Norblin was born to the wealthy factory owner Stanisław Ignacy Norblin. He may have inherited artistic genes from an ancestor, the 18th-century painter Jan Piotr Norblin, a key figure in the Polish Enlightenment and a founder of Polish genre painting, who had worked on commission for the nobility and for King Stanisław August Poniatowski.
Young Norblin’s father expected him to take over the family factory, a prosperous firm producing silverware and industrial metal components. Norblin traveled to Antwerp to attend the Academy of Economy and Trade, completing his studies in 1910. But he devoted much of his time to drawing and painting, and it became apparent that he had more of his ancestor Jan Piotr in him than of his businessman father. Early caricatures and portraits were shown at his first exhibition, at the Memling gallery in Amsterdam in 1913. The artist traveled to Paris and London, where he created illustrations under the alias "Count von Luxembourg". During the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921), Norblin served in the Polish army as a translator.
After the Treaty of Riga brought the war to an end, he settled in Warsaw and his artistic career blossomed. Moving in the cultural circles of the capitol, Norblin became a recognizable figure in interwar social life. Versatile and active in many fields, he was acclaimed for poster design, paintings, commercial art and book covers, and created a popular series of affiches, travel posters advertising Polish cities and regions (Warszawa, 1926). Norblin's painting skills gained him a reputation for fine portraiture, and he portrayed celebrities and important figures (Portrait of Józef Piłsudski, 1935). He worked with flatly laid colours and strong contours, in the popular art-deco style. Along with practicing visual arts, Norblin created interior designs and theatrical scenery, and experimented with fashion and scenic costumes.
He and his wife, Lena Zelichowska, a film star in pre-war Poland, married in 1933. When the Second World War began they left Poland through Romania and eventually reached Iraq, where the artist created portraits of the king and his family. In 1941 the Norblins came to India, which became their home for the next five years. Norblin worked on commission from local noble families, very much as his ancestor Jan Piotr had, painting portraits and decorating maharajas’ palaces. He worked at royal residences in Morvi and Patna, and for his biggest project, the grand palace Umaid Bhawan in Rhajasthan, he created canvases and wall paintings as well as interior and furniture designs. Pieces created during his stay in India merge art deco with local mythology, forming a distinct, assertive style (Shiva and Parvati on Mount Kailas, 1941 - 1946). An exhibition of Norblin’s work was held at the Cowasji Jehangir Hall in Mumbai, the city then named Bombay, in 1944.
The Norblins left India for the U.S. in 1946 (their newborn son’s health problems were attributed to the Indian climate). The artist settled his family near San Francisco, where he found work in a decorating firm and painted portraits of prominent Americans (Portrait of Gen. Douglas MacArthur, 1948) and people of Polish origin. In the 1950s, problems with his eyesight, which were already haunting him, became severe. Norblin suspected that the illness causing his sight to fail was cancer. He couldn’t bear the prospect of not being able to work, and committed suicide.
Today the artist's reputation is being revived in Poland, India and the U.S. An exhibition entitled Stefan Norblin (1892-1952): A Master of Many Arts was held by the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Dehli in 2011, showing work from Norblin's Indian and American periods. It then traveled to Poland, to the Regional Museum in Stalowa Wola. The artist’s ashes, thought to have been scattered in California after his death, were located in Colma near San Francisco along with those of his wife, Lena, and were sent to Warsaw, where the couple was given a formal state funeral in October 2012.
Also in October, the Poster Museum in Wilanów opened its retrospective of the artist’s work, featuring posters, paintings, graphic art and designs. The museum hosted the Polish premiere of the documentary Chitraanjali. Stefan Norblin in India (2011). Directed by Malgorzata Skiba, the film focuses on Norblin’s artistic activity in India and received an honorable mention at the Los Angles Movie Awards 2012 ceremony. It is available through the National Audiovisual Institute. The exhibition at the Poster Museum is the first retrospective of Norblin’s works since the interwar period, and closes on the 31st of January 2013. In 2012 production began on a documentary film about Stefan Norblin's time in the Far East. Chitraanjali: Stefan Norblin in India.
Author: Marek Kępa, November 2012