Unhappy couples can be a biographer’s jackpot — especially if the partners are artists. Their driven personalities, spousal competition, indulged (if not encouraged) licentiousness, and de rigueur substance abuse fuel marriages that are awful to endure but fascinating to read about. Explosive unions have propelled memorable tales about Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, for example, as well as Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
Molly Lamb Bobak and Bruno Bobak’s turmoil is comparatively muted in Anything but a Still Life. Its author, Nathan M. Greenfield, includes a chapter titled “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf on the Saint John River,” but Molly and Bruno are not compelling monsters like Edward Albee’s Martha and George, despite Bruno’s bad temper and drunkenness and Molly’s equally provocative “ebullient personality” and stoicism. Their relationship is more along the lines of A Streetcar Named Desire, with Bruno as the sexy brute Stanley and Molly as the besotted Stella. (Indeed, Molly once wrote that their lives were “like a Tennessee Williams play.”)
Throughout this biography, Greenfield combines meticulously considered criticism (including the precise analysis of many works not illustrated) and a careful chronology of Molly’s and Bruno’s lives. The marriage and, in many ways, their family life and friendships are not as vividly presented as the artistic exegesis, however. Their children make intermittent and fleeting appearances. The intervention of Molly’s son and daughter-in-law, who urge her to leave Bruno, is fascinating, but it comes as something of a surprise, as they’re otherwise not seen much. And Bruno’s long tenure at the University of New Brunswick seems to happen off stage.
Compared with his long-suffering but highly productive wife, Bruno doesn’t fare as well as a personality in Greenfield’s book. He had issues, including how much he liked sex; many of his paintings are fleshy yearnings for it. Molly said she didn’t care about sex like her husband, so he had a mistress. Bruno constantly struggled to find his way as an artist later in life, when Molly hit her stride. Bruno seemed to channel Jackson Pollock’s or Willem de Kooning’s alpha male swagger, a popular pose for male artists when he was young. Molly understood this kind of behaviour: she’d grown up and gone to school with mostly male artists, and she herself had a wild side. (Once, in her mid-twenties, she drank so much at a party in Ottawa that she ended up “in a cathouse” with a man “who didn’t do anything but wet the bed.”)
Molly, whose diary grew to more than 10,000 pages, stuck with her recalcitrant mate even though she had options. She made a significant income from her art, vastly more than he did, and always maintained her own social and professional connections. Even as a teenager, her drive to be an artist was formidable; during the Second World War, she was just as determined to become a war artist. Still, she remained “lonesome” for Bruno after he died in 2012. She would die two years later.
Molly’s father, Harold Mortimer-Lamb, arrived in British Columbia from England in 1889 as an “almost penniless” but well-educated seventeen-year-old. He intended to work in the Fraser Valley and become a farmer, and though that didn’t pan out, he was prosperous enough by 1896 to marry Kate Lindsay. Together, they would have six children. “Over the next two decades,” Greenfield writes, “Mortimer-Lamb moved from strength to strength” as he took various senior positions in the mining industry. The family also spent some time in Montreal. The death of their ten-year-old daughter, Dolly, drove Kate into semi-seclusion for the rest of her life; further anguish came when their son Haliburton was badly wounded in the First World War.
In 1919, Mortimer-Lamb had a nervous breakdown, “likely brought on by overwork,” and the family returned to Vancouver. There he recovered and found new vigour, despite what could have been another setback: “Mortimer-Lamb’s social position inoculated him against the opprobrium that might otherwise have fallen upon him for having a child with the family maid, Mary Williams, in 1920.” He continued to hobnob with business and civic leaders in Vancouver, Victoria, and Ottawa, while his new daughter, Molly, and the others were effectively raised by Williams. Surely this arrangement had an impact on the young girl, but, unfortunately, Greenfield does not fully explore it.
Mortimer-Lamb was an art lover. He wrote about it, started a gallery, and “opened his home, a large house set on a one-hectare estate in what is now Burnaby, to artists.” There he would host the likes of A. Y. Jackson, J. E. H. MacDonald, Emily Carr, and Frederick Varley, who “did not like children,” as Molly recalled. With her “Coke-bottle glasses,” she didn’t do well in school, and in her mid-teens she started at the Vancouver School of Art. She felt a failure in her first year, but in her second, a new teacher, Jack Shadbolt, saw promise and helped instill confidence in her. Shadbolt would became a lifelong friend.
In May 1944, Molly earned a high-profile assignment as Canada’s only woman war artist, thanks to both her own persistence and the help of her father’s well-placed friends. She would not be allowed near the front, but she would still see and capture scenes of war as she experienced it. She would also come close to crossing paths with her future husband:
Between mid-June 1945, when Molly arrived in London, and early September, when what she called “the six richest and most exciting weeks” of her life began with her arrival in Apeldoorn, Holland, both Molly and Bruno were stationed in England. Although they were billeted in different parts of London, most of the thirty-one Canadian war artists worked in studios in Fairfax House. Perhaps because of their schedules, Molly and Bruno did not meet during this period.
Then they did meet, in late October 1945, when they were assigned to share a studio. After his initial frosty reception of her, Bruno and Molly were married in Toronto on December 10.
