Franciszka Themerson’s experimental comic book UBU, still shocks and surprises with the freshness of its drawings, even 40 years after it was first published.
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry was staged for the first time in 1896 in Paris. The premiere prompted social scandals and public disturbances. Jarry’s piece is considered a precursor to the Dada and Surrealist avant-gardes of 20th century art. It tells the grotesque and caricatural story of the eponymous Ubu, who usurps the throne of Poland to become king. As monarch, he burdens his subjects with heavy taxes, and proves to be a greedy and stupid despot. Ubu’s wife tries to steal from him, and a rebellion occurs which prompts a war with the Tzar. The drama ends when the hero and his wife leave for France. The plot was less important than the language of the play and the approach to its subject. The drama opens with the word “merdre”, which Tadeuz Boy-Żeleński translated into Polish as “grówno”, and Barbara Wright into English as “shittr”. The play’s language is vulgar and loutish but it also surprises with its subtleness and its surreal grammatical and semantic constructions. Ubu Roi travestied and parodied classic European dramas including Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
Ubu Roi was a specific idee fixe of Franciszka Themerson. She illustrated the first English edition of Jarry’s play (published by the Themersons’ Gaberbocchus Press 1951), and made papier maché masks for a dramatized reading (I.C.A., London). Later, she designed scenery and costumes for Michael Meschke’s Stockholm Marionetteatern production (which travelled to 90 countries between 1964 and the 90s). Finally, in 1970, Franciszka’s UBU comic was published in New York.
UBU comic was published in Poland for the first time on the 25th anniversary of Franciszka Themerson’s death, on the occasion of the opening of the exhibition Themersonowie i awangarda (The Themersons and the Avant-Garde). The original drawings were made in ink, on ninety sheets of paper, each one-metre wide. The concepts of some characters, especially of Ubu, reflect Jarry’s own woodcuts and other early designs for the play. Nevertheless Themerson created new renditions of the drama’s characters, which were vivid and fierce. She drew them in her own manner.
The plotline and captions of the comic book remain quite faithful to Barbara Wright’s 1951 translation. UBU, however, is by no means an adaptation – it is more of an interpretation filtered through the sensibility of the artist. As Themerson created the album she made use of surreal, caricatural lines from which the grotesque, exaggerated figures were formed. Thanks to this, the artist emphasized the meaning of the text, taking it to another level of absurdity and deformation of reality. The artist draws both in fine, pen-drawn lines as well as in fatter marks made with a Pelikan ink cartridge. The effect is similar to working with collage or with pure colours.
The layout of the comic book is made up of three-frame horizontal strips, but the drawings often break out of the frames. Additionally, the artist repeatedly ignores the use of frames altogether. Her composition is dynamic and uninhibited, freely breaking any rules of making comic books. At the same time Themerson’s layout refers to classic, early comics – the humorous strips from newspapers. This conscious referral gives the drama an appropriate chronological context and recalls the popular traditions of early comic books.
Themerson’s lines are stylish but not stylized. That is why they are timeless. UBU comic, 40 years after it was published, remains avant-garde and many contemporary readers will still find it shocking. One might easily make the assumption that the comic book won’t grow any older in the next four decades either. Themerson’s graphics lie outside any one epoch or style. Thus, they will always be fresh and they will always stir emotions and radical feelings.
Since the short-lived American publication of the UBU comic in 1970, there have been editions published in Dutch (1987), Japanese (1993), French (2005), Italian (2013), and Polish (2013), but nothing yet in English!
Author: Łukasz Chmielewski, February 2014
Translated by: Marek Kępa, update: AM March 2014