Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

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MOLLY LAMB BOBAK

The Muse on Her Shoulder

 

 

The unexamined life is not worth living.

Socrates

 

At 94, Molly Lamb Bobak personifies the famous quote. Her long career can be told through her art, but it is her words that best shape the story of her life. Like many artists, including her friend, A.Y. Jackson, whose autobiography A Painter's Country proved a fascinating read, she astounds with her writing skills as much as with her brushstroke.

 

In a 1978 publication, Wild Flowers of Canada, Molly Lamb Bobak traces her life, chapter after compelling chapter, in a conversational style that turns the reader into a listener, a participant in an intimate voyage through the many fascinating twists and turns of a rich and profoundly experienced life.

 

It is impossible to write about Molly Lamb Bobak, the painter, without introducing her first and foremost as a person. This is what makes her, to this day, one of the most beloved of Canadian artists, one close to the heart of everyone who has met her, and whom she brought into her life with ease and affection.

 

She was born in 1920 and grew up in Vancouver, B.C. in a most unconventional household. Her mother, Mary Williams, worked as a housekeeper for Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Molly's father. An art critic and collector, he hired her when his wife became ill, and Molly was raised in his colourful extended family that seemed well suited to her free spirit. After the death of his wife, Molly's father married Vera Weatherbie, a painter and educator, and a famous model for Frederick Varley of the Group of Seven, and photographer John Vanderpant. It is said that there are more paintings and photographs of her than by her.

 

All these artistic people greatly influenced the young Molly Lamb, planting in her the seeds of creativity. The family first lived on a farm in Burnaby, where her mother tended an English garden and inspired in Molly the love of nature that would find its way into her artwork. When she wasn't well as a child, she would place her cot amidst bushes and flowers, roses and asters that would later appear in her canvases.

 

When they moved to a large house in Vancouver, it was her father's continued association with the painters of the Group of Seven that would prove to be her second great inspiration. She lived and breathed art, as painters such as A.Y. Jackson, Frederick Varley, Arthur Lismer and others sat around discussing the finer points of their creative passion.

 

There were other visitors, too. One was the architect Sam McClure, who knew Emily Carr. Together with his anthropologist friend, Marius Barbeau, he was instrumental in getting Emily her first major exhibition at the National Gallery. Her father got along well with Emily Carr and collected many of her works, long before art dealers became interested in her art.

 

These must have been heady times, but for Molly Lamb they were the stuff of everyday, and she writes about them with wonderful spontaneity and candour.

 

School was another story. Like so many gifted people, she did not fit in. For this reason, as well as problems with her vision, she did poorly. Her mother, noticing Molly's struggle, decided to pull her out of public school at the age of 17, enrolling her instead in the Vancouver School of Art. Not that Molly found the new environment any easier at first. She felt the teachers were not inspirational enough; she was bored and unwilling to participate. Despite her protests, however, her mother insisted she remain there. It was all to change in the second year when her class was taken over by artist Jack Shadbolt. He became a frequent visitor in their house, using the family as models for his endless drawings. Encouraged by him, and finally inspired, Molly saw the world of art through new eyes. And she would not take them off art ever again.

 

It was Shadbolt who introduced her to the great French Post-Impressionist artist, Paul Cézanne. The way he painted was a revelation to Molly. "I almost went crazy," she wrote. It was a turning point in her artistic life, setting her on a path from which she would never veer, even as world events conspired against her.

 

The Second World War was not to hinder her, and, on the contrary, proved to be yet another stepping-stone in her amazing career. In 1942, soon after graduating, she joined the Canadian Women's Army Corps as a draughtsman and soon found herself in basic training. Although she desperately wanted to be a war artist, as were Shadbolt, Colville, Miller Brittain, and Bruno Bobak, the first three years saw her doing everything from laundry to washing dishes. But she continued to draw and paint, albeit mostly for her own enjoyment. While her male colleagues ventured into battlefields to paint, she focused on the people she met, the landscapes she travelled through, the daily goings on around her.

