Tuesday, September 25, 2012


By Kate Wallace, Telegraph-Journal, September 25, 2012

Bruno Bobak’s final work is a good-sized floral oil painting.

His son, Alex Bobak, found it last week in his father’s home studio, in Fredericton, when he went to air out the second-story bedroom of the thick smells of oil paint and turpentine.

“I was really interested to see there was a completed painting on his easel,” he said from Fredericton. “I guess it indicates that right up to the very end he was still quietly going up to that studio for half an hour or an hour or whatever he could muster. He literally worked right until the last day.”

Bronislaw (Bruno) Josephus Bobak died Monday at the Saint John Regional Hospital. He was 88.

Born in Wawelowska, Poland, in 1923, he immigrated to Canada as a boy. His artistic career had auspicious beginnings; his first teacher was Arthur Lismer, at Saturday art classes he took as a teenager in Toronto.The Group of Seven member emphasized interpreting nature, instead of copying it, and using big, bold brushes rather than the formalized, academic way of working.

“That’s really the beginning of that whole program I got involved in,” Bobak told the Telegraph-Journal in 2011. “I was hooked from then on.”

In the seven decades since, Bobak has had a national career that includes hundreds of group shows and dozens of one-man exhibitions, in Canada and abroad. His work is in many public and private collections, including The Canada Council Art Bank, the Canadian War Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada. He has received numerous awards, honours and distinctions, including membership in the Royal Canadian Academy and honorary university degrees.

That’s the resumé. What friends, family and colleagues talk about when they talk about Bruno Bobak is an unpretentious, compulsively creative man with a dry wit who loved nothing more than casting a fly-line on the Miramichi.

Bobak was also half of one of Canada’s most famous husband-and-wife painting couples. In 1944, the year after he joined the army, he won a Canadian Army art competition. Molly Lamb, his future wife, took second place, but it was not until 1945, when she became an official war artist, the year after he had joined the program, that they met.

Forced to share studio space in London, he was initially irked by her presence. On Dec. 10, 1945 they were married.

The Canadian War Museum, in Ottawa, has 130 Bruno Bobak paintings and drawings in its permanent collection. “That work shows a commitment to art that probably wouldn’t have come so quickly if it hadn’t been for the war,” said Laura Brandon, historian, art and war, at the museum. “He used to say that being a war artist saved his life,” as most of his platoon died on D-Day.

There were 32 official war artists. Only Molly Bobak and Alex Colville survive.

After the war, the Bobaks returned to Canada, living in a Toronto apartment building owned by Group of Seven member Lawren Harris.

They lived in Ottawa and Vancouver before moving to Fredericton in 1960 when he was appointed artist-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick. In 1962, he became director of the university’ art centre, a position he held until retiring in 1986. The Bobaks promptly became prime movers in the city’s – and the province’s – artistic life.

Brandon said that Bobak, like other war artists, helped create the next generation of Canadian artists, and the recovery of post-war Canadian art in general.

“They were interested in other artists, they were interested in Canadian art, they were interested in future generations,” she said. “I think they valued what they had as a result of what they had been through. It was palpable in the way they conducted their lives and how they contributed on all sorts of different levels to the cultural fabric of their locality, their province and their nation.”

Inge Pataki, Bobak’s Fredericton gallerist since 1976 and a longtime friend, met him the week she arrived in Fredericton from her native Germany. “He really, truly brought something special to the city,” she said.Bobak arrived bearing a basket of vegetables from his garden.

“He was so easygoing. He was so relaxed,” she said.Later, when she learned about the “serious part” of his artistic career, she was awed by his talent.

“We always called him a renaissance man,” she said. “He reminded me of painters in Europe in the early part of the 20th century, artists who were not just painting.”Bobak made pieces of furniture, silk-screened his own neckties, and even built houses.

One time, he covered the ceiling of his dining room in gold foil he collected from Peter Jackson cigarette packages.

He was a great gardener and a skilled cook celebrated for his hospitality. Costume parties were not just for Halloween. “There was a certain standard,” Pataki said. “It was expected that you be creative and come up with something amazing.”

One time Molly Bobak donned a blue swimsuit and a sash, like a contestant in a beauty pageant. Bruno had printed “Miss Fit” on her sash. He once made a dress of see-through plastic for himself, protecting his modesty with a bra and slip.

To Pataki’s daughter, Germaine Pataki, who now runs the gallery, the Bobaks were like grandparents. “He made the craziest Christmas presents,” she said, including toys or artworks decorated with his signature animal, the marmot.

It was Bobak who came up with the name Gallery 78, from the Patakis’ house number on Brunswick Street.

As much as he loved art, he was sustained equally by salmon fishing. Alex Bobak said that catching fish had become secondary, that the natural beauty and contemplative side of angling had become the primary draw for his father. “He indulged it to the nth degree,” he said. “He’d go fishing when there was no chance in hell of catching anything.”

This summer was a bad one for salmon, but Bobak was on the river just the same, driving a 26-foot canoe, refusing, as ever, to don a life jacket. Alex Bobak had bought him a high-tech one as a Christmas gift. It was never used. “I guess I’m going to inherit that in mint condition,” he said.

Bobak is survived by Molly, Alex, his daughter, Anny Scoones, of British Columbia, and Alex’s daughter, Julia.

The Beaverbrook Art Gallery invites the public to stop by to sign a book of condolences and view a selection of Bobak’s works it has put on display. The tribute reflects the vitality, variety, rigour, honesty and splendour of Bobak’s work.

“He wanted to make New Brunswick and Canada a better place,” Bernard Riordon, executive director and CEO of the gallery, said. “And he did that with great style.”

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