‘Gaberbocchus Press (1948–1979) and the Themersons on paper, on screen, on stage’

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This was the first exhibition in Belgium of the work of the Polish-English artist couple Stefan (1910–1988) and Franciszka (1907–1988) Themerson. He was a writer and philosopher, she was a visual artist and a theatre designer. Together they published and illustrated books and made experimental short films.

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On paper

In 1948, the Themersons founded the Gaberbocchus Press. Over a period of 31 years they published more than sixty titles, including works by Alfred Jarry, Kurt Schwitters, Bertrand Russell and Raymond Queneau and by Stefan Themerson himself. As a designer Franciszka made illustrations for many of the Gaberbocchus titles. Characteristic of the Gaberbocchus Press publications were the Themersons' experiments with the relationship between text and image.

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On screen

Between 1930 and 1945 the Themersons made seven short films in which their experimental photographic work from the early 1930s can be recognised. In their films they experimented with the play of light and shadow caused by moving objects, among other things. 

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On stage

Franciszka Themerson designed the costumes and sets for the theatre productions of Alfred Jarry’s ‘Ubu Roi’ and ‘Ubu Enchainé’ and Bertold Brecht’s ‘Threepenny Opera’ in Stockholm and Copenhagen in the 1960s. She has received several international awards for her designs.

Franciszka & Stefan Themerson. A Biographical Note

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Stefan & Franciszka Themerson
(by Jasia Reichardt)

Stefan Themerson, writer, film-maker and publisher, was born in Plock on 25 January 1910, the son of a family doctor who wrote In his spare time. He flirted with physics and architecture but became increasingly involved with photography, collage, and film, to the eventual abandonment of his studies. In his twenties, Themerson became well known in Poland as an author of children’s books, most of them illustrated by his wife, Franciszka Themerson, painter, film-maker, graphic designer and designer for the theatre. Born Franciszka Weinles in Warsaw on June 28th 1907, she was the daughter of a painter and a pianist. She trained as an artist and graduated with distinction from the Warsaw Academy. Nevertheless, her first artistic achievements were as an avant-garde film-maker collaborating with her husband. They met in 1929.

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Stefan Themerson, Pan Tom Buduje Dom, Illustrations Franciszka Themerson, Warschaw, 1938

Between 1931 and 1937 the Themersons made experimental films, started a film-makers’ cooperative in Warsaw and edited and produced its journal, f.a. (art film). Stefan continued his involvement with experimental photography for which he invented new techniques. With a single exception, their films were lost during the war.

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The only Polish avantgarde film magazine Film f.a. (film artystyczny) nr 2 (of 2), Warsaw 1937
Przygoda CzŁowieka Poczciwego (Adventure of a good Citizen), Script, direction & camera Franciszka & Stefan Themerson – Music Stefan Kisielewski Sound, 35 mm, B/W, 7.56 min – Warsaw, 1937
The Eye And The Ear Script, direction & camera Franciszka & Stefan Themerson – Music: 4 Songs by Karol Szymanowski to Julian Tuwim’s ‘Slopiewnie’ translated by Jan Sliwinski sung by Sophie Wyss orchestra conducted by Ronald Biggs – Sound, 35 mm, B/W, 10.17 min – London, 1944–1945
Calling Mr. Smith – Script, direction & camera Franciszka & Stefan Themerson – Music Bach, Szymanowski and a distorted Horst Wessel Lied – Sound, 35 mm, Dufay-colour, 8.29 min – London, 1937
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S. Themerson, Short Story, Collage + Photogram, 1930

They moved to Paris in 1937 to continue their work at the center of avant-garde activity. Their life was disrupted in 1939 by the outbreak of the Second World War. Stefan Themerson joined the Polish Army; Franciszka escaped to London. During the years of their separation, Franciszka completed a long series of drawings which she called ‘Unposted Letters’ and Stefan wrote his masterpiece Professor Mmaa’s Lecture. In 1942 they were reunited in London, where they were to spend the rest of their lives.

