Mom and pop modernism

Mom and pop modernism – exhibit of books published by the Gaberbocchus Press, La Boetie Gallery, New York, New York

Richard Vine

Charm is a quality not highly valued in the vanguard milieu nowadays. But “The Themersons and the Gaberbocchus Press–An Experiment in Publishing, 1948-1979,” a recent show of over 100 books and works on paper at La Boetie Gallery, reminded us that civility and wit were once major components of the modernist sensibility–weapons of deceptive sweetness in the bohemian assault on social propriety and stultifying artistic convention. Less intentionally, the exhibition also served as a caution regarding the limitations of any coterie, especially one that adopts intellectual coziness as its prime oppositional strategy.

“Gaberbocchus,” the word for Jabberwocky in a Latin translation of Lewis Carroll’s famous poem, is the unlikely name of a small London publishing venture rounded in 1948 by the Polish expatriates Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. Working out of two successive residences, the husband-and-wife team (she acting as art director and illustrator, he as editor and sometime author) produced over 60 titles in 31 years. The books and pamphlets, usually issued in editions of no more than several hundred copies, were so imaginatively designed as to be virtual artist’s works–and to attract authors (or their representatives) as diverse as James Laughlin, Bertrand Russell, Stevie Smith, Kenneth Tynan, Raymond Queneau and Kurt Schwitters. (1)

The Gaberbocchus volumes range widely–from poetry to philosophical novels to plays to uncategorizable hybrids of image and text. Yet they are marked throughout by the grave whimsy captured in Franciszka’s renderings of the firm’s dragonlike logo creature. Stefan articulated the couple’s basic creed in “The Chair of Decency,” a 1981 Johan Huizinga Memorial Lecture delivered in Leyden: “Gentleness is biological and aggression is cultural.” The speech (which also holds that “people don’t like to be murderers unless it is for the sake of an idea”) advocates “decency of means” as the supreme ethical value. This mild sentiment seems to have been wedded to an equally quixotic publishing rationale. Once when asked via questionnaire to identify the press’s primary strength and primary weakness, Stefan answered “refusal to conform” in both instances.

Dedicated to this homey version of avant-garde integrity, the Themersons started their enterprise by issuing 1,000 shares priced at one pound apiece, ran it (aided by codirectors Barbara Wright and Gwen Barnard) with a quiet, three-decade-long disregard for mainstream taste and publicity, and, in 1979, sold their interest to Uitgeverij De Harmonie, a Dutch publishing company run by their friend Jaco Groot.

Gaberbocchus Press was the culmination of an artistic collaboration that began virtually from the moment that the couple first met in prewar Poland. Franciszka was born in Warsaw in 1907, the daughter of Jacob Weinles, a painter then well known for his large, conventionally composed depictions of Jewish life. Stefan, Franciszka’s junior by two and a half years, was from the family of physician Mieczyslaw Themerson in the provincial town of Plock, which he departed to undertake studies in architecture and physics in Warsaw. The pair had begun their creative dialogue by 1929, and they were married–at the ages of 24 and 21–as soon as Franciszka completed her Academy of Art degree (with a first prize for painting) in 1931.

Stefan had already shown a vivid interest in photomontage and collage, even creating a flip-book of animated circle and matchbox photogram images in 1927 when he was still in high school. A year later, at 18, he had begun to write a film column for the newspaper Polska Zbrojna. The couple’s first joint effort consisted of five experimental films made between 1930 and ’37.(2) All these works were more or less “abstract” in their emphasis upon purely visual aspects of presentation. The impulse toward a depersonalized cinema stemmed from Stefan’s boyhood experience of seeing a standard film narrative interrupted by three feet of scratched, carelessly spliced scrap stock. The sudden flurry of light induced in him, he later recalled, a desire “to see the Screen’s own life.”

The one Themerson film that survives from this period, The Adventure of a Good Citizen (1937), could be seen in its entirety on videotape at the exhibition. Though critically lauded, this little parable of nonconformity was so ill-received by the public and the popular press when it came out in 1938 that its theatrical run had to be cut short. The innocuous tale, intertwined with music by Stefan Kisielewsld, concerns a hard-working functionary who one day leaves his desk to engage in a series of odd actions–walking backwards, carrying a mirrored wardrobe, soaring to a rooftop, playing a flute, etc.–and thereby incurs the wrath of his fellow citizens, who at one point pursue him with angry placards. Today it is hard to tell whether the audience was more impatient with the film’s content, its narrative disjunctiveness or the variety of technical devices it employs: realistic action interspersed with passages of abstract light patterns, fast-forwards, reverses, interludes of hand-painted film, peculiar camera angles and occasional negative images.

