‘This short film is an experiment designed to use the medium of the screen to create for the eye an impression comparable to that experienced by the ear.’ While the caption scrolls upwards, a soprano sings from Karol Szymanowski’s Słopiewnie cycle. This is The Eye and the Ear (1944), produced by the Polish Film Unit, which operated out of London in the later years of the war. Other films made by the unit were unambiguously propagandist: documentaries about Polish soldiers and pilots stationed in Britain, happily integrated, sharing in the Allied war effort. The Eye and the Ear is an anomaly: ostensibly apolitical and avowedly experimental, with techniques – layering, photograms, animation – drawn from the avant-garde. As the opening text fades, a series of black and white images of droplets appear, radiating waves that are sped up, slowed down, superimposed. The shadow of a hand enters the frame, circles of light bulging as its fingers break the water’s surface.
The effect is hard to parse. It looks surreal but it isn’t: rather, the film is an attempt to find some congruence between the visual and the aural, to make them mutually translatable. As the opening song concludes, a male voice takes over with the crisp pronunciation of mid-1940s public information broadcasts: ‘In our [next] song, we have essayed a purely mental combination by assigning to each instrument a geometrical form that changes in shape according to the pitch of the note. For instance, each note of the violin is marked by the varying height of its corresponding symbol, the triangle.’ Translation of a sort, then, but also a kind of impossible scientificity. Pataphysics, perhaps: the science of imaginary solutions.
The film was made by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, two Polish refugees newly arrived in London. Towards the end of his life, Stefan gave an interview for German television. ‘I have written some twenty books for children, but I’m not a real grown-up author of children’s books,’ he explains, trying to sum up his work. ‘I have written a few novels, but these novels are not quite normal, and I don’t know if I am a novelist … I have made some six or seven films, avant-garde films, but I am not a film director or a cameraman.’ For the Themersons, and for Stefan in particular, there was always something in between about their achievements. Translators and publishers of the European avant-garde, mediators between science and literature, music and film: if anything defines their work, it’s the idea of transit, a quixotic alchemy that tries to turn one thing into another even when the conversion is intrinsically nonsensical. As the late art critic Nick Wadley – co-editor of The Themerson Archive Catalogue, along with his wife (and Franciszka’s niece) Jasia Reichardt – puts it, they ‘celebrated the destruction of boundaries between things’.
Franciszka was born in Warsaw in 1907. She came into the world, her parents’ friends liked to say, with a pencil in her hand. Her father, Jakub Weinles, was a painter who gave life-drawing classes in his studio, and Franciszka, aged eight, was allowed to sit in. In her first lesson, as she remembered it, she learned how to sketch the outline of the model’s head at speed, and then to add a single, detailed right eye, in the classical style. She was entranced. In the second, however, as the class learned how to compose the rest of the facial features, she was already disillusioned: the Surrealist spell of that isolated eye was broken. At seventeen, she entered the Warsaw Academy of Art, where she learned technique but not the visual language she was looking for. Three decades later, in a lecture on the development of her style, she would recall a frustration: ‘When, after seven years, I found myself in front of an easel in my own studio, my main problem hadn’t even begun to be solved.’ She worked as an illustrator for children’s books, producing elegant but undistinguished drawings of cats and chickens and kangaroos.
It was with Stefan that she found what she wanted. They met in 1929, when he was a 19-year-old architecture student, though neither would be able to remember exactly where. He was born in Płock, fifty miles west of Warsaw, and over the course of the First World War the family followed his father, a doctor, as the front shifted: Warsaw, Vilnius, St Petersburg, then west again back to Płock. Arriving in the family home he had left four years earlier, Stefan found he had no memory of it. Once, in gym class, he broke his collarbone. Seeing himself in the old-fashioned X-ray machine at the hospital, he had a kind of epiphany. In a memoir he would call it ‘the First Photogram in Motion I had ever seen’. The moving image of his own insides was something he was unable to sort into any of the usual categories. ‘There must be many ways of seeing,’ he wrote. ‘Some discover some bits of nature, and we call them Science. Some create pictures that didn’t exist before, and we call them Art. Some are like my X-ray picture, and it is difficult to distinguish which is which.’ More in-betweenness. A decade later, in the bedroom they shared in Warsaw, Stefan and Franciszka began incorporating X-ray-like photograms in their experimental films, placing objects on a transparent ‘trick table’ – lit from above and filmed from below – where they radiated with a spectral white-on-black glow.