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Franciszka Themerson, Unposted Letters, On a bien rigolé avec les pompons avec les pompons avec les pompiers, 1941
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Franciszka Themerson, Unposted Letters, Waiting room, 1941
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Franciszka Themerson, Unposted Letters, Sentimental cartografy, 1941
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Franciszka Themerson, Unposted Letters, Dialogue on Tower Bridge, 1941
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Franciszka Themerson, Unposted Letters, Alice in Wonderland, 1942
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Franciszka Themerson, Unposted Letters, Embankment, 1940-1941

In London, their artistic collaboration continued first in the making of two more films (1943-45) and then, in 1948, with the foundation of the Gaberbocchus Press, a publishing house which over the next 30 years, produced a string of remarkable books. These include first English editions of Alfred Jarry, Pol-Dives, Guillaume Apollinaire, Raoul Hausmann, Heinrich Heine, Christian-Dietrich Grabbe, Raymond Queneau, the work of their friends Jankel Adler, Kurt Schwitters, Bertrand Russell, Stevie Smith, C.H. Sisson, and some brilliant books of their own. Franciszka designed the books and created illustrations for many of them. Gaberbocchus aimed to endow the appearance of each book with qualities inspired by the content.

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Cover scale-model, Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style, Gaberbocchus Press, Londen, 1958

Franciszka’s mature career as a painter developed from the late 1940s. From 1957 there were major exhibitions of her paintings and drawings in galleries and museums in London, New York, Belfast, Poland and Denmark. Among public collections holding her work are Museum Narodowe, Gdansk; Museum Sztuki, Lodz; British Museum, London; London Film-makers’ Cooperative; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; 
Marionettemuseen, Stockholm; Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw.

During the 1960s, she did outstanding work in theater design, including sets for Ubu Roi (1963-64) and The Threepenny Opera (1966) at the Marionetteatern, Stockholm. In 1970-71 she designed Ubu Enchainé and Thesmopharia Zusai for the Dukke Theatre, Copenhagen. She was awarded the gold medal at the 1966 Triennale of Theatre Design, Novi Sad, and, in 1976, elected honorary member of Union Internationale de la Marionette for her services to the theater.

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Kung Ubu, directed by Michael Meschke at the Marionetteatern, costumes and set designed by Franciszka Themerson, Stockholm, 1964
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Stefan Themerson in Ubu mask, 1952
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Franciszka Themerson, Mére Ubu mask, 1952
UBU ROI, Marionetteatern Stockholm Holland Festival, 1967
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Flyer, Ubu Roi, 1952

Over the years, her paintings became paler and more aggressive. The line which carries the image is incised, scratched or gouged out of the surface. Pigment is allowed to seep into the gaps. Drawing, in whatever medium, remained a constant and primary activity throughout her career, and in retrospect appears to have been her abiding passion. She contributed drawings to journals throughout her career, in Europe and elsewhere, and several collections of her line drawings were published as books: The Way It Walks (1954 and 1958), Traces of Living (1969), Franciszka Themerson 1941-42 (1987). Her originality as a designer was also expressed in her exhibition design, and in her teaching at Bath Academy of Art and Wimbledon School of Art.

Whereas Franciszka’s medium of paint, line and color is free of rules, Stefan’s is confined by formal demands of grammar and of the three languages in which he worked – Polish, French and English. The last was his principal language but he often made his own translations from one language into another. He wrote 9 philosophical novels, but was not a conventional novelist. He wrote 12 books for children, but these too are unlike other books for children, introducing the young reader, as they do, to the magic of the real world. He wrote poetry, essays, some texts on art, one play, the libretto and music for an opera – St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio – and a book about photograms and experimental cinema. All of his writings share a concern with ethics and language. His concern with ethics is encapsulated in the Chair of Decency, the Huizinga lecture delivered in Leyden in 1981 which argues that there is no aim greater than the decency of means. His concern with language is encapsulated in Semantic Poetry which he invented in 1944. Semantic  Poetry is the sort of poetry that returns at every step to pure dictionary definitions of words and banishes the euphemisms, local color and contextual overtones with which usage shrouds them. Themerson disliked classifications and he himself remains unclassifiable.

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Spread Bayamus and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry, Stefan Themerson, 19 x 10,2 cm, 112 pp. Londen, 1965

His books have been translated into eight languages. A comprehensive bibliography of Stefan Themerson is published in Comparative Criticism, Cambridge University Press, 1999. ‘Bibliography is my biography,’ he said, ‘the rest is irrelevant.’

