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Rediscovering Norblin: The Pole who Filled Indian Palaces with Art


Marek Kępa

Shrouded in obscurity for decades, the Polish painter and graphic artist Stefan Norblin spent several fascinating years in India. Hidden away halfway across the world in the palaces of maharajas, we take a closer look at the rediscovered stunning pieces and interior designs he made that combined European Art Deco and traditional Hindu motifs. 

From Warsaw to Bombay

Stefan Norblin, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola
Stefan Norblin, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola

Born into a family of factory owners, Stefan Norblin (1892-1952) was also a descendant of the noted artist Jan Piotr Norblin, who created genre paintings in 18th-century Poland. In pre-war Poland, Stefan was a well-known and valued artist whose versatile skill set allowed him to excel in painting portraits, creating posters and magazine covers. He also designed costumes and stage scenery for the theatre, which he had close ties to through his actress wife Lena Żelichowska.  

After the outbreak of World War II, the couple escaped their hometown of Warsaw and via Romania, Turkey and Iraq, made it to India. They initially planned to go to the USA or Brazil through Italy, but the wartime turmoil didn’t allow for that. On their way, Norblin would paint portraits to help fund their journey. In Baghdad, for example, he made portraits of the royal Hashemite family.

In 1941, they arrived in Bombay where it wasn’t long before Norblin met Lakhdhirji Waghdji, a maharaja with a dream of living in an Art Deco palace. After learning that the Polish artist was an Art Deco admirer as well, the nobleman hired him to decorate the luxurious residence he was having built in Morvi in the state of Gujarat. The maharaja’s wish was to obtain paintings in the said Western style, popular at the time the world over, but that Norblin would give it a local ambience. It was the beginning of a path that lead Norblin to create all sorts of stunning pieces blending European Art Deco and Indian motifs. 

Deities & celestial nymphs

The painting Dance, 1941, Bombay, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola
The painting Dance, 1941, Bombay, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola

For the Morvi residence, Norblin made a number of works that can still be observed throughout the building. In the entry hallway itself, there is a ceiling painting with a scene from the ancient epic Mahabharata that shows two Hindu deities, Krishna and Arjuna, riding in a chariot. This dynamic work is very characteristic of Norblin’s Indian oeuvre as it depicts a traditional Hindu theme using artistic means typical of Art Deco, such as clear forms and strong colours. 

Another painting showing a mythological pair, Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailas, can be encountered in the maharaja’s living room.  Both these works reveal that, despite having just arrived on the subcontinent, Norblin already had a good feel of Indian art with its richness and linearity and was incorporating its style into his works.

Throughout the palace, you can also encounter genre scenes by Norblin, such as a horse race, or barroom paintings filled with refined eroticism. The murals in the upstairs bar, presenting half-naked dancers clad in fantastic, whirling skirts, echo the decadence of European cabarets. Meanwhile the large-format oil painting Dance in the lower bar shows a group of celestial nymphs, one of which, sitting to the left and facing the viewer, bears semblance to the painter’s wife. Not only beautiful in their own right but also elegantly harmonious with the interiors, it wasn’t long before his work at the Morvi residence caused Norblin to receive further commissions from other noble families.

Sinking ship, rising artist

In 1943 the Pole started to create pieces for Maharaja Kamakhya Narain Singh’s Ramarh House in Patna, in the state of Bihar. These works seem to have been lost however, and reportedly can only be seen in photos taken before their disappearance by Claus-Ullrich Simon, a great admirer of Norblin’s Indian paintings. They included family portraits in a traditional style, as well as genre scenes and depictions of Hindu gods, aesthetically similar to those from Morvi.

Similarly, not a great deal is known about the Polish artist’s lifestyle in India. According to art historians, his talents made him a well-off man and he even enjoyed a certain popularity: in 1944, he had an individual exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bombay. Norblin’s success is most likely why the couple stayed on the subcontinent, rather than go to America as they had planned when leaving Poland.

The next royal commission came from Maharaja Umaid Singh of Rajasthan, and resulted in Norblin’s Indian opus magnum. In 1944, the ruler’s Umaid Bhawan Palace in Jodhpur, one of the biggest 20th-century structures of its kind, was just being completed. Norblin was hired to make paintings for this residence, ones that would match its mix of European modernism and traditional Indian architecture. However, due to the sinking of a ship transporting furniture for the palace from Europe, Norblin was eventually also tasked with designing some of the interiors and furniture. Because of the scope of his interdisciplinary input, it’s safe to say that among the palaces decorated by him in India, Umaid Bhawan is the one he affected the most.