When war broke out again the Themersons were in Paris. Franciszka began work as a cartographer for the Polish government-in-exile. After Paris fell, she and other officials sailed to England on the MS Batory, the Polish liner that would take Roald Dahl to America two years later. Stefan, left behind, enlisted in the Polish 3rd Infantry Division, a Fred Karno’s army, untrained, largely unarmed, and kitted out in the horizon-blue uniforms the French had mothballed twenty years earlier. Three weeks after he joined it, Stefan’s division was chaotically dissolved with an every-man-for-himself order. He spent the next two years as itinerantly as he had spent the previous war: in hiding, on the road, in a Red Cross shelter outside Grenoble. Meanwhile, Franciszka negotiated to secure his passage to Britain.
In an unsent letter to Stefan from late 1940, she describes an encounter with the ‘beautiful nonsensical drawings’ of Edward Lear. ‘I felt electrified,’ she writes, ‘like someone who can suddenly feel the ground alive under her feet again. I cried like a fool looking at those wonderful drawings.’ Now her own line thins as she finds her signature style in the Lear-like semi-doodle. At first the drawings are satirical: pompous men, moustached and bowler-hatted, ‘half Lewis Carroll, half Ionesco’, made absurd by the addition of skipping ropes or propellers for noses. Then the same characters begin to appear in her otherwise abstract, formalist paintings. In Two Bowler-Hatted Gentlemen in an Unexpected Place, the figures, white on white, stand beside a single red square, bringing ‘a strange counterbalance of human silliness and self-importance’, as she put it, to the austerity of the image. Finally, the forms become stranger. Limbs shrink, bodies stretch, faces become fronded or cubist, less comical, more expressive. One critic called them ‘modern cave paintings’, which Franciszka enjoyed. Her own term for these paintings was ‘bi-abstract’: abstracted bodies in an abstract landscape.
When Stefan eventually joined her in London they set up home in Maida Vale. It was here, in 1948, that they launched their publishing house, the Gaberbocchus Press. The name was taken from a translation of ‘Jabberwocky’ into Latin by Carroll’s uncle: the inadvertent Pataphysics of a made-up word carried over into a dead language. In Franciszka’s drawings for the press’s stationery and catalogues, the Gaberbocchus is a louche, penile dragon, masked and smiling, often brandishing a nibbed sword. As with the Woolfs at the Hogarth Press, the early Gaberbocchus productions were of the Themersons’ own work. An essay by Stefan on the Polish artist Jankel Adler – another émigré who had fought with the Polish army in France – was followed by a version of Aesop’s fable ‘The Eagle and the Fox’, devised by Stefan and illustrated by Franciszka, in which the tale is told and then reversed, with the eagle coming out on top. Two more books by Stefan followed, as well as a volume of poetry by Hugo Manning, a Londoner of Polish Jewish extraction.
In 1951, Gaberbocchus published the work for which it remains best known. Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi is bold, cartoonish and archly slapdash, its lead couple resembling the Macbeths reimagined as Roald Dahl’s Twits. Ubu is greedy, cruel, cowardly, oafish – all the sins except lust. His wife is a randy, ambitious grifter. Yeats had been present at the play’s notorious premiere in Paris in 1896, but Barbara Wright’s translation for the Themersons was its first appearance in English. From the opening word – Ubu’s exclamation ‘Shittr!’ (‘Merdre!’ in the original) – Wright captures Jarry’s freewheeling slang perfectly. In its typography, too, the Gaberbocchus edition was attuned to Jarry’s provocations. Printed on bright yellow paper, the book was not typeset but handwritten, in thick italics, directly onto the litho plates. The writing competes for space with Franciszka’s illustrations, which sometimes disregard the text, layering themselves bluntly on top, and sometimes play off it, as a page number, for instance, falls through a trapdoor. Franciszka’s Ubu is soft, Obelix-nosed, with a conical head: part moomin, part Ku Klux Klansman. He looks pitiful, comical, disgusting. One can’t help secretly rooting for him.
