Gorgeous art-deco of Stefan Norblin enjoys international resurgence
Regarded as one of the earlier pioneers of Poland’s poster movement, the work of artist Stefan Norblin is enjoying a fleeting international resurgence after being highlighted by the cult portal Flashbak.
The portal, which specialises in showcasing “forgotten gems, stories and visual art”, described the Pole as “brilliant” before focusing in to present his extraordinary ‘tourist posters’ produced in the inter-war years.
The attention is the least that Norblin deserves.
Born Juliusz Stefan Norblin de la Gourdaine in 1892, he was the son of a wealthy industrialist and a relation of Ludwig Norblin, the co-founder of Warsaw’s Norblin metalware factory – now recently repurposed as an award-winning mixed use complex in the heart of the city’s business district.
However, it was not just a nose for business that streaked through the Norblin family tree, but also a talent for art. The great-grandson of Jan Piotr Norblin, the 18th century painter of Poland’s royal court, Stefan showed little interest in the business side despite a higher education that involved a spell at Antwerp’s Academy of Economy and Trade.
Though groomed for a career in commerce, Norblin’s mind had already drifted elsewhere. Committing to his true and natural passion, he held his first exhibition in Amsterdam’s Memling Gallery in 1913.
Self-taught, he then travelled to cities such as Paris and London, often painting under the pseudonym of Count von Luxembourg.
Volunteering for the Polish-Soviet War, he served as a translator before resuming his artistic career and opening a studio on Mazowiecka 1.
Despite his family’s earlier misgivings regarding his chosen career path, Norblin’s stock as an artist soon found itself soaring – in particular, his Art Deco-style portraits won him a rich raft of admirers, among them some of the most celebrated and influential characters of inter-bellum Poland.
To name but a few, posing in front of him were Marshall Piłsudski, Jan Wedel and Marshal Edward Rydz-Śmigły. According to the writer and satirist Stefania Grodzieńska (a.k.a. the First Lady of Polish Humour), “it was an honour to be painted by Norblin”.
Briefly married to the screen siren Maria Modzelewska, he became a fixture on the elite circuit – a point underscored when he later became betrothed to another actress, the glamorous Lena Żelichowska.
His colourful private life perhaps echoed the variety demonstrated by his professional oeuvre. It was not just portraiture that he excelled in, for he also found himself recruited to create a series of travel posters advertising both the country and its cities.
In many ways, these became the bedrock for subsequent generations of artists such as the acclaimed Ryszard Kaja (1962-2019).
Often printed with English, French and German sub-headings, these posters were gloriously illustrative works showing, for instance, the steeply-angled roofs of Warsaw’s Old Town; the bustling dock of the newly-born city of Gdynia; the church steeples of Lwów; and the majestic historic centre of Kraków.
Sometimes thematic rather than city specific, other posters promoted the country’s heritage and pursuits – bearing the words “country of chase”, one intensely coloured poster depicts a hunter crouching in the snow over a lynx.
Amusingly, almost, confusion continues to reign to this day regarding the authorship of many posters due to the artist’s insistence of signing his works so as to read ‘Snorblin’ as opposed to S. Norblin.
Unfortunately, just as life was at its apex, Norblin’s world was shattered with the outbreak of war.
Such was his wealth, at the time Norblin was in the process of constructing a film studio for his wife on the grounds of his Warsaw manor – this, though, would never be completed. With the war in its early days, a German fighter flew over his villa and strafed it, narrowly missing Norblin’s wife who had been relaxing on the balcony.
This close call was enough and he and his wife packed their luggage and valuables and fled through Romania, Turkey and Iraq – in the latter, he painted the country’s rulers and, also, the British Ambassador.
Most likely, it was he who helped smooth the acquisition of a visa to India.
Here, life took on an entirely new twist and his arrival was even announced by the Illustrated Weekly of India who described him as “a well-known Polish painter on his way to America.”
Although America was indeed the intended destination, the hand of fate determined that India would be more than just a stepping stone.
Again, Norblin found his reputation cresting and he was hired by India’s most affluent to decorate palaces, paint canvases and even design furniture. This he did using his trademark Art Deco and Art Nouveau flourishes – styles that were trending at the time in India – while simultaneously mixing these with local accents and motifs.
His finest moment was yet to come: when a U-boat reputedly torpedoed a boat carrying furnishings and paintings destined for the Maharaja of Jodhpur’s new palace, Norblin was commissioned to fill in the blanks.
This he did with dazzling elan, and to this day examples of his work can be found sprinkling the Umaid Bhawan palace.
Finally emigrating to San Francisco in 1946, the American Dream soon became a nightmare. Used to an exotic life of privilege and success, America proved an arid hunting ground for Norblin and his wife.
For Norblin, the work dried up and his worsening eyesight contributed to the marked deterioration in the quality of his works. For her part, his wife – once a belle of the stage and screen – was reduced to working as a manicurist.
Convinced the cancer was to blame for his deteriorating sight, Norblin overdosed on pills in 1952 rather than face an uncertain future in the artistic wilderness – an ignominious end to a true national treasure.