 

Her insistence on being seen as a serious artist paid off in the end. She was given paints and canvas, and sent to a training school where she drew, among other things, meat-cutting charts for the Army cooking school, a subject matter far removed from her visual cravings. Her talent was finally recognized and in 1944 she won second prize in a Canadian Army art competition for a painting of the members of the Canadian Women's Army Corps lining up for dinner, entitled Meal Parade. The first prize was won by Bruno Bobak, who was then in Europe. She would join him, Alex Colville and Brittain on the list of artists the government engaged to record the war effort a year later. She had achieved her dream.

 

"Being a war artist was a tremendous privilege, but I had to work hard to get it, and if not for A.Y. Jackson, I never would have... Jackson quite believed in me, but a lot of people didn't like the idea of a woman being a war artist," Molly Bobak said in a 2010 interview with Marty Klinkenberg.

 

The next step was officer's training at Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, and she found learning to be an officer "easy and amusing". She was also paid for her art for the first time when the National Gallery bought her paintings from the army show for $500, a major sum for her.

 

In 1945, she left with the last contingent of C.W.A.C.s for Europe, and another chapter opened up in Molly Lamb Bobak's amazing story. Together with the other army artists, she was stationed in their headquarters in London, setting up a studio at Fairfax House. There she painted in the company of Will Ogilvie and Alex Colville, and Bruno Bobak, her future husband. The work she did there was to establish her as one of the first successful women artists, although honours were far from her mind.

 

After a few months in London, she was sent to Holland and then to Germany, Belgium and France. She drew tirelessly, incorporating the changing vista into myriad sketches and paintings.

 

In late 1945, after a brief return to London, they were all sent home, and although Bruno left first, they had already agreed to marry when she returned to Canada. They had a grand Polish wedding in Toronto, at the Church of All Nations, a name she found particularly apt. As her father was unable to attend, the honour of giving away Molly fell to her mentor, A.Y. Jackson.

 

Bruno and Molly's was a unique union, one that would last for 64 years until his death in 2012. They were inseparable in life and in art. In Toronto, they lived in an apartment building owned by Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven, later moving to Ottawa, and finally settling in Fredericton, where Bruno taught at the UNB for many years, while Molly gave her popular painting workshops. She still lives there and is proudly called the grande dame of the New Brunswick art scene.

 

Elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1973, she is among the first generation of Canadian women artists to work professionally and to earn a living from her art. A distinction, indeed.

 

There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is. 

 Albert Einstein

 

Maritime art is often overlooked in the history of Canadian art, the focus being mostly on Toronto. New Brunswick, when Bruno and Molly taught there, was pretty much a backwater, but for an artist of her calibre, with the quotidian as her muse, this was no obstacle.

 

Her paintings of public events and street scenes are now widely recognized, as is her signature, unencumbered style, so different from that of her husband. She worked magic with oils and watercolours.

What made her works so endearing and accessible was that, like Picasso, she did not seek out her subject matter, rather she found it all around her. In a flower, a cloudy sky, a public gathering. The miracle was present every day, the muse riding on her shoulder, not waited upon.

 

Molly became circumspect when discussing her art, her words measured. The topic of creativity expressed on paper proved more cumbersome than that of life's experience.  Upon reflection, however, she invariably linked it to her temperament, the public scenes of interest to her because of the joy she found in the human community; the flowers and landscapes were due to her love of nature.

 

The same could be said for her work from WWII, for which she garnered such acclaim. She said she loved the Army, and it was perhaps because she enjoyed the camaraderie she found among the women of the C.A.W.C. and the unexpected, ever changing landscape of travel it offered.

Away from the battlefront, she focused on the people around her, the foreign cities like Amsterdam and Brussels, the daily activities of the women she bunked with. As a war artist, she thus provided a different side of the war effort, much to the appreciation of the government, which she insisted did not dictate the subject matter to any of the artists it employed.

 

And many of her paintings were done before her appointment as an Official Canadian War Artist. It was simply what interested her.

