by Nic Brown
When I reflect upon the work of the late Lidia Groblicka, a particular black and white photograph of the artist working in her studio always comes to mind. The many ingredients that combine to form this scene – the room’s interior, it’s furnishings, the artist’s printmaking tools and her working arrangement – offer insight into Groblicka’s motivations and the personal history that grounds her practice.
Groblicka is pictured bare foot and cross-legged as she works on a woodblock cradled in her lap. She is warmed by the winter sun that filters through the window of her economically furnished bedroom studio,(1) nestled at the base of the Adelaide Hills, where the artist resided for some 45 years. Groblicka is seated on a thin mat and folded blanket that cushions her from the timber floorboards. Behind her is a day bed clothed with a lion-patterned throw and covered in layers of papers and prints. More paper rests in neat piles on the floor while open tool boxes and a coffee cup sit at arms reach. Groblicka is the only family member home and her bedroom studio door is locked to protect her intimate printmaking rituals and to contain her tenuous memories of her homeland, Poland.(2) With carving tool in hand the artist makes decisive incisions and gouges along the grain of a block of wood, which will become one of many images of home and a sense of place, or of loneliness and displacement, or of human connection to the natural world.
If we consder one of the signifiers in the photograph – the carving tool – we can trace the journey of the artist’s life through The Great Depression, World War II, her studies in fine art and her migration to London, then Adelaide, and the parallel unfolding of her artistic intent.
The small carving tool is one of a handful from a toolbox that travelled with Groblicka over a great distance – it was obtained in Poland during her studies at the Krakow Academy of Fine Arts between 1951 and 1957. Krakow however was not Groblicka’s birthplace. Born in Żółkiew, Poland in 1933 during the frugality and hardship of The Great Depression, Groblicka then grew up in Krzemieniec where her parents taught at the highly regarded Krzemieniec Lyceum, an educational institution of which her botanist father was Professor of Natural History and who first inspired in Groblicka an everlasting love for the natural world. Groblicka’s family endured the 1939 invasion of Poland by Germany and then the Soviet Union, and the subsequent annexation of the country. By 1944, acutely aware of the growing disappearance of neighbours and locals in the community, they fled to Nowy Sącz of southern Poland, which provided comparative sanctuary for the family to continue with their lives.(3)
Krakow, near Nowy Sącz is a Polish city at the base of the Carpathian Mountains, the second biggest mountain range next to the Alps. It was against this sublime backdrop of granite peaks with stone pine treelines, and alongside the aftermath of the atrocities of war, that Groblicka gained technical skills in drawing and printmaking. She also studied Polish folk art at the Academy under the tutelage of Roman Reinfuss (one of the leading Polish ethnographers of the time), which proved to be a significant influence of the development of Groblicka’s later work.
The small carving tool then travelled with Groblicka to London in 1958. She married, gave birth to a child, and braved the social isolation and personal upheaval brought about by migration to a foreign land, particularly the confined urban environment of London, which conflicted with her familiarity and love of the forests and mountains that surrounded her various homes in Poland.(4) Groblicka moved with her husband, child – and small carving tool – in 1965 to Australia, settling briefly in Sydney before moving to Adelaide in 1966.(5) Her sense of alienation and rootlessness intensified with the relocation as well as the suburban sprawl of Adelaide and its dry, hot summers. Groblicka’s ruptured connection to home and place both fuelled and gave purpose to her art-making.
Carved in Adelaide with her precious Polish tools, and possibly on her favourite pear tree wood (also brought from abroad), the woodcut Sun tree (1972)(6) evokes a vision of a child’s tree-house with its child-like yet sophisticated rendering. In this symmetrically balanced print composed with one-dimensional, linear patterning, Groblicka nestles a miniature home – made up of a house, tree and fence – like a nest into a sturdy tree. Its large protective branches display fur-like leaves reminiscent of Poland’s naturally occurring coniferous trees such as the silver fir or Norway spruce. In this idyllic home scene the sun shines larger than life, with one stray ray of light morphing into a leaf or a bird’s feather. But is this a happy picture? The composition is spare and flat yet in some ways it contains a deep emptiness emphasized by the hard-edged black and white boundaries and absence of colour and tonal variety. At either side of the dominant tree is a cat and bird, creatures of the domestic sphere and of the forest respectively, and Groblicka’s companions during her experiences of isolation in Adelaide.(7) The cat’s tail appears to transform into a tree root, tunneling into the earth’s substrate, whilst the bird’s tail, like the sun’s appendage, is both the shape of a feather or leaf. Here animal, tree, earth and human life interconnect. Are the animals and tree protectors of the home? Are they benevolent forests fairies of Polish folklore in disguise? Is this the part-imagined, part-remembered connection to place that Groblicka constantly pursues, warmed by the sun, sheltered by the tree, loved by the animals, and grounded by roots held in the earth?
Inside the tiny home one might imagine a family going about their day whilst precariously balanced in the treetop. In Mother’s tree (1972), a young woman with broad, exposed feet that long for solid ground, is perched, like the house, atop a tree trunk. The figure holds a crying baby with her stumpy, ink-stained hands that echo the dark branches simultaneously reaching out for her. How high and solitary does she stand? No horizon is visible. Is she surrounded by a wall of crisp alpine mist? Maybe Mother's tree is an interior version of Sun tree, or its mirror imprint, a reflection mimicking the image reversal of the printmaking process? This picture might symbolise rebirth, a new beginning in a new home, or maybe it conjures up an image of the Virgin Mary, who in Polish mythology was known to reside in the sacred Linden tree – for this dark silhouette of a tree is not that of the eucalypt which surrounded Groblicka in her Adelaide foothills home.
Groblicka’s unity and geometrisation of forms, her use of rhythm, repetition and symmetry, as well as her symbolic treatment of human, plant and animal figures, reveals the influence of Polish folk art, where a similar methodology is applied to crafts such as paper cut-outs, decorated eggs, tapestries and religious woodblock prints. It is in this realm of Polish folk art that Groblicka finds further solace and connection to her motherland.
After Groblicka carves her image into the woodblock, she then rolls on black ink, and lays a delicate, almost translucent sheet of bone-coloured Japanese paper on top. Using a section of pig rib bone,(8) she rubs the back of the paper. Ink is transferred to reveal the final image that speaks unapologetically of vulnerability and the strong roots that guide us back home.
Conversation with Marcin Groblicki, 17 May 2017.
Conversation with Roman Groblicki, 30 May 2017.
Adam Dutkiewicz, Lidia Groblicka – surburban iconographer: a printmaker’s view of life from Poland to Australia, Moon Arrow, Adelaide, 2010, p 37.
Dutkiewicz, p 38.
Elspeth Pitt, Lidia Groblicka: black + white, catalogue essay, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2012.
The artist’s proof, The children’s tree (1972), was renamed Sun tree for the final edition.
Dianne Longley, ‘Lidia Groblicka: a profile’, Imprint, vol 26, no 4, 1991, p 1.
Longley, p 1.