Bruno Bobak 1923-2012, the Canadian War Artist
Oct 8, 2012
reading the Daily Telegraph obituaries I am both sad and grateful to see the tribute to Bruno Bobak. sad at his loss. grateful to see a tribute to him over here in the U.K., Canadians so often being somewhat of an afterthought in spite of what we gave to both wars. why just today I was looking at a map of the World War I front and there were British flags and French flags and Belgian flags, and American flags representing the fighting nations of that war, but no Canadian flags (nor Indian, nor Australian, nor New Zealand etc. etc.). so yes, how good to have Bruno Bobak remembered over here.
Bobak trained as a sapper but after winning first prize in an art competition, became an official war artist with the Canadian Army in 1944. according to his obit, serving as a war artist may have saved his life, as almost his entire company was killed on the D-Day landing which he had missed due to his appointment as a war artist.
the war artist program during WWII was far different than it is now. then, artists deployed and were employed, for years at a time. our current program offers a very short “deployment”, typically only a few weeks long. I was extraordinarily lucky to have the open invitation to travel the entire road to war, thanks to Col. Jerry Walsh (then CO of 1PPCLI) who absolutely understood what I was trying to do.
unlike Bobak’s generation of artists, our actual time in A’stan was woefully short for a number of reasons including safety (but which war zones are safe), insurance costs, perhaps a misunderstanding of what artists actually do, and that the war had become what another Col. describes as being, “a mature, managed theatre”. I know I asked to go for a much longer period of time, as did others. in the end, our work was what it was meant to be. mine is about the trajectory of war at a very personal level. for other of my fellow artists it is something quite different.
a sweet outcome of becoming a war artist for Bobak was that he ended up having to share a studio in London with another Canadian war artist, Mary Lamb . the two of them married, returned to peacetime Canada, made their home on the east coast, continued to do good work. it’s no surprise that the two war artists fell in love. as I’ve said many times, it’s difficult for anyone who hasn’t experienced the intensity of war to understand its all-encompassing nature – the best of times, the worst of times. and that they were artists, i.e. with fine-tuned antennae, must have made it near-inevitable. I’d love to be able to read their papers if ever I could, in order to gain insight into their experiences as war artists and partners who share the vocation/avocation.
in the obit it says that Bobak would have liked to have painted “stronger” images of the war. he was a young artist at the time and was being paid by the Canadian army to paint. one wonders how much his age influenced this and/or how much self-censorship he had. the current program’s artists are mid-career to established and does not pay its artists. but neither does it censor nor dictate nor own our work.
but reflecting on Bobak’s statement, I would also like to see the trajectory of his war work. how much of his “self-censorship” (my words) was due to a sense of self-preservation? I am reading a lot on trauma narrative at present and am very interested in the manifestation of trauma through the artist’s work. how observable e.g.? certainly I believe I recognize this in some of my contemporary war artists’ work.
I’m very, very sad to read of Bobak’s death. I would so much have loved to have met him, just as I would love to meet Molly Lamb Bobak. I contacted her gallery to see if I could get her contact info but they never responded.
Bruno and Molly Lamb Bobak are heroes to me. they are of a generation whose likeness we shall never, ever, see again. I admire them both very, very much and am so very sorry for their family and friends to have lost one of our great ones, one of our national treasures.