Franciszka and Stefan Themerson

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Franciszka Themerson, 1940.
Stefan Themerson, 1938-39.

Franciszka Themerson was a painter, illustrator, film-maker and stage designer. Stefan Themerson was a poet, novelist, film-maker, composer and philosopher.

Biography[edit]

Franciszka is born 1907 in Warsaw to a painter, Jakub Weinles, and a pianist, Łucja Weinles. 1918-1922 studies at the Warsaw Music Academy, then painting at the Academy of Fine Art in Warsaw (under Tadeusz Pruszkowski), 1931 graduates with great distinction.

Stefan is born 1910 in Płock, Russia, later Poland, to a family of a physician, social reformer and aspiring writer of Jewish descent. Attends Jagiellonka Gymnasium. 1928 moves to Warsaw to study physics at the University of Warsaw, and 1929 architecture at the Warsaw Polytechnic, while spending most of his time working at photography, collage and film-making; never formally left his studies but gradually withdraws to follow his other interests. 1931 marries an art student Franciszka Weinles.

1931-35 they live in Warsaw. Stefan contributes articles to various periodicals and prose and verse to school textbooks and writes at least ten children books which Franciszka illustrated, 'Pan Tom Buduje Dom' [Mr Rouse Builds His House] is still in print in Poland; experiments with photograms. Make five short experimental together, 'Apteka' [Pharmacy] (1930), 'Europa' (1931–1932), 'Drobiazg Melodyjny' [Musical Moment] (1933), 'Zwarcie' [Short Circuit] (1935), and 'Przygoda Czlowieka Poczciwego' [The Adventures of a Good Citizen] (1937); most of them are lost now, but the script for 'Europa' was later published by the Themersons' Gaberbocchus Press, illustrated by surviving stills from the film; and 'Apteka' was remade from descriptions of it when it first appeared, stills and storyboards. 1935 found the SAF film co-operative.

1936 and 1937 the Themersons visit Paris, meeting Moholy-Nagy and other experimental artists, and exhibit films in Warsaw for the first time when they return. 1937 they publish two issues of a review F(ilm) A(rtistique), Stefan as editor, Franciszka as artistic editor; issue 1 (February) on French experimental cinema, issue 2 (March-April) contains the first text of his treatise The Urge to Create Visions [O potrzebie tworzenia widzeń]. Winter 1937 both move to Paris where they found a circle of artists and writers, many Polish, to live among. Stefan writes for Polish school textbooks and for Polish publications in Paris. 1939 he volunteers for the Polish army forming in France.

1940 Stefan is called up into a Polish infantry regiment, just in time for the débacle of the German invasion and the Allies' collapse; June 1940 in St-Nazaire the regiment is disbanded, the officers abandoning their men and the men dispersing where they could; Themerson travels round France, visiting occupied Paris, Toulouse, where through the Polish Red Cross he gets in touch again with Franciszka, who has been working for the Polish Government in Exile as a cartographer and had escaped from Paris to Normandy and then London in 1940. Stefan spends time in refugee camps, works as a farm labourer, and spends over a year in the Polish Red Cross-run Hôtel de la Poste in Voiron; here begins writing 'Professor Mmaa's Lecture' in Polish and writes the long poem 'Croquis dans les Ténèbres' [Sketches in Darkness]. Late 1942 gets across France and Spain via Marseilles to Lisbon where he is flown to Britain by the R.A.F., rejoining his wife and re-enlisting in the Polish army. Spends time with the army in Scotland, where he finishes Professor Mmaa, and then is sent to join the film unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in London. There he and Franciszka make two short films, 'Calling Mr Smith', an account of Nazi atrocities in Poland and 'The Eye and the Ear', inspired by four songs by Szymanowski. 1944 at the PEN club meeting to celebrate the 300th anniversary of John Milton's Areopagitica, he meets Kurt Schwitters, who becomes a close friend until his death; at about the same time meets others who remain close, including Jankel Adler, Julian Trevelyan and Anthony Froshaug. 1944 the Themersons move to Maida Vale, where they live for the rest of their lives.

1948-79 the Themersons publish books through their own Gaberbocchus Press, many of them with Franciszka's illustrations, and sometimes working with the translator Barbara Wright; including works by Guillaume Apollinaire and Kurt Schwitters, the first English translation of Alfred Jarry's 'Ubu Roi', Raymond Queneau's 'Exercises in Style' and 'The Good Citizen's Alphabet' by Bertrand Russell. Publishes his own philosophical discourses on art, film, semantics and ethics; as well as novels, an opera and poems. 1981 delivers the Huizinga Lecture in Leiden, The Netherlands, under the title: 'A Chair of Decency'. Both die 1988 in London.

