– Spring/Summer 2016

Themerson & Themerson

David Morris

Performance view, ‘Kung Ubu’, Marionetteatern, Stockholm, 1964, designed by Franciszka Themerson. All images courtesy the Themerson Estate, London

S. would later say that at times he truly could not remember who did what.1 Although the things they did often look quite separate – after the war F. mostly made pictures, S. mostly wrote – the long collaboration of their lives is enough reason to dispense with the usual distinctions between biographies. ‘S. (text) and F. (drawings) Themerson’, S. writes in the unpublished introduction to their Semantic Divertissements (1962); the cover simply reads: ‘Themerson & Themerson’.

Stefan and Franciszka Themerson met in 1929 and began to produce films, the earliest of which have been credited as the first Polish abstract films.2 As part of an active community of post-Constructivist artists and film-makers they co-founded a film-makers’ co-operative and ran its journal (f.a.), while also producing a number of children's books, and in 1938 they moved to Paris (then the acknowledged centre of the art world). The outbreak of the War punctured this picture. Following several years of displacement and confusion they were reunited in London in 1942, where they made two more films with the Polish Film Unit. Then, the possibilities of making further films evaporated. They founded a publishing house, Gaberbocchus Press, which they ran in London for thirty

  1. Nick Wadley paraphrasing Stefan Themerson in ‘On fathers, wet-nurses and wars’, in E.S. Schaffer (ed.), Comparative Criticism 12, Representations of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990, p.257. Unless otherwise noted, quotations are taken from documents held in the Themerson Archive, London and Warsaw.

  2. See A.L. Rees, ‘The Themersons and the Polish Avant-Garde: Warsaw – Paris – London’, PIX 1, Winter 1993–94, p.86.

  3. N. Wadley paraphrasing S. Themerson, in ‘On fathers, wet-nurses and wars’, op. cit., p.257.

  4. ‘Because, when all is said and done, Decency of Means is the Aim of aims.’ S. Themerson, ‘The Chair of Decency’ (1981), in Pedro Cid Proença (ed.), A Circular 1, London: Cubitt Gallery, 2011, p.12.

  5. They met when Acker was in London during the 1980s; she was the basis for one of the characters in Stefan Themerson’s last book, Hobson’s Island (London: Faber & Faber, 1988).

  6. S. Themerson, quoted in N. Wadley, ‘On fathers, wet-nurses and wars’, op. cit., p.253.

  7. S. Themerson, The Urge to Create Visions, Amsterdam: Gaberbocchus and De Harmonie, 1983, p.37.

  8. S. Themerson, letter to Ernest Lindgren, 1957; and letter to Bruno Alfieri, 14 April 1963.

  9. Edward Lucie-Smith, ‘Foreword', in Traces of Living: Drawings by Franciszka Themerson, London: Gaberbocchus, 1969, unpaginated; see also F. Themerson, ‘Bi-Abstract Pictures’, in The Drawings of Franciszka Themerson, Amsterdam: Gaberbocchus and De Harmonie, 1991, pp.20–31.

  10. Quoted in ibid.

  11. N. Wadley, ‘Lines From Life’, in The Drawings of Franciszka Themerson, op. cit., p.13.

  12. S. Themerson, ‘Before Publication’, typescript; first published in P. Cid Proença with Fatima Hellberg (ed.), A Circular 3, London: Cubitt Gallery, 2015, p.5. A few years later, J.L. Austin would propose something similar to Semantic Poetry’s dictionary methodology. See J.L. Austin, ‘A Plea for Excuses' (1956), available at http://www.ualberta.ca/~francisp/NewPhil448/AustinPlea56.pdf (last accessed on 17 February 2016).

  13. Quoted in Jasia Reichardt, ‘The Story of PIN’, in Raoul Hausmann, J. Reichardt and Kurt Schwitters, PIN and the Story of PIN, London: Gaberbocchus, 1962, p.8.

  14. As noted in the unpublished introduction: ‘In 1946, when ballpoint pens appeared, she, to try out this new tool, drew a series of line- situational- compositions.’

  15. F. and S. Themerson, Semantic Divertissements, London: Gaberbocchus, 1962, p.7.

  16. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century 1914–1991, London: Abacus, 1995, pp.525 and 530.

  17. ‘...by which the twentieth century will be remembered as an age of human progress and not primarily of human tragedy’. Ibid., p.557.

  18. Gaberbocchus Common Room leaflet, 1957.

  19. E. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, op. cit., p.527.

  20. S. Themerson, letter to PEN Committee for Writers in Exile, 29 January 1951.

  21. Factor T (1956) developed from a series of exchanges with Bertrand Russell in the 1950s, and the term unexpectedly reappears in Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateux (A Thousand Plateaus, 1980) via their conceptualisation of the refrain: ‘The T factor, the territorialising factor, must be sought ... precisely in the becoming-expressive of rhythm or melody, in other words, in the emergence of proper qualities (colour, odor, sound, silouhette...).’ Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (trans. Brian Massumi), London: Continuum, 2004, p.348.

  22. S. and F. Themerson, Peddy Bottom, London and Amsterdam: Gaberbocchus and De Harmonie, 2003, p.5.

  23. S. Themerson, letter to Aleksander Ford, October 1945.

  24. See S. Themerson, ‘The Chair of Decency’, op. cit.

  25. Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London: Verso, 2012, p.129.