Franciszka too found Ubu irresistible, returning to Jarry’s play regularly over the next twenty years. The year after Wright’s translation appeared, a staged read-through was presented at the ICA, the actors wearing Franciszka’s grotesque papier-mâché masks. Mère Ubu becomes a huge cubist squall with fish forks for earrings and crosswords from pulped newspapers still visible on her great sail of a nose. One eye is large and detailed, almond-shaped and kohl-lined, the other little more than a dot, a reminder of that primal frustration with her father’s realist training. In 1964, Franciszka was invited to design a staging of Ubu at Stockholm’s Marionetteatern using life-size puppets. The new props and costumes were starker than the ICA masks, a puritanical black and white, so that the action resembled a moving strip cartoon. The production would spend the next two decades on tour – Germany, Italy, France, Japan, India, Mexico – while Franciszka, at home in Maida Vale, received cuttings, postcards and programmes from the director.
The Gaberbocchus Ubu Roi offered the first clear sign of the press’s defining editorial direction. In the aftermath of the war, Stefan wrote a letter to the Committee of Writers in Exile at International PEN, rejecting the idea of statelessness: ‘Writers are never, writers are nowhere in exile, for they carry within themselves their own kingdom, or republic, or city of refuge, or whatever it is they carry within themselves.’ The Themersons were almost aggressively unsentimental about their own experience of forced migration. With Gaberbocchus, they sought to achieve their own borderless republic of letters, their mission being, in Wadley and Reichardt’s words, ‘to put before British readers important works by European writers that were hitherto unpublished in Britain’. The press’s list would include the poetry of Kurt Schwitters and Anatol Stern, Apollinaire’s calligrammes and the Pataphysics of Jean-Hugues Sainmont, Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, and Song of Bright Misery by Pol-Dives, the Parisian artist in whose home Stefan had hidden from the Nazis in 1940.
Publishing a roster of the avant-garde, along with Stefan’s own philosophically inclined fiction, brought the Themersons into contact with a considerable swathe of London’s cultural elite, as the correspondence contained in The Themerson Archive Catalogue shows. There were the journals and presses – Carcanet, PN Review, Doubleday, Faber & Faber – as well as institutions like the BBC, the Arts Council, the Royal Literary Fund and the ICA. And there were the writers: the Themersons courted J.B. Priestley but he failed to deliver; Edwin Morgan had his poetry rejected; Italo Calvino called in on the couple; B.S. Johnson invited Stefan to the Writers’ Co-Operative. The correspondence file bulges in surprising places, in large part thanks to Stefan’s habit of sending comp copies to anyone who might be interested. Kathy Acker, Gaston Bachelard, Graham Greene, Karl Popper: all responded appreciatively on receiving a Gaberbocchus in the post. Admirers were as likely to be eminently establishment as anti-establishment. Jean Dubuffet invited the Themersons for tea in Provence; the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe offered them a bed for the night if they were ever in Cambridge. Even Prince Philip is here, thanking Stefan for sending a copy of one of his lectures. Philip encloses a lecture of his own, venturing that ‘parts of it seem to fit your thesis.’
Running a small avant-garde press is always a precarious business, however eminent one’s friends. Stefan’s hand-drawn bar chart of monthly sales shows the hits (a reissue of Ubu Roi in 1966) and the misses (Oswell Blakeston’s Fingers in 1964). A good month might mean a hundred books sold. In an interview Stefan was once asked what he felt was Gaberbocchus’s greatest strength. ‘Refusal to conform,’ he said. And its greatest weakness? ‘Refusal to conform.’
Even so, by the mid-1950s Gaberbocchus was doing well enough to be promoted to premises of its own, at 42a Formosa Street, just around the corner from the Themersons’ flat. With the new space, an idea was conceived to open a club, the Gaberbocchus Common Room, whose aim, as ever, would be a kind of mediation: ‘to provide artists and scientists and people interested in both the philosophy of science and the philosophy of art with a congenial place where they can meet and exchange thoughts’. Stefan wanted to give away copies of C.P. Snow’s ‘The Two Cultures’ as a broadsheet manifesto for attendees, but Snow had other publication plans in mind.