 

Much of what she drew can be called illustrative, pages of casual sketches accompanied by often humorous and self-deprecating written notations - Life is Gay for Lucky Private!; Notes From the Lamb Galleries.- , or wonderful, loosely painted watercolours like Comedy Convoy Back Stage at the Tivoli Theatre Apeldoorn; Canadian Women's Army Corps Back from Leave in Brussels.  A touch of Daumier perhaps? Not unexpectedly, since he happens to be her "very favourite painter of all time," but ultimately pure Molly Lamb Bobak.

 

There are more sombre works too, like an oil titled Singing Up for the Pacific, a night scene of a tight group of women under the baton of a dark figure, all barely lit by a distant full moon and the meagre light falling from a barrack's window.

 

Almost incongruous when labelled 'war art' are works such as the delicate still life View from Canadian Women's Army Corps Quarters on a Rainy Morning 1st Echelon Germany, with a bouquet of flowers in a German beer can sitting on a window sill, a landscape of trees and a city in the background.

 

Molly Lamb Bobak's urban, street scenes are perhaps the most exciting of her oeuvre. Paintings like James House Float or Massey's Funeral, with its staccato brushstrokes, etching movement onto the canvas with quick dabs, creating an astoundingly simple yet complex composition.

 

And then there are the flora and still lifes; whether part of an interior scene, or alone against a white background, they are the poetry of her visual lexicon.  Her beloved flowers, Tansies and Nasturtiums, Pink Cineraria and Wild Iris, resemble pages from a botanical sketchbook, barely outlined yet all there in their delicacy and quiet beauty. Like dried leaves between chapters of a book, they mark and dot her art with the most personal of touches, born of love and communion with nature. Unobtrusive in their visual expression, they nevertheless speak of an astounding maturity in the handling of the medium, and of a singular talent.

 

Molly Lamb Bobak is a master of still life painting, works marked by simplicity and a superb sense of composition. In Still Life with Melons, oil on fibreboard, the fruit is arranged against an abstracted geometric marking of plate and background, the space around the objects on par with the models. The still life in Jasmine, Lemons and Avocado displays the same assured presence, the juxtaposition of the frail petals with the bulky fruit creating an unusual, yet perfectly balanced visual dialogue.

 

A touring retrospective exhibition of her oeuvre, in 1993-94, a survey that included 124 works, was viewed in Saskatchewan, New Brunswick, Alberta and British Columbia. The accompanying catalogue of almost 300 pages proves an important and extensive research tool to this day and is testament to Molly Lamb Bobak's artistic achievement and appeal.

 

For a painter who wanted to be a writer, Molly Lamb Bobak became both; her words painting her life, and her art speaking in volumes.

 

Source:  Molly Lamb Bobak Restrospective Loan Exhibition, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff Inc., 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Dorota Kozinska (AICA) and Galerie Eric Klinkhoff Inc.

 

Note:  This appreciation was written before the artist’s death in February 2014.

 

 Dorota Kozinska is an international writer, art critic and editor based in Montreal. Her art reviews and articles have been published extensively in Vie des Arts, Parcours magazine and The Gazette, as well as broadcast internationally on CBC Radio. She is the author of numerous artists’ catalogues, and an independent curator.

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Remembrance Day (1), Montreal", 1983

Oil on canvas 30 x 40 in.  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Wimbledon", 1995

Oil on canvas 24 x 36 in.  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Blue Interior", 1999

Oil on canvas 40 x 48 in.  (SOLD)

 

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Cross Country Race (1)"

Oil on canvas board 6 x 12 in.  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Remembrance Day Parade"

Oil on canvas board 7 x 11 in.  (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Vase of Flowers"

Watercolour 22 x 18 in.    (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Football on the Green"

Oil on board 7 x 11 in.    (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff - Expert in Canadian art specializing in the purchase  sale of artwork by Molly Lamb Bobak and other important Canadian artists.

Molly Lamb Bobak, O.C., R.C.A. (1920-2014)

"Israel"

Oil on canvas board 6 x 12 in.   (SOLD)