, Canada lilies, and poppies were the kind of paintings professional critics often disparage as “kitchen art.” The term, which has also been used to deride the works of Lamb Bobak’s Fredericton-born contemporary Mary Pratt, belittles works that lack the supposedly masculine experimental drive of, say, Alex Colville or Jean-Paul Riopelle.
In a 1989 interview with Nancy Bauer in Arts Atlantic, Lamb Bobak described her effort to paint lilies, explaining that she sought “to translate white flowers on white paper. The idea is to coax the flower to emerge with the least tone one can use — just expose them as simply as possible.” In Poppies, Lamb Bobak’s brushwork intimates the movement of the entire poppy. Using tinctured water, she sketched the poppy in different positions to create what appears almost like the sort of double-exposed photographs Mortimer-Lamb had developed in his darkroom when Lamb Bobak was a child. The effect makes it seem as if we are looking at two moments with one glance.
Equally important for Lamb Bobak were her crowd scenes, in which she turned local events into universal Canadian moments. For Judy Budovitch, a decades-long friend and a former member of the board of the Beaverbrook Gallery, these scenes “tell our [Fredericton’s] story.” Lighting of the Christmas Tree may portray a scene that took place in Fredericton, but the image, lighting, and the waltz of the crowd are things to which vast numbers of Canadians can relate.
Demonstration U.N.B. may have been inspired by the 1968 protest at UNB supporting Dr. Norman Strax, who was suspended after leading a group of students who refused to show their library cards when checking out books. But nothing in the painting tells us this. Instead, the work is an essay that reveals Lamb Bobak’s leftist politics. Red, not white, light glows ominously from the ornate windows of the university’s administrative building, signalling Lamb Bobak’s view of officialdom. The protesters’ white placards perform an important technical function, echoing the whiteness of the snow on the ground below them and on the building above them, and thus tying the scene together. Putting writing on the placards would, however, have limited the story Lamb Bobak wanted to tell about the Strax affair; leaving them blank shows that her real interest was to create a sym
pathetic portrayal of the idea of protest and, thereby, to show support for one of the fundamental pillars of Canada’s liberal democracy. Despite her financial means, Lamb Bobak was a reliable NDP voter and regularly contributed to the party, something that distinguished her from her increasingly conservative husband.
Lamb Bobak’s diary entry for August 12, 1989, written the day after the ceremony in Calgary commemorating the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, is almost breathless: “They carried the PPCLI flags — formed a guard for the new fellows to march out on — THIS is what I will paint — the trooping [of the colours] with the old & new present.” Five months later, Lamb Bobak presented Trooping the Colours to General Lewis MacKenzie.
By drawing the marchers, dignitaries, and onlookers in quick strokes — dots of battlefield green-and-black more signalling than describing the berets of the first three quarters of the marchers, and RCMP-like red serge and striated strokes indicating the pith helmets worn by those in the foreground — Lamb Bobak does more than create the feeling of movement.
This way of rendering the soldiers’ kits fundamentally sets her work apart from what is perhaps the most famous depiction of soldiers, that of the Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. Lamb Bobak, the old soldier and keen student of art, knew that Riefenstahl’s lingering shots of the Wehrmacht’s and SS’s uniforms and shiny black leather kit in Triumph of the Will served as a stand-in for the violence at the heart of Nazism. By contrast, while the men and one woman in the PPCLI are most definitely soldiers and are engaged in a choreographed performance dating back centuries, in Lamb Bobak’s narrative they are not fundamentally different from the people she painted in works such as The Legislative Ball, where the dancers whirl and blur, or those portrayed in the gathering of Canadian
families seen in Lighting of the Christmas Tree.
Toward the end of my writing my forthcoming book Anything but a Still Life: The Art and Lives of Molly Lamb and
Bruno Bobak, I met with Stuart Smith to discuss his friend’s legacy. Over the course of her long career, Canada’s first official female war artist received numerous accolades, including two Canada Day postage stamps (1982 and 1992), the Order of Canada (1995), and the Order of New Brunswick (2002). And yet, since the mid-1960s, but for a handful of exhibits and scholarly articles, professional and academic critics all but ignored her work. Double Duty, an edited version of her war diary, as well as the only two scholarly essays devoted to her during her lifetime, were all published two decades before Molly died in 2014 from the same throat cancer that had claimed Bruno two years earlier.
Lamb Bobak explained this lack of interest in her work in 1991, when, in an uncharacteristic moment of self-deprecation, she wrote, “I’m just a popular painter.” She believed that her works — CWACs, flowers, crowds watching fireworks, skaters, military ceremonies — lacked the cachet of works produced by such painters as Paul-Émile Borduas, which, because of their difficulty, provide critics something to write about. However, as noted above, considering the intertextuality of her war diary and the complex experience generated by the best of her flower paintings, she sold herself short.
“What the critics miss by ignoring Molly’s work,” Smith said, “is the very human story she tells about the people, first in the Canadian army and, later, in the country she portrayed.” Her old friend added, “Molly didn’t have a mean bone in her body. It’s pleasant to think, however, that she took more than a little pleasure in knowing that, on thousands of walls across this country, people have hung her works where every day they give them great pleasure.”