The Gaberbocchus Press, a small publishing house, was founded in London, by Stefan and Franciszka Themerson in 1948. Gaberbocchus is the Latin equivalent of Jabberwocky — a species of dragon and hero of one of the ballads by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking-Glass.
Suppose the name was significant. Perhaps it referred to the suggestive parody and symbolic paradoxes of Alice in Wonderland. Or it might have referred to Carroll’s amusing portmanteau words, word games and puzzles. Perhaps it also referred to the serious mathematical treatises by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson such as Symbolic Logic or An Elementary Treatise on Determinants. Actually, Mr. Dodgson and Mr. Carroll were one and the same person. He was a mathematician, author, and talented photographer whose principal enthusiasm was exploring the inverted logic of language and imagination. And in a sense Mr. Carroll-Dodgson’s interests seem to be quite similar to Stefan Themerson’s: language, logic, and the fundamental questions which he explored as an author and philosopher, and at the beginning of his career, as an avant-garde film-maker and photographer.
There are many — perhaps too many — directions to investigate in an attempt to describe the relatively complicated intellectual provenance and history of the Gaberbocchus Press. The logo, as drawn by Franciszka Themerson, represents a reclining dragon reading a book intensely. Perhaps it is one of the more than sixty titles published by the Press. In its 31 years of activity, the Gaberbocchus Press was recognized as one of the most original publishing initiatives of its time.
1 + 1 = Partnership
Running the Press, was one of the most significant, but certainly not the only, project Stefan and Franciszka Themerson undertook together during a life-long coliaboration. In fact, their relationship began long before the Gaberbocchus Press and always functioned as a true partnership — a respectful dialogue between two artists and two individuals. It was one of those cases in which the equation of one plus one equaled more than two.
Franciszka was born in Warsaw in 1907 to the family of Jacób Weinles, a renowned academic painter of large scale scenes from the life of the Jewish community. In her own words, she grew up in “a house full of pictures, paints and brushes, where drawing and painting seemed as natural a function of life as eating and sleeping.”1 When she was seventeen, Franciszka entered the Academy of Art in Warsaw, and after spending seven years there, she graduated in 1931 with the first prize in painting. That same year she married Stefan Themerson, whom she had met in the late twenties. Stefan was born in Plock in 1910 to the family of Doctor Mieczysław Themerson, a physician. It is likely that Stefan and Franciszka met relatively soon after his arrival in Warsaw to study physics and architecture. Most probably in 1929 they began the creative partnership which was to last for six decades.
In their dynamic creative collaboration, the Themersons consistently explored significant philosophical and artistic ideas and topics regardless of the place, time or media, throughout their whole a:uvre. The artistic vocabulary that evolved from these activities led directly and consciously, and sometimes indirectly and subconsciously, to the establishment of a publishing house — in order to communicate the content and form of their choice freely. One of the Themersons’ characteristics methods of communication was to combine incompatible entities, thereby breaking the syntactical rules of given languages and categories. This approach, along with the integration of two artistically diverse personalities, found its fullest realization in the book format and book publishing.
The Themersons’ Early Collaboration
The Themersons’ earliest and most widely known accomplishment was their ceuvre of experimental films. It comprises seven films, five of them produced in Poland between 1930 and 1937, and two produced in England during the Second World War.2
Before the Themersons’ began film production, Stefan Themerson himself was very much interested in collage, photomontage and particularly photogram. He even referred to their early films as “photograms in motion.” Janusz Zagrodzki, an art historian who rediscovered the Themersons’ avantgarde films in Poland in the early seventies, wrote a short description of Stefan’s early experiments. In his essay Outsiders of the Avant-garde3 Zagrodzki included the information that as a high school student as early as 1927, Themerson “[ … ] produced a booklet which consisted of a few dozen 6 by 9 centimeter photograms, a series of still-frames put together, in which when the pages were turned quickly, the circle and a matchbox seemed to move.”
Undoubtedly, the flip-book format was his first experiment incorporating time to represent movement. Later, it inspired the Themersons to put photograms in motion in their film Pharmacy. Such simple confrontations between different media — a book, a photogram — resulted in a new and quite powerful tool of expression, an “abstract” movie. In their later films, when not only pure expression but the communication of ideas was an issue (The Adventure of a Good Citizen and Calling Mr. Smith), the Themersons incorporated many elements from the vocabulary of publication design — an individual character, an inscription, a book and its parts, a spine, a page and certainly typography.
