Ottawa Art Gallery: The crowd is Molly Lamb Bobak’s muse

Detail from Molly Lamb Bobak. Williams Lake, B.C., 1958. Oil on canvas, 66.7 x 45.7 x 1.9 cm. Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, Ottawa Art Gallery; Donated to the City of Ottawa by the Ontario Heritage Foundation.

Twenty-one years ago, The Missus and I hired a young artist to “paint” our wedding. We gave him no other direction, though the idea to hire him had been inspired by the work of a particular artist: Molly Lamb Bobak.

Bobak had a great talent for painting crowds, and it’s fitting that the Ottawa Art Gallery has a show to celebrate it. Molly Lamb Bobak: A Woman of the Crowd, “highlights this artist’s unique ability to capture the pulse of crowds” of all kinds, say the exhibition notes, “from leisurely activities to student protests and formal gatherings” — a cross-section of crowd life.

Lamb Bobak was born near Vancouver in 1920, into a bohemian and cultural family. Lawren Harris, Emily Carr and other luminaries “frequented the house for lively conversation about the state of contemporary artistic practice,” writes exhibition curator Michelle Gewurtz in her book Molly Lamb Bobak: Life and Work. (The exhibition is largely based on Gewurtz’s research for the book, which can be downloaded in an e-version from the OAG website.)

Molly Lamb Bobak, November 11, 1971, Oil on board, 101.9 x 122.6 cm, Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, Ottawa Art Gallery. Donated to the City of Ottawa by the Ontario Heritage Foundation.

The Lamb home sounds like it was a vibrant and stimulating place, what with Canadian art superstars sitting about, and with young Molly’s mother, father and her father’s mistress all living there. It’s not difficult to imagine that the simultaneous to-and-fro of intellectual conversation and domestic tension fostered in the young girl a keen sense of crowd dynamics — all that movement, those changing directions, those individual bodies meeting and merging and adding to the mass of energy.

The budding artist had training from a dizzyingly impressive roster of Canadian greats, including Jack Shadbolt, Jock Macdonald and Frederick Varley. She graduated from the Vancouver School of Art and in 1942 joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps.

After a year or so of drills and drudgery, the army recognized her artistic talent and sent her to Ottawa “where she was tasked with drawing the daily work at the Trades Training offices and allowed time to document the activities of her fellow CWACs.” She designed posters and Christmas cards, and in 1944 “tied for second prize in the National Gallery’s Canadian Army Art Show — a competition in which the man she would later marry, Bruno Bobak, then overseas, took top honours,” Gewurtz writes.

Near the end of the war in Europe she earned her coveted appointment as an official Canadian war artist — the first woman to be so honoured. Today, 114 of her works are held in the Canadian War Museum.

Molly Lamb Bobak. Private Roy, Canadian Women’s Army Corps, 1946. Oil on fibreboard. Beaverbrook Collection of War Art. Canadian War Museum.

She married Bruno in 1945, and they spent time in Ottawa, Vancouver and various locations in Europe, each of the young artists learning and exploring their art, and searching for their individual voices. In 1960 they returned to Canada and settled in Fredericton, New Brunswick (the home province of the young artist we hired to paint our wedding, Chris Lloyd). Both Bobaks worked and studied, and taught at the University of New Brunswick.

“As a couple, they gradually became the centre of Fredericton’s art scene,” and even today, after his death in 2012 and her death in 2014, they remain giants of the province’s art identity.

In Fredericton “her work began to reflect a celebratory attitude toward urban landscapes and especially the people who populated them,” Gewurtz writes. She quotes Lamb Bobak, “I think that it is an interest I have had ever since I was a kid. I simply love gatherings, mingling. . . . It’s like little ants crawling, the sort of insignificance and yet the beauty.”

This love for crowded scenes practically drips from her paintings, in the exuberant colours, and the often convivial and celebratory atmospheres.

They weren’t always happy scenes. German Children in Bremen, Germany, from 1945, shows children clustered around a uniformed soldier on a dark and damaged street. A 1973 painting — surely one of her greatest works — shows cars bearing the body of former prime minister Lester B. Pearson away from Parliament hill through a crowd of mourners, their bright winter coats and umbrellas shining like little beacons of national hope amid the greyish skies of mid-winter.

The exhibition is not large, but Gewurtz has effectively shown Lamb Bobak’s developing style. The earlier crowd scenes tend to be more representational — the happy street scene of CWACs on Leave in Amsterdam, September, 1945, or of personnel enjoying drinks and petit-fours in Canteen, Nijmegen, Holland.

Over the years her style became more impressionistic. In the street scene November 11, 1971, the red serges of the band at the parade head are mere dabs of paint, as she leaves more to the viewer’s imagination, to the viewer’s own experience of being picked up and carried along by the mass of shared celebration or sentiment.

There are moments of near abstraction. In 1968’s UNB Protest, the crowd blurs at the centre of an arc of energy, as if a wave of determination is pushing through the people and pushing them forward and toward their unifying goal. Most unique is 1969’s Rink Theme — Skaters, where Lamb Bobak pushes her skaters, almost uniformly clad in reds and yellows, to the outer edges of the canvas and leaves icy centre empty, like a swirl of human joy in a centrifuge.

Canadian artist Molly Lamb Bobak painting. National Film Board of Canada / Library and Archives Canada.

Finally, there’s Shediac Beach (N.B.), from 1972, a “colourfully and gesturally rendered” summer’s day, with bathers lying back or milling about in the season when the livin’ is easy.

It’s similar to the Lamb Bobak paintings that I first saw in New Brunswick 25 years ago, and that inspired us to have our wedding day painted — so many people, so much movement, yet with no incoherence nor even dissonance.

I’ve never been to Shediac Beach, but the painting fills me with sentiment. Such is the universal joyfulness of Molly Lamb Bobak, the woman who stood out from the crowd on her talent for painting them.

The exhibition continues at the OAG to Jan. 12.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.