‘And so, out of the turmoil of the early twenties, a new art was born. In those seemingly “non-representational” pictures, the bits of reality literally stuck, nailed, glued into them, represented the outsider world as much as a pink shape in Hogarth’s represented English Beef,’ wrote Stefan Themerson in 1967. Although the passage was written with Kurt Schwitters – with whom the Polish artist felt a lifelong affinity – in mind, it captures well the sense of humour and history that became the trademark of the work of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. ‘The Themersons and the Avant-Garde’ follows the turbulent paths of these Jewish-Polish artists across decades, countries, languages and media.
In the early 1930s, Stefan and his new wife Franciszka began experimenting with film, taking the concept of the photogram and photomontage into the realm of the motion picture. He had a background in physics and architecture; she was a painter fresh out of the Warsaw academy. While most of their cinematic output disappeared during World War II, it was ambitious enough to earn them a name in Polish filmmaking circles, through their collaboration with other artists, and through organized screenings of their work along with that of Western experimental filmmakers. Among the many original stills on display in this exhibition are shots from Europa (1931–2), a film based on a Futurist poem – a symbolic medley of objects and characters presenting the continent as a ravenous, unreflective biological organism. This exploration of relations between image and text became a defining element of the duo’s practice. In a contemporary response to this section of the show, the artist Wojciech Pus´ developed FC13 (2013), an installation of Polaroid photographs, an audio recording on vinyl and a neon sign, imitating historical remains of a non-existent film work that could have been made decades earlier.
The outbreak of World War II found the Themersons in Paris, where they hoped to settle, attracted by the still-vibrant artistic life. Nonetheless, they both enlisted in the Polish Army in the West and parted, only to meet again in 1942. This episode is represented in the exhibition by Franciszka’s series of drawings ‘Unposted Letters’ (1940–42), a deeply intimate visual account of London during the Blitz.The Themersons’ reunion in the UK marked a new chapter in their biographies. In 1948 they founded Gaberbocchus Press, a home-run publishing company that took its name from the Latin version of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Jabberwocky’ (1871), and which they ran until 1979. Gaberbocchus, which quickly became known for offering ‘best-lookers’ as opposed to bestsellers, released a string of first English editions by major European artists and writers, including Schwitters, Alfred Jarry and Bertrand Russell. These were typically illustrated with Franciszka’s distinct, fine-lined drawings. Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1951) became perhaps their biggest success. Later, Franciszka designed a series of sombre, life-size papier-mâché masks (1951–2), works for a puppet theatre performance (1963–4), as well as her own comic-book version of the play (1967–70).
Aside from providing an overview of Gaberbocchus’s publishing activity, the exhibition highlights some of the lesser-known aspects of the Themersons’ practice, including a group of playful, vividly coloured drawings by Stefan from his 1970s ‘Stefanographs’ series – whose forms resemble Spirograph shapes – and a large selection of paintings made by Franciszka from the 1950s to the ’70s which, as if by contrast, are muted, almost monochromatic, their lines cut or scratched into heavy impasto. Also on view are Stefan’s surrealistic objects. Scattered throughout the rooms, they appear in the most unexpected places, such as Hanging Object (undated) – an old-fashioned hygrometer, dangling precariously from the museum’s own digital instrument for humidity control – or Hanging Object (The Sexual Symbolism of the American Automobile) (1959) – a broken vinyl record of the eponymous lecture by S.I. Hayakawa glued onto a wooden panel, with a piece of plastic string and a squeeze puff that once rested on the display table with the Themersons’ books.
The publishing company also offered Stefan an opportunity to develop his own ideas. Apart from writing children’s books and novellas, he explored the field of poetry and its visual implications. In Man is a Reed, part of their ‘Semantic Divertissements’ series (1942–62), Franciszka’s delicate drawing of a man with a cane standing amidst a clump of elongated, wind-blown shrubs, is accompanied by a typically humorous caption: ‘Five configurations of black lines representing five entities bending forward in order to emphasize the stability of four configurations of black lines representing five entities stretching upwards’.
These poetic experiments built upon the heritage of the German Dadaists. While Raoul Hausmann’s ‘Poster Poems’ and Schwitters’ collages (also featured here) aimed to free language from mental clichés, Stefan’s ‘Semantic Poetry’ focused on the inherent meaning of words. In both cases, however, the visual element is clearly present. Speaking of Schwitters, whom Stefan befriended in London and whose selection of poems and prose he published, he declared Schwitters was ‘born a rebel, died a lyrical poet’. The same might be said of themselves.