After almost two years of lobbying, in June 1945 Lieutenant Molly Lamb (1920–2014) became the first and only woman accredited by the federal government as one of the thirty-two official Canadian war artists. The others, all of whom belonged to the Canadian Armed Forces, included Aba Bayefsky (1923–2001), Lawren P. Harris (1910–1994), Charles Comfort (1900–1994), Will Ogilvie (1901–1989), Alex Colville (1920–2013), and Bruno Bobak (1923–2012), whom she married later that same year.
Because Lamb was a woman, she was assigned to overseas duty only at the end of the war when hostilities in Europe had ceased. Colonel A.F. Duguid, director of the Canadian Army Historical Section and the army’s representative on the Canadian War Artists Selection Committee, stated in June 1943 that “from the Army’s point of view their [women’s] appointment was not desirable as the artists were at the scene of combat.” The National Gallery of Canada disagreed and commissioned Alma Duncan (1917–2004), Pegi Nicol MacLeod (1904–1949), and Paraskeva Clark (1898–1986) to document the war effort in Canada, focusing on women’s contributions and perspective. By the autumn of 1944 the War Artists Selection Committee proposed sending Lamb abroad as a war artist. Six months later, with Europe secured, she finally received permission to travel.
When asked years later whether she chose to focus on “the human element in the war effort away from the battlefront,” she replied:
“They didn’t lay down any laws but the women weren’t near the battle ever. . . . The women were mostly behind the lines in Europe and the war was over anyway and so . . . if I saw Amsterdam . . . I would just put a few little CWACs [Canadian Women’s Army Corps] in the street and paint the city and that was valid. The CWACs were there . . . I think the government would have liked me to have painted the activities of the women, and I did—in laundries, as drivers and chauffeurs, and the pipe band, but then I also threw in a lot of my own ideas.”
Lamb was no doubt aware of gender bias in both the army and the Canadian art world generally, but she usually dealt with such issues with parody and good humour. While military recruitment posters presented servicewomen in glamorous, idealized contexts to combat fears over the “de-feminization” of women in the military, Lamb used caricature to poke fun at these images. On one occasion in her diary she produced a special colour supplement titled “For Ladies[,] W110278 Presents 1943 Fall Fashions,” a work that was based on contemporary newspaper advertisements for women.
By focusing on the activities of the CWAC overseas, often in a humorous and positive sense, Lamb provides a rare look into the wartime activities of Canadian servicewomen. Her CWACs Sorting Mail, n.d., for example, illustrates activities performed by women far from the front lines that helped to maintain the war effort. Salmon in the Galley, 1944, and other commissioned works by Nicol MacLeod, serve the same purpose: as Nicol MacLeod explained, “Only if all the women painters in Canada were to cover all the activities of all the Women’s Divisions could this story ever be depicted properly.”
This Essay is excerpted from Molly Lamb Bobak: Life & Work by Michelle Gewurtz.