Franciszka died in London on June 29th 1988, Stefan Themerson on September 6th 1988. The Themerson Archive, which was at 12 Belsize Park Gardens in London from 1988, moved to the National Library in Warsaw in December 2014.

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Franciszka Themerson
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Stephan Themerson

A Bibliography of the Gaberbocchus Press

by Walter van der Star

‘There is a madness about various Gaberbocchus books which is the spice of life, an ingredient somewhat lacking in the world of impeccable book production,’ Ruari McLean wrote in the Summer 1956 issue of the Quarterly News-Letter of the Book Club of California. ‘Not best-sellers, but best-lookers’ was how Stefan and Franciszka Themerson described the books they aimed to publish. This was ‘sound economic policy’ for a small publisher, they declared in an article for The Bookseller. The symbiotic relation between this Polish-born, British couple, who between them combined the disciplines of philosopher, writer, painter, illustrator, graphic designer, filmmaker and publisher, produced a catalogue of publications that is remarkable in every sense of the word. When the Themersons founded the Gaberbocchus Press in 1948, they did so mainly in order to publish what they wanted, not least their own work, in the forms of their choosing. Gaberbocchus is a Latin translation (by Carroll’s uncle) of ‘Jabberwocky’, Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem about a fabulous creature called the Jabberwock. Themerson said later, ‘Our friends thought that Gaberbocchus might well be a fine Latin rendering of Jabberwocky, but that as the name of a publishing house it just wouldn’t do! Indeed, it does look rather difficult to pronounce. And yet the strange thing about it is that no-one who had once got it straight, can ever forget it again. […] We have proved that this strange animal cannot go on living without publishing what is very near to his manxome heart’. Franciszka’s logo of the press depicts Gaberbocchus as a friendly little dragon, shown with various attributes, such as a book, or a fountain pen wielded in the manner of a sword. When asked about the strengths and weaknesses of the Press, Themerson gave the same, unequivocal answer to both questions: ‘Refusal to conform.’

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Logo Gaberbocchus Press

Although the work of  Franciszka and Stefan Themerson clearly has roots in the international avant-garde of the interbellum, they maintained a high level of independence in all of their activities. The first Gaberbocchus books were printed by the Themersons on a handpress in the corridor of their London flat. Their publications are characterized by all manner of improvised techniques and materials, and by experiments with word and image. They often used cheap printing techniques (such as Rotaprint, an offset process) and job lots of colored papers at sale prices. The required negatives were made by Themerson with a second-hand camera. It has been said that Gaberbocchus did not have a ‘house style’: what connects the sixty or so titles published by the Press between 1948 and 1979 is their unique combinations of text, image, design and materials. The books exude a gentle non-conformism and eccentricity, expressing the identity of its  contents. Their family unity springs from the degree and quality of each book’s originality, and Stefan playfully drew a ‘family tree’ of Gaberbocchus books and their authors. As well as their own work, and translations of important experimental European writers unknown in England, they published work by British writers and artists, who worked mainly on the periphery (many of whom became friends – like Stevie Smith, George Buchanan, Patrick Fetherston, C.H.Sisson). Financial gain was never the driving motivation of the Press. As Barbara Wright wrote, ‘No one ever thought of money in those days except insofar as some was needed to be able to publish.’ Wright, who started her career as a translator with Gaberbocchus, was one of the four directors of the Press, as was the artist Gwen Barnard. Lack of funds meant that many projected books remained unpublished, including works by Henri Michaux, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Douanier Rousseau, Bertrand Russell, and an illustrated dictionary of semantically interpreted terms.

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Cover, Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi Drama in Five acts followed by The Song of The Disembraining 22,9 x 17,8 cm, 184 pp Londen, 1951
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Spread, Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi
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Cover, Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, 21,6 x 15,2 cm, 56 pp. Londen, 1953
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Spread, Bertrand Russell, The Good Citizen’s Alphabet
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Cover, Christian-Dietrich Grabbe, Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning , 20,3 x 15,2 cm, 64 pp. Londen, 1955
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Spread, Christian-Dietrich Grabbe, Comedy, Satire, Irony and Deeper Meaning

One plan that was realized was the Gaberbocchus Common Room, a ‘club’ founded by the Themersons in 1957, to bridge the gap between art and science by offering those from each culture a place to meet. Categories and boundaries were considered anathema. There were film-shows and recitals; lectures, plays and poems were delivered, art works and scientific objects exhibited, meals shared. In all 82 evenings were organized, and the membership reached 149. Stefan gave a lecture on Kurt Schwitters in England, Franciszka a talk on her pictorial language, Barbara Wright introduced the work of Raymond Queneau. The adventure ended prematurely, through lack of funds. In 1959 doors closed for the summer and never reopened.

