#language & literature
Themersons: Biographical Essay by Adriana Prodeus is an aptly written book, rich in facts and witty comments which constitutes a transparent compendium of knowledge, not just about a mesmerizing art duo but also the history of 20th century avant-garde in Poland and abroad.
Emigration and rather unnoticeable engagement in politics (or at least lack of direct link between art and politics), avant-gardism, declared unconventionality and renunciation of any artistic traditions – these, it seems, are the main reasons for the fragmentary knowledge about the impressive achievements of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson and their absence from mainstream discourse. Despite the recent increasing popularization of their artistic output in Poland, it is hard not to be under the impression that we are dealing with a vague legend instead of an ordered history.
If someone, however, feels like turning their general fascination into a solid competence and broader interpretations, they ought to get hold of Adriana Prodeus's monograph Themersonowie. Szkice biograficzne (Themersons. Biographical Essay). It is an aptly written book, rich in facts and witty comments which constitutes a transparent reference position, not just about the mesmerizing art duo, but also the history of 20th century avant-garde in and outside of Poland. Prodeus not only studied everything signed by the Themersons and consulted all possible (and dispersed) publications that were devoted to them; she also tracked down the even more inaccessible sources, such as correspondence, national and international institutional archives, and private collections. The knowledge she thus gathered was transparently transformed into eight chapters, which, when listed together, represent the chronology as well the key constituents of the Themersons' oeuvre: Youth, Films, France, The War, London, Long Short Stories, Painting and Drawing, Voices.
What can we learn from them?
They met for the first time as children as a result of family connections; however, they didn't marry until the year of Franciszka's graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Their first collaborations as a married couple included children's literature and film. Titles which nowadays can be found in almost every bookshop in Poland – such as Poczta (Post Office), Narodziny liter (The Birth of Letters), Pan Tom buduje dom (Mr. Rouse Builds His House), Był gdzieś haj taki kraj – are reprints of books created in the 1930s; the elements of technological utopia, attempts to combine technology and art that can be found in them, derive from manifestos of the European avant-garde of the time, mainly futurists. Around the same time, the Themersons started experimenting with cinema – their film period lasted about fifteen years, during which they created seven films. With limited resources and usually working in their own bedrooms, having been inspired by the Western leaders in the field – such as Henri Chomette, Fernand Léger, René Clair, Luis Buñuel, and Dalí – they created groundbreaking pictures, which, according to film historians were artistically on the same level as works by the famous Parisians. Their film Przygoda człowieka poczciwego (The Adventure of a Good Citizen) from 1937 became an inspiration for Roman Polański's famous short film Dwaj ludzie z szafą (Two Men and a Wardrobe) as well as Start (Beginning) by Jerzy Skolimowski. It is also possible that it influenced the early pieces of Walerian Borowczyk and Jan Lenica.
Themersons, disappointed by the lack of audience and understanding for their work, emigrated to Paris in the late 1930s; when they were departing, Czesław Miłosz walked them to the train station. When the war broke out, they applied to the Polish Army as volunteers. Stefan's most famous (and most hilarious) novel Wykład profesora Mmaa (Professor Mmaa's Lecture) was actually written between 1941-43 at a refugee shelter in Voiron(!). After the war, they settled in London, and even acquired British citizenship. Gaberbocchus Press (the name is a Latin translation of Lewis Caroll's Jabberwocky), which they founded, published the first English editions of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, and Anatol Stern's Europa. In the late 1950s, Themerson's ran a literary salon, Common Room, which hosted some of the greatest figures of 20th century literature and philosophy, including Bertrand Russell (a massive fan of Franciszka's drawings), Italo Calvino, Raymond Queneau, Gaston Bachelard, Karl Popper, and Henri Michaux. Semantic poetry which Stefan invented, was highly appreciated by the Oulipo; Georges Perec drew on it to some extent. This is just a few examples of innumerable stories featured in Adriana Prodeus's book.
Themersonowie. Szkice biograficzne
stefan and franciszka themerson
20th century avant-garde
Apart from the textual layer, the book also contains twenty-two illustrations, reprinted from largely inaccessible sources; these include photographs, book covers, film stills, Stefan's collages, and – of course – Franciszka's astonishing drawings and illustrations. Thus, the versatility of their genius was given justice in the book, at least as much as is allowed by this particular form of presentation.
Author: Tomasz Wiśniewski, June 2015, transl. AM, September 2015
Adriana Prodeus – Themersonowie. Szkice biograficzne (Themersons. Biographical Essay)
Czuły Barbarzyńca Press, Warsaw 2010
Number of pages: 286
Cover: paperback with flaps
Second editions, revised