During their early moviemaking phase, the Themersons also organized the Film Authors Cooperative, whose trilingual (Polish, French and English) journal f.a. (for film artystyczny–“artistic film”) was published and edited by Stefan. The periodicals format, developed by Franciszka, showed the strong influence of a functionallst “new typography” whose lineage included Russian Constructivism, De Stijl, the Bauhaus, Swiss design and Jan Tschlchold’s Elementare Typographie (1925) and Die Neue Typographie (1928). (This design heritage later extended to American corporate graphics, the Ulm school in Germany and the work of Eric Gill and Stanley Morrison in Great Britain.) The rationalistic principles of the International Typographic Style–emphasis upon clarity and readability, lack of ornamental embellishment, heavy use of sans-serif and lower-case fonts, a strict grid structure, asymmetrical page layout and the generous distribution of balancing white space–were subsequently combined, at Gaberbocchus, with puckish manipulations of type scale, freehand illustrations and incongruous photographs. Some of the more striking items included in the show, like the wacky “Kurt Schwitters on a Time-chart” produced for Typographica magazine, seemed as much artistic as lexical objects, their pages treated as high-energy visual fields. Indeed, Stefan’s stated objective for the press was to produce works that, though not necessarily best-sellers, were indisputably “best-lookers.”

The Themersons’ first experience with publishing books came in the field of juvenile literature. From 1930 to ’37, Stephan wrote more than a dozen small volumes of stories and poems for children. Illustrated by Franciszka, most of these texts were produced by established Warsaw houses and won the couple a significant reputation in the field. And this esteem was not merely professional: numerous Polish visitors to La Boetie’s exhibition fondly remembered the Themerson books from their own childhood days. (Ironically, Stefan and Franciszka remained childless-unless one thinks of the Gaberbocchus Press as their surrogate offspring. The couple did, however, raise a niece who was orphaned during World War II. Jasia Reichardt, the daughter of Franciszka’s sister, is now a noted critic and a codirector, with Nicholas Wadiey, of the Themerson archive.) One of these chlldren’s titles the Themersons decided to issue privately, setting a precedent that they followed with two adult works (Croquis dans les tenebres, 1944, and The Lay Scripture, 1947) before starting up their London operation.

Feeling that their proper place was among the international artists who still congregated in Paris, Stefan and Franciszka left for France in 1937. Within two years, Germany had invaded Poland, causing the Themersons to be sundered first from their homeland and, soon, from each other. In 1940, Franciszka made her way to London, while Stefan, having joined the Polish army, took up a post in the unoccupied zone of southern France. The separation lasted two years, during which Franciszka made a series of more than 190 highly personal drawings titled “Unposted Letters” and Stefan composed-and sent bit by bit through the mail–most of the Polish original of a novel later translated as Professor Mmaa’s Lecture (1953) as well as the prose-poem Croquis dans les tenebres.

In 1942, Stefan arrived in a heavily bombarded London, and the reunited couple went to work for the Ministry of Information and Documentation of the Polish government in exile—he in the film department, she in the cartography section. Stefan’s cinematic unit enabled the Themersons to make their last two films, beth included on the shows videotape. Calling Mr. Smith (1943) is a propaganda piece in which an everyday British citizen, attempting to ignore Nazi horrors and continue his life undisturbed, is brought face to face with the destruction of culture in countries suffering under Hitler’s domination. In some passages, the work employs handmade slides shot through condensers and filters to achieve an exprsssionistic effect. More typically Themersoman in character is the pair’s final film, The Eye and the Ear (1944-45), in which four songs from Karol Szymanowski’s “Slopiewnie” are musically “analyzed” through visual analogues–glass sticks, smoky forms, beams of light, and images from Piero della Francesca’s Nativity–deployed in response to the melodic lines, harmonies and time structures.

During the war, Stefan began contributing to the London-based Polish literary journal Nowa Polska, while also writing extensively for the first time in English. This abolishing of borders–between languages, nationalities, artistic mediums and, ultimately, epistemological disciplines–was to become a hallmark of the Gaberbocchus Press, perhaps nowhere better expressed than in the Common Room forum held weekly in the firm’s basement between 1957 and ’59. The Room itself, stocked with chess beards and simple refreshments, was open to the public each evening. On Thursdays, a serf-selected “club” of around 100 members convened for programs which, according to the promotional flyer, might consist of “a recital of music or a talk on… cybernetics, the reading of a play or the showing of films made in research laboratories, an exhibition of objects of art or an exhibition of scientific objects.” Among the now-famous participants were Scan Connery delivering passages from O’Neill and Dudley Moore supplying piano accompaniment for a poetry reading.

