Leopoldine, or “Poldi” Mimovich, as she was better known, was born in 1920 in Neumarkt in the Italian Tyrol .
She was to become one of Australia’s established and much loved sculptors, creating pieces in wood and bronze, as well as producing paintings and etchings.
Poldi was the second of five children. Her father, Franz Deflorian, was an interior decorator. Two years after her birth, her family moved to the small village of Sankt Johann in the Pongau region of Austria (now part of Italy).
At an early age, Poldi’s talents were recognised by the local school master, Ernst Buhlmann, who encouraged her to consider art school. The family’s financial situation prevented this, so aged 14, Poldi left school and became an apprentice to her father who taught her gilding, sign-writing and stencil work.
She met her first husband, Othmar Vockner, a professional soldier, when she was 16. At the outbreak of the war he was sent to the front in Poland, Greece, and finally Russia where he died in February 1941.
Poldi continued to work with her father until 1940 when she moved to Vienna. There she enrolled at art school under the well-known Austrian Professor Gusty Mundt-Amman who taught her the technical aspects of clay modelling and drawing.
In 1943 Mundt-Amman arranged a place for Poldi to study sculpture at the college of Religious Art in Hallstadt, studying under Professor Rothboeck.
In 1944 the school was closed by the Nazis and Poldi was conscripted to work for the German war effort as an accountant in a munitions factory. Here Poldi met the noted Viennese sculptor Professor Herman Musger, also assigned to the factory, whose influence and night-time drawing lessons proved invaluable to Poldi as a young artist.
After the war, Poldi she resumed her studies in Hallstadt, graduating in 1947 as a qualified teacher with a Diploma of Art.
In 1948, Poldi married Ljubisa (Leo) Mimovich, a stateless Serbian officer who had been a prisoner of the Gestapo, near Leopoldine’s village. When the couple were married Poldi lost her Austrian citizenship and so had to emigrate, joining the thousands of displaced persons
Initially Poldi and Lou applied to migrate to America, where Poldi’s aunt was living. However, their application took a long time to process, so they also applied to migrate to Australia, and decided to accept whichever application was approved first.
They travelled to Australia in 1949 on the ship, MV Skaugum. Poldi’s limited luggage contained the tools of her trade rather than cutlery and other household goods.
She was part of a group of immigrant artists that brought with them from Europe a diverse array of talent, thereby contributed to Australia a new and a flourishing artistic sensibility for art, literature, drama and music.
On the ocean journey to Australia, Poldi became extremely ill, and her first years in Australia were characterised by struggle.
Poldi and Leo were initially sent to the Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre in Northern Victoria which Poldi found bleak, suffering homesickness and the frustration of being unable to practice her craft.
She recalled in an interview in 1992: ‘it was very, very boring in Bonegilla. When the luggage came after a fortnight, I had two masks in there. We went to the official and I said I would give him a mask if he put us on the transport to Melbourne a bit earlier. We knew that you went to Melbourne to work, so then we could begin a normal life’.
The camp official accepted the carving and Poldi and Leo were transferred to the Royal Park Migrant Camp in Melbourne. Like many European immigrants in those post-war years the Mimovich’s were given identity cards and were required to work for two years in menial employment regardless of their qualifications. Leopoldine was assigned to the Pelaco shirt factory and Lou at Hoffman’s brickworks.
At the Pelaco factory, Poldi’s sympathetic employer, saw her drawings, and gave Poldi an early release to pursue her sculpting career. For a time she worked as a furniture carver for Myer, and privately on commissions that slowly came her way.
Although Poldi experienced serious set-backs through illness, she managed to gain recognition in carving, moulding and painting.
Poldi and Leo eventually purchased a house at 33 Miller Road, Kew, in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs where she set up her studio and undertook commissions which reflected her Austrian traditions and Catholic background.
During her very long life, Poldi made, became well known for her many sculptures of children and religious subjects, made in both wood and bronze. Poldi was interested to adopt local materials and some of her pieces are carved in Huon Pine, Red Silkwood, and Silver Quondong.
She established herself as an accomplished sculptor, and over time her pieces, whilst reflecting her Austrian origins, 20th Century European traditions, and Catholic background, evolved into a distinctive, impressionistic and modern style that was characterized by free- flowing form, strong facial features, and an extraordinary tenderness of expression.
Poldi’s works are represented in numerous homes and private collections, churches, convents, schools, libraries, public buildings, and gardens around Australia. Her pieces can also be found in Timor-Leste, England, the United States, Germany, Japan, Korea, Honolulu and New Guinea. Mimovich’s crucifixes also grace the walls of the Mawson Inter-Denominational chapel in the Antarctic and the United Nations building in New York.
From her Miller Road studio and home in Kew, Poldi also made and sold wedding, baptismal and first communion gifts, offering specialist commissions and a beautiful, handmade alternative to the other mass-produced religious images that were made in Pellegrini plaster.
Poldi retained a strong connection and friendship with the Good Sam’s who collected her works over many years.
Poldi was the recipient of numerous awards, and in 1985 she received an Order of Australia Medal for her services to sculpture, and the certificate of Merit for Distinguished Achievement from the World Who’s Who.
Ten beautiful sculptures by Mimovich, on a secular theme, can be found scattered through the Alexandra Gardens in Kew, Victoria. The gardens were only a short walk away from her home and studio. The sculptures, given by Poldi in 1990 to the city of Melbourne, include groups of children, a girl with a rabbit, a woman, and a seated man with a long beard that flows over his foot. Examples of her sculptures can also be found in the Kew Library.
In 1996 Poldi’s experience as a post-war migrant was told in an episode of the SBS series “Tales from a Suitcase”.
In 2014, Mimovich’s house caught fire as she dozed in her reclining armchair. She was rescued, unharmed, by three neighbours, but many of her sculptures were smoke damaged.
When Poldi was no longer able to manage the physical demands of sculpture, she remained creative and painted icons.
Leopoldine passed away on Christmas Day, 25 December 2019 in the arms of her daughter, Gabrielle. She was 99 years old.
The following year, in December 2020, two of her religious paintings were released on Australia Post Christmas stamps. The designs combined the religious iconography of a Madonna and child surrounded by a delightful array of Australian native fauna and flora, which illustrated Poldi’s desire to adapt traditional Christian images to Australian life and create a home-grown religious art culture that was not derivative of a ‘holy picture’ – evidence of her love of her adopted land.