The Themersons inherited their fascination with asymmetrical typography from Polish avant-garde artists, particularly Mieczysław Szczuka. A prominent figure of Polish constructivism, Szczuka was one of the founders and editors of an avant-garde periodical Blok, published in Warsaw between 1924 and 1926. He also designed typographical layouts and collages for Anatol Stern’s poem Europa which was released in 1929, two years after Szczuka’s tragic death. The powerful visual arrangement of the book, not only the poem alone, was a direct inspiration for the Themersons’ production of their film “Europa” — another example of direct confrontation and dialog between different media. Much later, the Themersons paid tribute to Szczuka’s book design by publishing a Gaberbocchus Press facsimile of Europa.4
In the middle thirties, under the auspices of the Themersons, the Cooperative of Film Authors was established. Stefan Themerson became publisher and editor of the cooperative’s periodical fa, with its tri-lingual subtitle: film artystyczny, film artistique, the artistic film. As an official review of a quasi avant-garde group of film makers, fa included articles by modern movement luminaries such as Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. In keeping with the character of an avant-garde publication, Franciszka Themerson as art director was able to achieve an appropriate visual form for the magazine. The layout followed the rules of the functional, so-called new typography. The composition on the cover was based on the juxtaposition of soft, hand-produced images of the geometric letterforms f and a in the periodicals’ nameplate against a tighter structure of sans serif, lowercase typography and well balanced white space. Inside pages clearly followed a grid structure, which was designed to organize photographs and type in an integrated and readable manner. The visual form of fa remained the most formal and rationalized design structure of all the Themersons’ publications. Throughout the history of Gaberbocchus Press, the Themersons preferred less formal, more spontaneous approaches to publication design.
Between 1930 and 1937, the Themersons collaborated on several books of stories and poems for children for a number of Warsaw publishing houses. These were written by Stefan and illustrated by Franciszka. Well before launching their own press, they published one of the children’s books privately, setting the precedent which would be followed in the 1940s by two other books printed in a limited edition.5 Altogether, Stefan Themerson wrote more than a dozen children’s books (as he noted “about twenty”, some of which cannot be found) and became quite famous in the Warsaw’s literary community. Yet he never really considered himself a children’s book author. Franciszka, who illustrated most of Stefan’s and many other books, also gained a reputation as a children’s book illustrator, but this success never limited or narrowed her artistic vision. Since then, some of these books, stories and poems for children in which content and form seem timeless, have been reprinted to serve new generations of young readers.
France — The War — England
In 1937, the Themersons decided to leave Poland for France. They wanted to live and work among the international community of artists in Paris, to which they felt they belonged. But their stay in Paris was much shorter than they could have predicted. The beginning of the Second World War in Europe, triggered by the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, shattered their plans and their careers. Their two lives had seemed so inseparable, yet for the next two years their personal relationship and professional partnership was fractured. Franciszka Themerson escaped to London in 1940. Stefan, who voluntarily joined the Polish army in France, left Paris with his regiment to stay in the unoccupied zone in the south of France. After his regiment was dispersed in 1940, it took him two years to arrive in London via Toulouse, Marseilles, Spain and Portugal.
During those two years of separation, Franciszka made a series of expressionist drawings filled with autobiographical symbolism and allegory, which she described as Unpasted Letters.6 Meanwhile, Stefan began his masterpiece Professor Mmaa’s Lecture or rather its original Polish version Wykład Profesora Mmaa, in Voiron, France, which he finished in Scotland in 1943. He also wrote lyrical poems, among them a prose-poem Croquis dans Les Tenebres dedicated to Franciszka. They were written in French. It was the first time Themerson wrote in a language other than his native Polish.
The Themersons were reunited in 1942, after the Battle of Britain, but while London was still a war zone. Almost the entire continent was under German occupation. The Themersons worked for the Polish government-in-exile; Franciszka for the Cartographic Unit, and Stefan for the Film Unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in London. The Film Unit sponsored the production of what were to be their last two films. One of them, Calling Mr. Smith, was a moral protest against the destruction of Polish culture by the Nazis. This visually strong and explicitly anti-war film was refused public release by Britain’s government censors.
During and after the War, Stefan contributed to Nowa Polska, a Polish literary periodical published in London. He also began writing in English. Franciszka started to paint again and regained recognition as an illustrator.
In 1947, Graphis, a prestigious international journal for graphic and applied art, published a short article on Franciszka Themerson by Charles Rosner. The author listed Franciszka’s impressive achievements including: twelve children’s books published in Poland, two books for the Album du Pere Castor series for Flammarion in Paris, her first illustrations published in England for The Lion Who Ate Tomatoes, by Sylvan Press, London, in 1945, and work to be published in 1947 by Harrap, London.7 This was the extensive professional experience upon which Franciszka would base the house style of Gaberbocchus publications.