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Cover, Stefan Themerson, Kurt Schwitters in England: 1940–1948, 22,9 x 17,8 cm, 64 pp. Londen, 1958
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Spread, Stefan Themerson, Kurt Schwitters in England
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Cover, Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style, 19 x 12,7 cm, 198 pp. Londen, 1958
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Spread, Raymond Queneau, Exercises in Style

The Themersons’ particular interest in book design and the printed page is witnessed by their contact/friendship with such well-known typographers as Anthony Froshaug and Herbert Spencer, whose celebrated review Typographica published several articles by Stefan, including his typographical masterpiece, ‘Kurt Schwitters on a time-chart.’ In the 1965 issue of The Penrose Annual, the graphic yearbook also edited by Spencer, Stefan set out his ideas on what he called ‘typographical topography’ in a Socratic dialogue between the author and a dog named Brutus, about the appearance of the printed page. He argues that standardisation of page lay-out has led to an ‘unjustified’ type-setting that has lost all its distinctive character – so that we no longer recognize at a glance what kind of text we are dealing with. ‘A page of a book’, the author says, ‘is like a human face.’ 

This dialogue forms the introduction to ‘Printers and Designers’, the typographical adaptation of a lecture that Spencer composed on an electric typewriter. Spencer’s text is an ode to the book as a means of communication; to the possibilities of the printed word; and an incitement to printers and designers to experiment. In ‘Printers and Designers’, Stefan takes the opportunity to apply his own Semantic Poetry – invented and developed earlier in his novel Bayamus – and his system of so-called ‘internal vertical justification’, or I.V.J, a method of making full use of both the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the printed page to respond to the content.

The Themersons were not generally inclined to dwell on the past, a reluctance also reflected in Stefan’s theory of history – ‘to know the direction of a movement, we must of course have history. But we need not as much of it as possible, but as little as possible.’ He once said that bibliography was his biography. In March 1967, Oswell Blakeston, a Gaberbocchus author, wrote, ‘Obviously a monograph could be written on all the fifty odd Gaberbocchus books.’ Of course, it would not be feasible to write a ‘biography’ of every title in the Gaberbocchus catalogue, and this is why we have chosen to concentrate on our selection from the most defining and visually striking books, paying particular attention to the engagement of form with content.In the words of the Dutch writer Doeschka Meijsing, what the Themersons did with their Gaberbocchus Press ‘was not designing, that word should be abolished here!’ The design of their books is testimony to something else – namely, ‘an understanding of the power of the written word.’

Info exhibition

GABERBOCCHUS PRESS (1948–1979) and the THEMERSONS on paper, on screen, on stage
06.11.2019 — 06.03.2020
Opening: 05.11.2019 from 6 p.m.

Project space ‘Kades-Kaden’
Rubenslei 10
2018 Antwerp

Hours: Monday–Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., weekends and holidays by appointment only
Entrance: Free

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Exhibition curators: Catapult & Piet Gerards
Scenography: Catapult & Piet Gerards
Text: Jasia Reichardt, Walter van der Star
Photography books: Peter Cox, Catapult
Picture editing: Catapult

Exhibition In collaboration with Piet Gerards, Themerson Estate and GV Art london.
Text and images with permission of Huis Clos (publication Biography of a Publishing House. Stefan & Franciszka Themerson & Gaberbocchus, Rimburg/Amsterdam 2017).
With the support of Graphius Group, Arctic Paper, Integrated 2019.
With special thanks to Jasia Reichardt (Themerson Estate), Piet Gerards, Robert Devcic (GV Art London), Walter van der Star, An De Coster (Arctic Paper), Bruno Temmerman & Denis Geers (Graphius Group), Hugo Puttaert (Integrated 2019)