Franciszka Themerson at l’étrangère

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Avant-garde in its truest sense is an appellation that can be justifiably given to the artist, illustrator, film-maker, publisher, theatre and book designer, Franciszka Themerson, who is being celebrated with a solo exhibition of her paintings, drawings and calligrammes at l’étrangère gallery in London. Throughout her life, both in her own practice and in collaboration with her husband, writer, poet, film-maker, publisher, Stefan Themerson, she experimented with different art forms and approaches, often inventing new methods and forms along the way and continually sought to reflect and analyse the world around her. Her intent focus on always being forward-looking, which she shared with her husband, is seemingly wonderfully compounded in Wiktoria Szymanska’s film about the couple, Themerson and Themerson, in which the narration explains, ‘they don’t remember how they met’.

However they met, Franciszka was 22 at the time and studying graphic arts and painting at Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts. In 1930 they collaborated on their first experimental short film, Pharmacy. She had previously studied piano at the Warsaw Conservatory. Music and art were both a part of her formative years, her father, Jakub Weinles was a painter, her mother, Łucja, a pianist, her older sister, Maryla, a graphic artist and illustrator of children’s books, and music continued to be an influence and inspiration in Franciszka’s work throughout her life. In 1931 she graduated with the highest distinction, and in the same year she and Stefan married and produced their second film, Europa, a visual interpretation of a futurist poem written in 1925 by Anatol Stern.

With each of the five short films they produced during the 1930s, which also included, Moment Musical (1933), Short Circuit (1935), and The Adventure of a Good Citizen (1937), they used experimental techniques which developed out of their improvisations with photograms. Many of the images in the films were made on a ‘trick table’ which Stefan had created, on which objects were placed on a piece of tracing paper over a sheet a glass, lit from above and shot frame by frame from below. In addition to film-making they were also founders of the Film-makers’ Cooperative in Warsaw and published its magazine, f.a. (Film Artistique), of which Stefan was the editor and Franciszka the art director. Also during this period Franciska worked extensively as an illustrator both for periodicals and also illustrating many children’s books, mainly written by Stefan.

Double-flute (third version), c.1955 © Themerson Estate, courtesy of l’étrangère
Double-flute (third version), c.1955 © Themerson Estate, courtesy of l’étrangère

In the winter of 1937-1938, the couple moved to Paris, feeling the pull to be at the heart of the avant-garde art world. ‘There was no sense of escaping from Warsaw, I simply knew I had to be in Paris,’ co-curator of the Themerson Archive, Nick Wadley, recalls Stefan telling him, that it was ‘a sort of Mecca’. Their decision was centred on moving forward with their artwork, but with the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the outbreak of World War II they had expeditiously, albeit unconsciously, escaped Warsaw. Although the war also curtailed their creative plans. Both Franciszka and Stefan enlisted in the Polish Army in France. Stefan joined a Polish infantry regiment and Franciszka was seconded to the Polish government-in-exile’s Ministry of Information and Documentation as a cartographer.

They were separated during the Battle for France in 1940. Franciszka was evacuated to London on a troop ship, but it took Stefan a further two years to find a way to escape occupied France and join her. During this time, as Wiktoria Szymanska’s film records, ‘they remained connected through unposted drawings, diaries, letters’.

Although to a certain degree they had moved on from film with their departure from Warsaw, after their reunion in London they made two films for the film unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation. The first, Calling Mr Smith (1943), is a 10-minute anti-war film which is, as Wadley describes, ‘an explicit protest — moral, not nationalistic — against the systematic destruction of Polish culture by the Nazis (outspoken enough to be refused by the British censor)’. The second film, The Eye and The Ear (1944), underscores Franciszka’s musical inspirations — featuring four songs by Julian Tuwim set to music by Karol Szymanowski translated into abstract images. This was a quest to create a visual equivalent of music.

Similarly, in 1948 when the Themersons founded their own publishing company, Gaberbocchus Press, they sought to explore and create a visual expression of the content of each publication through highly innovative design. Franciszka was the art director and illustrator of many of the books and Stefan was the editor. As with all their projects they were not seeking to conform. Their avowed intent was to produce ‘best-lookers not best-sellers’ and to be a ‘vehicle for introducing new ideas’. Initially they printed the books by hand in their flat in Randolph Avenue in the West London area of Maida Vale, where they lived for the rest of their lives. But as the press developed the titles were professionally printed and their office was in nearby Formosa Street. Gaberbocchus Press had also two other directors: the painter, Gwen Barnard, and the translator, Barbara Wright.

During the 31 years that the Themersons ran the press they published 60 titles including the first English translations of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, Raymond Queneau, Pol Dives, and works by Kurt Schwitters, Bertrand Russell, C. H. Sisson and Stevie Smith. From 1957 to 1959 in the Formosa Street basement they also ran the Gaberbocchus Common Room, ‘a congenial place where artists and scientists and people interested in science and art can meet and exchange thoughts’. There were talks, readings, music performances and film screenings. Subjects included science, mathematics, cybernetics, art and poetry.