The Gaberbocchus title list is equally quirky. In 1951, for example, Franciszka persuaded Jarry’s first English translator, Barbara Wright, to enter her text in longhand on lithographic plates that were then illustrated with 204 drawings by Franciszka. The resulting version of Ubu Roi, on yellow paper, graphically communicates the play’s wild (and often scatological) irreverence and proved so successful that it generated four subsequent editions. Franciszka went on to create masks for a 1952 reading at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art, plus award-winning sets, costumes and puppets for a 1964 Stockholm Marionetteatern production which continues to tour. Her own Ubu comic strip was published in 1969.

Other notable samples of Gaberbocchus eclecticism were also on view at the show. Bertrand Russell’s mordant The Good Citizen’s Alphabet (1953) is an antiauthoritarian primer with 28 drawings by Franciszka. The 12 slender volumes of the Black Series (1954-57) are, not surprisingly, all handsomely bound in black. Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1958), which gives 99 versions of a fight on a Paris bus, sports a dust-jacket author’s photo fractured and reassembled by Stefan. In Kurt Schwitters in England.’ 1940-1948 (1958) Stefan mixes examples of Schwitters’s prose and poetry with photographs and reproductions of collage material to produce a verbal and visual portrait of the artist in the last eight years of his life. Apollinaire’s Lyrwal Ideograms (1968) is Stefan’s typographically playful discourse on the methods and meanings of Apollinaire’s calligrams.

The Themerson influence was further spread by Franciszka’s occasional art exhibitions in Britain, Europe and the U.S., dating from 1957 on; by her stage and costume designs that were especially admired in Scandinavia; and by her teaching at the Bath Academy of Art and the Wimbledon School of Art. Stefan, in addition to his other works (which include poetry, essays, art criticism, a play and an opera), wrote nine novels that meld fantasy, science fiction, social commentary and humor in a mischievous brew, these titles have been reissued, in part, under the venerable Faber imprint. Various of his works have also been translated into eight languages. One of Stefan’s more bizarre contributions was his 1944 invention of antimetaphorical “seroantic poetry,”in which dictionary definitions are substituted for all ambiguous or culturally contaminated locutions. (War,” for example, would be replaced by the allegedly clearer and truer “active international hostility carried on by force of arms.”) Such wry philosophizing has been exceptionally well received in Holland, where several critics have written appreciatively about Stefan’s work. In 1976 he was the subject, and principal actor, in a tongue-in-cheek TV “documentary,” Stefan Themerson and Language. A tape of this dreamlike story, in which Stefan is grilled by a scholastic “detective” and wrangled into expounding his theories on a public bandstand, was also available for viewing at the exhibition.

There has been considerable interest in the Themersons of late, as evidenced by seven European shows in 1993 and plans for two future exhibitions (one on their films and one on their relationship with Schwitters) at La Boetie in New York. However, it would be foolish to stake a very large claim for the intellectual, artistic or historical significance of the couple and their press. Neither Stefan nor Franciszka had the stuff of greatness in their respective mediums, and they lacked the social power to establish another Bloomsbury. Yet their virtues are the very considerable ones of having steadfastly exercised their modest but worthwhile talents, and of having produced, under often difficult and always constrained circumstances, works of admirable inventiveness and pure design integrity. After nearly 60 years together, they died just two months apart in 1988, aged 81 and 78–thereby closing, if not a chapter, at least a footnote in the international chronicle of modernism. We all should be so “minor.”

1. Biographical information in this article was drawn from essays by Marcin Gizycld, Jan Kubasiewicz, K. Schippers and Nicholas Wadley in the exhibition catalogue The Themersons and the Gaberbocchus–An Experiment in Publishing, 1948-1979, Jan Kubasiewicz and Monica Strauss, eds., New York, MJS Books and Graphics, 1993.

2. Although all but one of the Themerson’s Polish films have been lost, they are historically “known” from memoirs, contemporary reviews and surviving stills. The first two works, Pharmacy (1930) and Europa (1931-32), were silent compilations of, respectively, ‘moving” drugstoreitem photograms and montaged images associated with a 1929 state-of-the-world poem by Anatol Stern. (Illustrations for the poem were supplied by Mieczyslaw Szczuka, a founder and editor of the avant-garde journal Blok, whose asymmetrical, visually dominant layouts had a seminal influence on the Themersons.) The couple’s first sound film, Moment Musical (1933), was a three-minute commercial in which photograms of light-pierced jewelry, porcelain and glass were animated in strict correspondence to music (by either Ravel or Rimsky-Korsakov, depending on which source one accepts). Short Circuit (1935), which contained ominous images synchronized with an original score by Witold Lutoslawski, was commissioned by the Institute of Social Affairs to warn against the mishandling of electricity.

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