Avant-garde Geniuses

Stefan Themerson

Stefan Themerson

Franciszka and Stefan Themerson are worth remembering both for their artistic achievements and for the interesting Polish-British cultural link their life and work provided. Pioneers of pre-war avant-garde in Poland and active members of London’s intellectual circles after the war, the Themersons left a vast archive of work, which weighs 3.5 tonnes, occupies 40 square metres and recently arrived in 209 boxes at Poland’s National Library. Franciszka was a painter, graphic artist, illustrator as well as theatrical stage and costume designer. Stefan was a writer, poet, philosopher, composer and experimentalist. Together they made films, published a magazine and books which continue to delight and animate cultural life. They unmade the divisions between art forms and, shunning grandiloquent ideological manifestos, opted for pure nonsense and the grotesque. Stefan Themerson wrote about himself: “I have made six or seven avant-garde films, but I am neither a director nor a camera man. I have published some twenty books for children, but I am not a true adult author of books for children. I have written about art, but I am no art historian. I have composed an opera, but I am not a musician. I have invented a series of novels, but they are not quite normal and I do not know whether or not that is actually a quibble about them. Grammatically, I think I am not a noun at all. I am a verb. I am happening right now and in the end I will stop happening. These are characteristics of a verb, not of a noun. I find it very hard to explain what I mean, because our language is built upon nouns rather than verbs.” During the war Franciszka managed to get to London. Stefan was only able to join her there two years later. The film they made soon after, “Calling Mr. Smith”, was to give people in the UK an idea of the Nazi oppression in occupied Europe. Gaberbocchus Press, established by the Themersons in 1948, specialised in intellectual avant-garde texts. It also saw Alfred Jarry, Heinrich Heine, Raymond Queneau and Anatol Stern translated into English for the first time. Care of the highest editing and typographic quality coupled with unusual graphical solutions and novel ways of combining texts with illustrations were the publisher’s hallmark. Stefan Themerson’s books, originally written in Polish, English or French and illustrated by Franciszka, still make great reading. “The Mystery of the Sardine”, published in Polish as “Euklides był osłem”, or “Professor Mmaa’s Lecture”, where the protagonist is a termite scholar studying humans, are just two examples of Themerson’s deviously funny and thought-provoking texts.

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