Films[edit]

    • First photomontage films in 1927.
    • The first successfully completed avant-garde film in Poland was Pharmacy (Apteka, 1930, 35mm, 3 min, b&w, silent, Warszawa), by the writer-painter team of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. To make it, the Themersons constructed a special animation stand that consisted of a glass plate covered with translucent paper and a camera beneath it with its lens pointing upwards. Small objects were placed on the glass. By lighting them from above, changing their position, and shooting frame by frame, they achieved interesting, nearly abstract moving patterns. Bruce Checefsky made a remake, Pharmacy (2001, 35mm, black and white abstract photogram film, silent, 4:36) filmed in Budapest using a 1930s single frame camera and a reconstruction of the Themerson's trick table based on an original drawing made by Stefan Themerson in the 1970s.
    • Inspired by Anatol Stern’s poem 'Europa' (published in 1929), they made the photomontage film Europa (1931/32, 35mm, 15 min, b&w, silent, Warszawa). A flow of snapshots depicting different aspects of contemporary life, Stern had made a strong political statement, a warning about the existence of social tensions and the possibility of a new world war. The Themersons followed the text closely, producing a filmic collage in which literary metaphors were represented word for picture. Since Europa was silent, the result was a stream of beautiful and sometimes mysterious images. As was the case with 'Pharmacy', the film was lost during WW2.
    • After completing 'Europa', the Themersons made two commissioned films: a commercial for a jewelry shop owned by Wanda Golińska (Musical Moment, Drobiazg Melodyjny, 1933, 35mm, 3 min, b&w, sound, music: Ravel) and an educational short for the Institute of Social Problems in Warsaw (Short Cut, Zwarcie, 1935, 35mm, 10 min, b&w, sound, music: Witold Lutosławski, Warszawa). In both they utilized the technique of animating objects they had already used in 'Pharmacy', which involved moving lights and shadows on objects. They evolved out of the Themersons' improvisations with the photogram in 1928-35. Most of the images were made on a "trick-table" improvised by Stefan Themerson. He placed various objects on a piece of translucent paper over a sheet ofglass. The lights were above, and he photographed the images from below frame by frame. In 1934, T.Toeplitz from Kurier Polski wrote: "And finally I shall mention the Themersons, who shot a truly beautiful commercial Moment Musical. This film moment is the only film that one cannot raise any objections to at all. The only positive point in the balance of Polish film production in 1933-34." Both films were also destroyed during the German occupation of Warsaw.
    • The Adventure of a Good Citizen (Przygoda czlowieka poczciwego, 1937, 35mm, 10 min, b&w, sound, music: Stefan Kisielewski, Warszawa) is a compendium of visual devices which shows what Stefan Themerson called his "urge to create visions," the title of his most influential essay. A surrealist burlesque that later inspired Roman Polanski’s 'Two Men and a Wardrobe'. Although it was mostly live action, they smuggled a few abstract images into the plot, some of them painted directly on the film stock. The film is the most significant Polish avant-garde cinematic work from the 1930s to survive to the present time. It was their last film completed in Poland, the war forced the Themersons to England where they continued to make films. [1] [2]
    • In London they produced two more shorts (commissioned by the Film Bureau of the Ministry of Information and Documentation of the Polish Government in exile): Calling Mr. Smith (Wzywając pana Smitha, 1943, 35mm, 10 min, Dufay-colour, sound, music: Bach, Karol Szymanowski, Horst Wessel Lied, London) and 'The Eye and the Ear'. The former is an anti-Nazi propaganda film whose aim was to wake up ordinary British citizens, many of whom refused to acknowledge that the nation that had delivered Bach and Goethe could have committed crimes against humanity. Despite the message, the form of the film was innovative, contrasting shocking documentary footage with images of pure visual beauty (achieved, among other methods, through the use of color filters and hand drawn images). [3] [4]
    • The Eye and the Ear (Oko i Ucho, 1944/45, 35mm, 10 min, b&w, sound, music: Karol Szymanowski, London) is a collection of four visual interpretations of songs by Karol Szymanowski (music) and Julian Tuwim (lyrics), sung by Sophie Wyss. Two of them consist of abstract moving patterns that represent the voice of the singer and orchestration. For one of the remaining parts, the filmmakers built a glass container, filled it with water, and dropped small clay balls into this to create ripples that also reflected the progress of the musical line. It claims to visualise the ear's experience when it listens to a piece of music. However, since the music, Szymanowski's 'Slopiewnie', seeks to capture visual experiences in sound, the film only reverses the process, rendering the whole exercise rather pointless. The exception to this is the third movement, 'Rowan Towers', in which a more mathematical system of interpreting the soundtrack is taken. The film is one of the best, but simultaneously lesser known, examples of abstract cinema in the history of this genre. [5] [6]

