|This biography from the Archives of AskART:|
|The following article, submitted by Richard English, is from the San Francisco Chronicle, October 12, 2012, by Kevin Fagan.|
More than a half-century and many cruel twists of fate ago, Stefan Norblin was one of the most famous artists in Poland, and his wife, Lena Zelichowska, rivaled Marlene Dietrich as a European film star.
Then came World War II, a life in exile in Iraq, India and America, and within a handful of years, death. They were forgotten to history - and never got to go home again.
The couple's ashes, thought to have been scattered somewhere in San Francisco, were recently found in Colma. The head of a Bay Area Polish cultural group flew this week with the ashes to Warsaw, and on Friday they will be interred with a formal Polish state funeral amid a plethora of ceremonies - much to the pride of their son, a jazz musician who lives in San Jose.
A national exhibit titled "Art Beyond Time: Stefan Norblin" opens the same day, along with premieres of a new Norblin documentary and restored films starring Zelichowska. And after the ashes have been placed in the Norblin family crypt, officials will place a historic plaque on the refurbished house the couple lived in before the Nazis
Over the past year or so, Polish and German art historians have been gradually rediscovering and displaying Norblin's wildly colorful palace murals, portrait and scene paintings - but the return of the ashes of the great artist and his movie star wife is the capstone on the revival of their work.
"Norblin belongs to the fantastic tradition of Art Deco artists who came between Poland's independence in 1918 and World War II, and his wife was a great star," said Polish Consul General Joanna Kozinska-Frybes, who is posted in Los Angeles and is helping repatriate the ashes. "In her time, Lena Zelichowska was as well known and admired by men in Europe as Marilyn Monroe was later.
"We are very glad that these ashes are going home, and now people will become more aware of this family's great artistic history."
The Norblins' only survivor is their son, Andrew Norblin. A 68-year-old musician, he finds the recent attention to his parents' work stunning.
"For years people would ask me about my parents, and I'd say my father was a world-renowned artist and my mom was a famous Polish actress, and they'd say 'Oh really?' and change the subject," Norblin said. "All this rediscovery has been overwhelming, and I think very good for the Polish people, who are so rooted in their history."
The Norblins' life up until World War II was one of accomplishment and fame. Zelichowska was the toast of Europe, starring in Polish film hits, including 1938's The Line, in which she played a jilted lover who burns her jilter's eyes out with acid. And Norblin - the great-grandson of famed European court painter Jean Pierre Norblin - was a leading architectural designer and portrait and scene painter of his day, specializing in intricate lines and vivid colors.
That all changed in 1939. The Nazis invaded Poland, and after a warplane strafed their home in Warsaw, the couple fled to Iraq, where Norblin had a commission to paint for the royal family.
He stayed there a year and then moved to India, where he designed and painted murals for the palaces of princes. Norblin was particularly noted for his work at the sprawling Umaid Bhawan for Maharaja Umaid Singh, creating murals of mythological figures so finely and colorfully detailed that chariots and warriors seemed to leap off the walls.
The days with the princes ended in 1946, though, when independence wars erupted in India and Pakistan. The family - by now including 2-year-old Andrew - set off for America, where Norblin had art contacts.
They ended up in San Francisco, where Norblin painted the rich and famous, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Then in 1952, he discovered he was going blind and possibly had cancer.
Saying he didn't want to burden his family, Norblin killed himself near Lake Merced. His wife carried on as a manicurist - but died of a heart attack in 1958.
Andrew, then 14, was left to be raised by family friends. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees in economics, but his first love was teaching and playing music. He was in the Comets (post-Bill Haley) in the mid-2000s and plays with the Magnolia Jazz band, and says his life after his parents' death "has been just fine."
But there was always the mystery of the ashes.
In the late 1990s, a German art historian stumbled across Norblin's murals while studying Indian palace art and began promoting a rediscovery of his work. Polish art buffs gradually took notice - including Caria Tomczykowska of Oakland, president of the local Polish Arts and Culture Foundation, which took possession of several Norblin pieces donated by Andrew in the 1970s.
She and Polish historian Maureen Mroczek Morris of San Francisco began researching the Norblins a couple of years ago and helped with a major exhibit of Norblin's artwork in Poland last year. Then this summer they pulled the couple's death certificates.
There, in the paperwork, were listed the Cypress Lawn and Olivet cemeteries - the ashes were in pauper's crypts there. With the help of the Polish government and art historians around the world, Friday's ceremony and exhibit were planned.
"Warsaw is all abuzz," Tomczykowska e-mailed from Poland on Wednesday. "This has turned out to be a magnificent project and legacy."
Andrew Norblin is not going back with his parents' remains. He says he went to Poland last year for the exhibit of his father's work, and that was sufficient for a while.
"I just don't have a big ego about things," he said. Besides, he said, he already has had a reunion of his own.
Norblin didn't remember much of his father while he was alive, but his mother and he were close. And before he signed off on transferring his parents' ashes, he tenderly scooped out a handful of his mother's for himself.
They now rest in a Polish ceramic jar on a shelf in his living room. "I just couldn't let them all go," he said quietly.
Norblin patted the jar absentmindedly and looked up to the wall at one of his favorite Norblin works, a picture depicting Don Quixote riding a horse in midair. He smiled.
"They really were something, weren't they?" he said.
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