It was also at the Common Room in 1957 that Franciszka gave her talk which was later published in Art News and Review as Bi-Abstract Pictures. In the talk she spoke about how in London in the 1940s, with all the tragedy and drama of war that had unfolded, she had to reinvent herself as an artist. She wanted to find a way to express ‘the undefinable drama between the order of nature and the inherent disorder of the human condition’. In wanting to reflect the world around her she was, as Wadley says, ‘torn between resorting to cool abstract paintings on the one hand and, on the other, making comic drawings of the world of the bowler-hatted businessmen with whom she mixed in the world of printing and publishing, and who called her Mrs T.’

Then she hit upon combining the two in a visual language she called bi-abstraction. As she explained in her talk, ‘every new abstract picture of mine had its human inhabitants’. She continued: ‘every picture now carried within its space the geometry of conflict built of two kinds of abstractions […] One an abstraction of this strange universe in which we find ourselves trapped, expressed by space arrangements, intersecting surfaces, geometrical shapes, and two an abstraction of what we see and know about the human body, human emotions, human behaviour. I had finally found the visual language I had been looking for to explore and express reality as I experience it’.

Drawing is also fundamental to Franciszka’s visual language. In a letter she wrote to Stefan whilst they were separated by the war she wrote, ‘I’ve acquired a special taste for the line’. As Wadley explains, ‘she invented ways of painting that allowed her to draw in any number of different ways, with dripped paint, with knives, sticks and most often with her fingers and thumbs’.

These recurring motifs are encapsulated in her works being shown in the exhibition, Franciszka Themerson: Lines and Thoughts, at l’étrangère gallery, which is co-curated by the gallery’s director, Joanna Mackiewicz-Gemes, and former l’étrangère curator now an assistant curator at the Serpentine Gallery, Joseph Constable. At the heart of the exhibition are three paintings which she completed in 1972, Coil Totem, A Person I Know, and Piétons Apocalypse. This is the first time since 1975 that the paintings have been exhibited together. In their merging and dissolving forms and almost monochrome palette, which they share with her paintings from the 1960s, these works are also reminiscent of the films that the couple made in the 1930s. Boundaries between different artforms dissolve in the work of the Themersons.

Piétons Apocalypse, 1972 © Themerson Estate, courtesy of l’étrangère
Piétons Apocalypse, 1972 © Themerson Estate, courtesy of l’étrangère

That said with their cut, scratched and gouged lines Franciszka’s paintings reflect and satirise society’s inhumanity, mindlessness, and conformism in a far more violent way than her drawings, in which there is a lightness of touch and delicacy of line. Although both are united by rhythmic composition, which again attests to her muscial talent and passion. Indeed, one of the series of drawings included in the exhibition features musicians and was intended for a book, Mind the Music, that Franciszka planned but never published.

One of the books that they did publish, Ubu Roi, also served to dissolve more ‘art boundaries’ for Franciszka. In 1952 she designed papier-mâché masks for a dramatised reading at the ICA in London, and then in 1963 she designed a production of Ubu Roi for the Marionetteatern in Stockholm, and three years later the costumes and sets for their production of The Threepenny Opera. In 1968 combining both her long experience and practice in graphic art and her more recent work in the theatre, she designed the graphics and setting of the exhibition, Cybernetic Serendipty, at the ICA. Throughout the 1960s she also taught at Wimbledon School of Art and Bath Academy of Art.

With such a prolific and innovative body of work it is surprising that Franciszka and also Stefan are not far more widely known. ‘They did not care or bother about promoting themselves and were not pursuing a market recognition’, says Joanna Mackiewicz-Gemes, ‘they were simply focused on their creative work and were satisfied with the recognition among the artists and intellectuals who were close to them’. Following on from the Camden Arts Centre exhibition, Franciszka & Stefan Themerson: Books, Camera, Ubu, earlier this year, Mackiewicz-Gemes hopes that her exhibition ‘may be another step in the right direction to gain them the recognition they deserve’, and she adds that it is ‘important to note that one of Franciszka’s paintings has also recently been added to the Tate collection of works by the Themersons’. Their works are also included in the collections of the British Museum, British Film Institute, and Victoria and Albert Museum.

Such a multi-disciplinary practice is often considered to be a modern thing, indeed so much of the moment does Franciszka’s and also Stefan’s work seem that it in some ways it is a shock to note that she died in 1988 at the age of 81, followed by Stefan two months later. Both the innovation of their work and their resistance to conformity make them seem very much of the moment. ‘It is the market that wants definition and recognisable style, iconic works, and defined practice to maintain collector’s interest,’ says Mackiewicz-Gemes,‘it is great to see that many contemporary artists are increasingly subverting this definition and limitation of their practice, shunning pigeonholing and pushing the boundaries of their own work. To them artists like Franciszka Themerson are an inspiration’. So, it is wonderful that in looking back upon and celebrating an artist whose raison d’être was to always look forward, we too are looking forward.

By Guy Sangster-Adams


Interlocking Profiles, 1986 © Themerson Estate, courtesy of l’étrangère
Interlocking Profiles, 1986 © Themerson Estate, courtesy of l’étrangère

l’étrangère
Franciszka Themerson: Lines and Thoughts
Paintings, drawings, calligrammes
4 November – 16 December 2016