New Brunswick-based painters Molly Joan Bobak (née Lamb) and Bruno Bobak met in England at the tail end of the Second World War, where both rose to prominence as war artists – Molly was the first Canadian woman to officially assume the role. Though both studied with members of the Group of Seven, Molly, and especially Bruno, never stayed beholden to the Group’s aesthetic. In his mature work, Bruno gravitated to abstract cityscapes and expressionist nudes, Molly to vibrant flora and colourful crowd scenes.
And while many consider their work on a par with that of contemporaries such as Mary and Christopher Pratt, Charles Comfort and Alex Colville, the Bobaks have received far less attention, something historian and author Nathan M. Greenfield aims to rectify in a new dual biography, Anything but a Still Life: The Art and Lives of Molly Lamb and Bruno Bobak (Goose Lane Editions, 392 pages), which presents a detailed chronicle of the Bobaks’ public and private lives, including their deeply troubled 50-year marriage. It’s also the first book to incorporate Molly’s letters and diaries, made accessible since her death in 2014.
Your previous books have all been war-related. How did you end up writing a biography of two Canadian artists?
My previous work as a military historian was my entrée to Molly’s and Bruno’s work. I had come across Molly’s iconic portrait of the African Canadian soldier Eva May Roy, Private Roy, the only named portrait of a member of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps; and paintings of CWACs in industrial laundries and kitchens. Bruno’s Sherman Tanks Taking Up Positions Under Artificial Moonlight, with its stabbing, almost Cubist beams of light, was another work I had seen long before I thought of writing a dual biography of the Bobaks.
After I finished The Reckoning: Canadian POWs in the Great War, I was looking for a new topic and remembered these works. About a half-hour on the Net (mostly on the Library and Archives Canada website) told me, one, that there was no full-dress biography of either artist, and two, that the archives held 30-plus years of Molly’s diaries. The chase was on.
Do you have any background in art history?
I came by my love of art honestly; while growing up in New York, my parents took me regularly to the Brooklyn Museum, Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where my favourite rooms showcased the impressionists and postimpressionists – including Paul Cézanne, who, I learned years later, was Molly’s favourite painter. At Bard College, I took a number of art history courses; I still remember writing a paper on the plumbing of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. My graduate studies at McGill included hefty doses of art history, especially in courses on Shakespeare and Milton, so that we could visualize the times.
Can you put Bruno and Molly’s work into perspective in terms of its importance nationally and internationally? How has the view of their legacy changed since their deaths?
From the late 1940s through the early 1960s, when the Bobaks moved permanently to Fredericton, their works were in the forefront of figurative – meaning representational – Canadian art. Their works toured the world, and there were literally dozens of photos of them in the Canadian art journals. Then, in large measure, they were eclipsed by abstract expressionists – at least in terms of their coverage in the professional art press and such places as the National Gallery, which didn’t purchase any of their work after the early 1960s.
The public did not, however, join in this benign neglect. Molly’s flower paintings and crowd scenes sold very well in galleries in Fredericton, Toronto and Montreal. One measure of her popularity is that of all female artists active after 1971 – the midpoint of her career – Molly was the highest earner on the secondary art market. Bruno’s works sold also, though his larger expressionist-inspired works were not as popular as his landscapes and cityscapes.
This was one of the aspects of their story that interested me the further I got into the project. Here were painters, each of whom knew their métier and worth, and knew they were out of step with what the critics found worth writing about. And yet, each maintained a relationship with the art-buying public that was independent of the critics. This relationship continued after both artists died, through sales in the secondary art market via houses such as Heffel.
One presumes a certain amount of co-influence with artist couples. How did Molly and Bruno’s work differ and in what ways was it similar?
There was surprisingly little back-and-forth influence between the two. Molly’s impressionist and postimpressionist-inspired flower paintings seem will-o’-the-wisp. Bruno, by contrast, painted orderly gardens, some seen through windows with tracery, others wrapping around the corner of houses. The use of these structures to frame the story shows not just Bruno’s superb draftsmanship but also the influence of his commercial art teachers at Toronto’s Central Technical School, which he attended in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Another difference concerns faces. In her war art, Molly painted hundreds of faces; some detailed, some line drawings, some even cartoony – each image clearly bespoke and individual. Save for one single, very stylized face on a German who was quite placidly dead, the faces in Bruno’s major war art are all in profile or too far away to be seen clearly. Some remind me of Mad magazine’s black-and-white Spy vs. Spy images. After the war, Molly almost never paints another face. Her crowd scenes and paintings of people marching are concerned with movement, and at times feel like notes for ballet. Bruno, by contrast, fairly specializes in faces: Molly’s, his children’s and his own – a model, he once said, that was always available.
What are the particular challenges of writing a dual biography?
The greatest challenge was keeping the book balanced. I had years of Molly’s correspondence, and three decades of her diaries – which, I hasten to add, I always remembered presented “her view” – as well as her art. For Bruno, I had his art, which critics writing in the late 1950s and early 60s agreed presented his emotional life and world view. Works like The Artist and Molly show the passion he felt for her when he painted it.
When possible, I placed Bruno’s work next to Molly’s diary, so to speak. Thus, the triptych The Wheel of Life, which in the centre panel has a chamber of skulls beneath the couple, reflects his angst about his marriage – feelings Molly shares with herself in her diary.
I was lucky enough to interview two people who knew Bruno and Molly well for decades. They were able to fill in what otherwise would have been gaps too wide to be papered over.
Their tempestuous marriage is a recurring theme. How do you think that friction impacted the work?
The impact of their extremely difficult marriage is easy to track in Bruno’s work. From images of powerful, virile men and women who match their passion, he moves to pictures of weakened men. Instead of images of men embracing women, we find images of men sitting on the edge of the bed, head in hands, their story likely one of failure at sexual congress. His paintings of his wife and family also devolve into scenes that resemble the Gothic images in the Polish folk tales he would have heard as a child. I have no doubt that his flower paintings, and especially his landscapes of the area of New Brunswick where he was an avid angler, served as a balm.
Even though Molly had the outlet of her diary, her works also provided solace. In one public talk, she said that she loved wildflowers because they were delicate; capturing that delicacy gave her pleasure. Her crowd scenes can be seen as an alternative diary. The moving figures – and, in a few cases, whirling ones – remind me of the sentiment behind Emma Goldman’s most famous line: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” which the well-read Molly would surely have known.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.