The Common Room opened its doors in the summer of 1957. For a subscription of ten shillings or the purchase of four Gaberbocchus titles, members could come in to read the international art journals, order wine and spaghetti, and attend a twice-weekly events programme. The first was a screening that owed a debt to the categoric indeterminacy of the X-ray machine: four short lab films with titles like Photo-Elastic Stress Analysis and High-Speed Film of Drop Formation – avant-garde vignettes, if you wanted to take them that way, or lessons in fluid dynamics. The second soirée was a clavichord recital.
Over the next two years, the Common Room saw Stevie Smith read her poetry, Gwen Barnard lecture on art and Simon Watson Taylor explain Pataphysics. Dudley Moore played the piano one night and Sean Connery paired up with Bernard Bresslaw for a Eugene O’Neill two-hander. The programme may have leaned more towards the arts than the sciences, but the recitals, screenings and read-throughs were interspersed with talks on cybernetics, law reform and planar geometry. Advising one of his scientists on how to speak to a room full of artists, Stefan suggested: ‘It seems to me that the ideal proportions are: ¼ what the audience knows already; ½ what they don’t know but are capable of understanding; ¼ what is too difficult to understand without special qualifications, but what gives a kind of insight and let’s say “couleur locale”.’
One of the Themersons’ long-standing friendships was with Bertrand Russell, who championed Stefan’s literary endeavours and supported the couple’s application for British citizenship. He gifted them the text of The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, a Devil’s Dictionary which, with Franciszka’s cartoons, became one of the press’s bestsellers. For each letter of the alphabet, Russell provided a sly definition: ‘Asinine: What you think’; ‘Jolly: The downfall of our enemies’; ‘Pedant: A man who likes his statements to be true.’ For Russell’s ninetieth birthday, Gaberbocchus published a pamphlet, History of the World in Epitome, containing his slim, aphoristic warning: ‘Since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never refrained from any folly of which he was capable.’ It came illustrated with a pair of cartoons: Adam and Eve with the serpent, and a battle scene with Franciszka’s trademark ludicrous, behatted men. A third image, a photograph, showed the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima.
Stefan was less pessimistic than Russell. In 1981 he was invited to deliver the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, choosing the theme of ‘decency’. A slippery term: morally positive but falling somewhere short of saintliness, too vague to be ideological. But it was ideology, precisely, that Stefan had in his sights. ‘Contrary to what clergymen and policemen want us to believe,’ he wrote, ‘Gentleness is biological and Aggression is cultural, not vice versa.’ The lecture is as good a summation of Stefan’s writing as one could wish for. Morally serious, but stylistically playful, its underlying dynamic is the refusal to decide. Art or science, Russia or Reagan: decency, in Stefan’s eyes, is an act of keeping-in-play, of recognising – or insisting on – the translatability between all things. ‘Perhaps the very essence of Democracy,’ he suggests, ‘stems from the fact that the proportion of wise to stupid, good to bad, rational versus tempestuous, is the same, whether you search among philosophers or priests, poets or peasants, politicians or generals, economists or dockers in the shipyards of Gdańsk.’
Franciszka Themerson died in the summer of 1988; Stefan outlived her by just a few months. After they died, the vast bulk of their working documents – books, manuscripts, notebooks, letters, drawings, photographs, accounts, press clippings, stationery and printed ephemera – was moved to Reichardt and Wadley’s home in Belsize Park. They meticulously catalogued the material, photographing and cross-referencing it, arranging it all into document wallets and ring binders, archive boxes and filing cabinets. This was a working archive, but an informal one. Researchers would make an appointment to consult the papers, then probably end up in the kitchen afterwards drinking peppermint tea. In 2014, the archive found a more formal home at the National Library of Poland. For anyone interested in the mid-century dissemination of the European avant-garde in Britain, but for whom Belsize Park was a more convenient schlep than Warsaw, this catalogue, handsomely presented and wryly annotated, is something to hold on to.