A battle against the Moghuls

Umaid Bhawan Palace, India, photo: Vijay Mathur/Reuters/Forum
Umaid Bhawan Palace, India, photo: Vijay Mathur/Reuters/Forum

Over approximately three years at Jodhpur, Norblin created an abundance of various paintings and designs. The artist adorned the throne room with a series of six monumental murals revolving around the epic poem Ramayana. They portray the story of the deity Sita’s kidnapping by the daemon Ravana and her rescue by her husband, the divine Rama. The Triumphant Return of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman to Ayodhya from Lanka, located directly behind the throne, is especially impressive due to its richness. 

The Triumphant Return of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman to Ayodhya from Lanka, Stefan Norblin, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola
The Triumphant Return of Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman to Ayodhya from Lanka, Stefan Norblin, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola

For many of the eye-catching details in the throne room paintings, like the armour or costumes, Norblin drew inspiration from the maharaja’s extensive collection of heirlooms, giving the scenes an air of authenticity. The ancientness of the ruler’s lineage was highlighted by the Pole in a mural in the main entrance hall, showing a battle against the Moghuls, won by his ancestor Durgadas Rathore who lived in the 17th and 18th centuries. Like in the other palaces, the painter also created genre paintings (hunting scenes) and depictions of deities. Shiva and Parvati on a Cloud with a Holy Fig Tree, present in one of the bedrooms, stands out because of its contrasting palette of white, blue and gold, which gives it qualities similar to some of Norblin’s interwar posters. In another bedroom, you can encounter the Polish artist’s vision of the many-handed Durga resting on a tiger. Many of the paintings at Umaid Bhawan Palace are stylistically similar to his earlier Indian works, but some exhibit unique traits, e.g. ones characteristic of traditional Jodhpur miniature painting, which he encountered thanks to his acquaintance with Umaid Singh. 

What Norblin works can we still see today?

Stefan Norblin, Umaid Bhawan Palace interior design, 1944-1945., photo: Wilanów Poster Museum
Stefan Norblin, Umaid Bhawan Palace interior design, 1944-1945., photo: Wilanów Poster Museum

After all these years, some of the interior designs Norblin made for the palace are still intact. The hallway leading to the maharaja’s private quarters as well as his wife’s bathroom look very alike to what the Pole had envisioned. The first chamber sports rows of tasteful sofas divided by cabinets, standing by the walls and a decorative fountain in the middle. The bathroom on the other hand has a colour scheme of gold and black and features a tall framed mirror. The über-chic bathtub and sink were designed by Norblin as well. In general, Norblin’s room arrangements are spacious and match the style of Umaid Bhawan nicely. 

Maharani-Suite-Bedroom, Umaid Bhawan Palace, India, with paintings by Stefana Norblin, photo: kiwicollection
Maharani-Suite-Bedroom, Umaid Bhawan Palace, India, with paintings by Stefana Norblin, photo: kiwicollection

At the palace there’s a collection of 23 drawings of interior proposals by him, giving insight into his work as a decorator. Their way of representing space brings to mind stage scenery designs, suggesting that when he was creating them he put to use his theatre experience from Poland. Not all of his ideas were realised, but nevertheless Norblin helped shape many chambers, such as the maharaja’s study and the royal dining room. Apart from the aforementioned sofas, low and relaxing, Norblin designed plenty of other furniture for the palace: armchairs, desks and cabinets. Many of these objects gracefully reference French Art Deco and are still in use at the palace today, providing testimony to how versatile and talented a creator Norblin really was.

Who is Snorblin?

Norblin decided to leave India after he completed the work for Maharaja Umaid Singh (which also included the decoration of his hunting retreat on Lake Sardar Samand). His son had been born in 1944 and the local climate was having a detrimental effect on the child’s health. On one occasion, the situation was so severe that the maharaja had to send his private plane for medicine. In 1946, aboard a ship, Norblin and his family left for America, where the artist lived for the rest of his days in San Francisco.

Stefan Norblin with his wife and son, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola
Stefan Norblin with his wife and son, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola

In the decades after Norblin’s moving to the USA, his Indian pieces were shrouded in obscurity. Close to nothing was known about them in Poland and the rest of Europe, whereas in India the artist himself became largely forgotten, to the extent that his name was sometimes confused with ‘Snorblin’, a misreading of the signature ‘S. Norblin’ that he had left on his paintings. 

Stefan Norblin with his son Andrew, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola
Stefan Norblin with his son Andrew, photo: Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola

The fiftieth anniversary of the building of Umaid Bhawan Palace, attended by guests from various countries, gave an impulse to rediscover the Indian chapter of the Polish artist’s life. The following reconstruction of his works, which had suffered dearly due to the harsh atmospheric conditions of the subcontinent, restored the pieces to their rightful glory. Today, after years of research and a large exhibition featuring some of his Indian pieces, held at the Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola in Poland in 2011, Stefan Norblin’s Indian works are now receiving plenty of attention, continuously enchanting viewers with their radiant brilliance.

Author: Marek Kępa, Feb 2017

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Category: 
Photography & Visual Arts