The newlyweds moved to British Columbia and tried living and painting in a cottage on Galiano Island. In 1949, they headed to the mainland, where Bruno had gotten a job teaching at the Vancouver School of Art. Eleven years later, he was offered the position of artist-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick, and the couple moved to Fredericton, where they spent the rest of their lives (save for extensive travel and Molly’s solo sojourns on Vancouver Island).
Bruno had immigrated to Canada from Poland in 1925, along with his parents, Dziedzik and Bronislawa, and two older brothers. “After failing at farming in Saskatchewan and being unable to make a living in Windsor, Ontario,” Greenfield writes, the Bobak family relocated to Hamilton. “Their poverty was so great that even after reducing the family’s mouths by one (by allowing Dziedzik’s sister and her husband in Buffalo, New York, to ‘adopt’ Henry, their eldest son), Bronislawa abandoned the family, moving to a town near Niagara. Sometime later, a woman named Mary, whom Bruno called Babi, a ‘loving mother, the only mother I ever knew,’ joined the family.”
Bruno had an aptitude for “doodling,” which he may have inherited from his father. But whatever talent he had wasn’t appreciated at school, where he too was considered a poor student. Being hungry didn’t aid his concentration, and neither did worrying about being bullied. In 1934, the family moved once again, to Toronto, where twelve-year-old Bruno could attend a school for underprivileged children. In addition to a free breakfast and lunch, the “permissive system” of Orde Street Public School showed appreciation for his skilled doodles: “Bruno blossomed and began learning to draw.”
Bruno’s nascent talents were also bolstered by free Saturday morning art classes at the Art Gallery of Toronto, and he “learned the essential skills of pen and ink, pencil, crayon, watercolours and oils, sculpture, and woodcutting” at Central Tech a few years later. By the time he was eighteen, Bruno had successfully placed three works with the Art Gallery of Toronto’s Painters under Thirty exhibition.
Bruno turned nineteen on December 28, 1942, and decided to join the army. When the recruiting officer asked about his occupation, he said he was an artist. The officer wrote “No Trade” on the form, and Bruno was sent to Europe. In 1945, while stationed in England, Bruno won first prize — a $100 Victory Bond — in the National Gallery’s Army Art Show, for a watercolour he completed in 1943, Cross Country Convoy. (Molly’s painting Meal Parade, Hamilton Trades School tied for second.)
In his coda to Anything but a Still Life, Greenfield ponders why Bruno and Molly have slipped from view — given cursory or inaccurate mentions in surveys of artists or simply not appreciated at all. Compare their relative obscurity today with the attention given to other Maritime artists, such as Mary and Christopher Pratt, Alex Colville, and Maud Lewis. The neglect is particularly striking in light of the acclaim Molly and Bruno received during their lifetimes.
Molly and Bruno were never trendy artists — they “eschewed” most isms, Greenfield points out — and they weren’t part of any larger movements, like the Group of Seven or Painters Eleven. Bruno’s approach changed over the years; he didn’t have a signature style or visual brand. Molly’s work became more of a reliable commodity, and her sought-after flower paintings and semi-abstract crowdscapes remain relatively easy to identify. But, Greenfield seems to suggest, they were just figurative painters. Still, that hasn’t impeded the enduring fame of the Pratts or Colville.
Is it possible that Molly and Bruno were simply too popular? Was their art too pleasurable to be taken seriously by today’s critics, when ambiguity and difficulty are contemporary hallmarks? Ultimately, that’s how Greenfield explains the lack of attention, but it’s not a fully convincing argument. The celebrity and importance of Lucian Freud, who was also a figurative and highly popular artist, with an accessible subject matter and style, escalated after his death. Could posterity simply judge Molly’s and Bruno’s work mediocre? Greenfield doesn’t even consider that. Instead, he meanders through Sophocles, Euripides, Plato, Socrates, Kant, Jorge Luis Borges, Joni Mitchell, the meaning of “avant-garde,” and some feminist theory as he ruminates on the conundrum of the couple’s legacy. And he concludes that they are owed a retrospective exhibition by a major public gallery. But if there is ever a large-scale re-examination of their work, there should actually be two retrospectives — one for each.
Molly and Bruno were distinctive artists — two people who seemed to stay together because each admired, mostly, the other’s work and each accepted, mostly, the other’s character. Seeing their paintings in Anything but a Still Life, side by side, decade by decade, isn’t all that enlightening, just as putting their art in the context of the isms of the 1950s and ’60s doesn’t say much, except that they were out of the mainstream.
If you’re an artist married to another artist, that person is probably your harshest critic, as well as the one who most believes in your struggle and will stay with you as long as they can stand it. Bruno brooded, but maybe Molly needed his darkness. His raw suffering and overt sensuality balanced the bold charm of her crowdscapes and the ephemeral perfection of her flowers, which only David Milne equals in watercolour finesse. Theirs was a partnership that let at least one flourish: Molly. Without the pain, maybe Bruno couldn’t have painted with the power that he did. And maybe Molly tolerated so much to help him make something of his rocky road.