Screenings and exhibitions (1930s-1940s)[edit]

  • 1933, Zespół Praesens: International Viewing of New Films, Kino Adria Palace, Warsaw, 22 January (Europa).
  • 1933, Pokaz Twórczości Polskiej Awangardy Filmowej, Kino Sztuka, Kraków, 3 June, (Europa).
  • 1933, START (Society of Enthusiasts of Art Cinema), Film Polski 1916 – 1933, Kino Splendid, Warsaw, 5 November, (Apteka).
  • 1934, START,‘Szturmowa brygada’, Kino Colosseum, Warsaw, 5-7 January, (Moment Musical).
  • 1936, Instytut Spraw Społecznych, Short Films about Safety at Work, Kino Europa, Warsaw, 10 January, (Short Circuit).
  • 1936, Film Polonais d’avant-garde, Ciné-Club de Paris, Paris, (Apteka).
  • 1938, Spółdzielnia Autorow Filmowych, (S.A.F.), Kino Europa, Warsaw, 31 March, touring to: Kraków, Lwów, Łódź, Poznań, and Wilno, (The Adventure of a Good Citizen).
  • 1943, A Show of Polish Films, Polish Film Unit, The Gaumont British Private Theatre, London, 5 October, (Calling Mr. Smith).
  • 1943, Edinburgh Film Guild, Calley Picture House, Edinburgh, 12 December, (Calling Mr. Smith).

Literature[edit]

  • English translation of Europa by Anatol Stern. Gaberbocchus Press, London, 1962, with supplement on the Themersons' film version.
  • Stefan Themerson, "Ideogrammes lyriques", Typographica 14 (December 1966).
  • Clive Osman, ‘Europa: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’ Creative Camera, London, February 1975
  • Deke Dusinberre, ‘The Other Avant-gardes’, Film as Film. Exhibition catalogue, Hayward Gallery, London, 1979
  • Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, Visual Researches. Exhibition Catalogue. Łódź, Warsaw, Wrocław, 1982 (articles by Urszula Czartoryska and Janusz Zagrodzki)
  • Stefan Themerson, Urge to create visions, Gaberbocchus + De Harmonie, Amsterdam, 1983. On early cinema.
  • Marcin Giżycki, ‘The Urge to Create Visions’; Urszula Czartoryska, ‘Words and Images’. Projekt no.1, Warsaw, 1983
  • Marcin Giżycki, ‘On the Avant-Garde Films of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’ Polish Art Studies VIII, 1987 [7]
  • Stefan Themerson, ’A Fluorescent Box of Tricks’. Comparative Criticism, vol 12, Cambridge University Press, 1990 (this volume includes a whole section on Stefan Themerson, including a bibliography)
  • A.L. Rees, ‘The Themersons and the Polish Avant-Garde’. PIX 1, winter 1993/94. ISBN 0851 170 0152. ('Close Up' section of the magazine, pp 67-118, is devoted to Stefan and Franciszka Themersons) [8]
  • The Themersons and the Gaberbocchus Press: an experiment in publishing 1948-1979. Exhibition catalogue, MJS Books and Graphics, New York. 1993-94. (contributions by Marcin Giżycki, Jan Kubasiewicz, Jasia Reichardt, K. Schippers, Nick Wadley.
  • The Films of Franciska and Stefan Themerson, LUX London/CCA Warsaw, 2007. DVD booklet. Includes unpublished texts and letters by Stefan Themerson in English and Polish.
  • Themersonowie i awangarda, ed. Paweł Polit, Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 2013, 273 pp. Catalogue. [9] (Polish)

Film on Themersons[edit]

  • Stefan Themerson en de taal [Stefan Themerson and language], dir. Erik van Zuylen, 45’, France 1976 [10] [11]

See also[edit]

Links[edit]