The Gaberbocchus Press — The Beginning
After 1944, the Themersons lived in the Maida Vale district of London. They founded Gaberbocchus Press in 1948 and the earliest books were printed at their home on Randolph Avenue. Franciszka was art director and illustrator for nearly all Gaberbocchus publications. Like their collaboration on the films, the Themersons worked together closely on the books, including all stages of design and production. Shortly afterward they were joined by two other directors, Barbara Wright and Gwen Barnard, and the Press moved to a new and permanent location on Formosa Street. Between 1948 and 1979, Gaberbocchus Press published over sixty extraordinary titles including: the first English translations or editions of Alfred Jarry, Pol-Dives, Raymond Queneau, Guillaume Apollinaire and Heinrich Heine, the literary endeavors of Kurt Schwitters and Raoul Hausmann, works by such British luminaries as Bertrand Russell and Stevie Smith, and many books of their own.
From 1957 to 1959, the basement of Gaberbocchus office in Formosa Street was turned into the Gaberbocchus Common Room, a meeting place for those interested in art and science. There were regular gatherings for lectures, discussions, film shows, plays, poetry readings and music recitals.
For two years [ … ], the Common Room was a vital, informal weekly forum with a membership of more than a hundred. The members were addressed by writers, painters, poets, actors, scientists, musicians, film-makers, philosophers. There were talks on physics, metaphysics and pataphysics; readings of Jarry, Shakespeare, Beckett, Strindberg, Queneau and Schwitters; performances of modern music and scientific film. Among other contributors: Sean Connery and Bernard Bresslaw read O’Neill; Dudley Moore accompanied Michael Horovitz’s poetry reading; Konni Zilliacus spoke on the immorality of nuclear weapons. The project was only reluctantly abandoned because it consumed too much working time.8
Both the list of Gaberbocchus publications and the list of participants and topics discussed in the Gaberbocchus Common Room indicate attempts to explore boundary areas in science and art, poetry and politics, literature and ethics. By searching philosophies of neighboring disciplines for common denominators, which otherwise seemed incompatible, the idea was to dissolve, or at least blur, those boundaries which the Themersons found obsolete. Investigating different disciplines and subjects, contradicting comfortable cliches (including logic!), defying categories and classifications became one of the conspicuous characteristics of Gaberbocchus Press.
Asked in a questionnaire what were the Press’s main strength and weakness, Themerson gave the same answer to each question: “refusal to conform”. The “unclassifiability” of Gaberbocchus Press expresses the essential Stefan Themerson.9
The most recognizable aspect of a Gaberbocchus book identity is its visual form. “Best-lookers,” as opposed to best-sellers, has become the most quoted phrase used by Stefan Themerson to describe the books and ambitious curriculum of the Gaberbocchus Press. Definitions of what makes a book a best-looker can vary depending who is asked, and perhaps also where and when. Among bibliophiles, such descriptions might include deckle edged hand-made paper and limited edition hand-printed letterpress typography — and indeed, one can find these on the Gaberbocchus list. But the success of the Press in producing best-lookers comes out of the innovative and imaginative integration of typography and image within the time/space continuum of the book structure. Even ( or perhaps particularly) when technological means were limited, (for instance, one-color printing on basic paper), typographic clarity, complemented by the personality of the illustrations, led to those unique and often unpredictable solutions, in which all page ingredients seem inseparable. Lewis Carroll’s Alice once asked the question the Themersons must have asked themselves before launching Gaberbocchus: “What is the use of a book [ .. ] without pictures or conversations?” This seems to have been the recipe for the Themersons’ creative method. Stefan’s favorite form of philosophical essay was the classical dialogue, combined with Franciszka’s illustrations, drawings that not only illustrate the content but sometimes become the content “illustrated” by the text.
The Gaberbocchus Press — Visual Context
At the time the Gaberbocchus Press was launched, certain trends in European graphic design, created a context for the visual vocabulary of the Press. The tradition of Constructivism must be mentioned as one of the main sources for a visual functionalism which had dominated Europe since the late forties. Originating in Russia after the October Revolution, it became a synonym for a progressive and extremely rational approach to design. The work of El Lissitzky and other Russian artists, together with the contribution of members of De Stijl and the Bauhaus and other independent German, Dutch and Swiss designers (not necessarily all of avant-garde provenance) carried on the idea of visually dynamic and functional typography. In his article Elementare Typographie (1925), and then in his first book Die Neue Typographie (1928), Jan Tschichold, one of the most influential European book designers and typographers, introduced El Lissitzky’s work and the concept of asymmetrical, so-called new typography to the community of printers and designers.
The very concept of form-follows-function, first formulated by the father of American modern architecture Louis H. Sullivan in 191810, was one of the fundamental concepts of Modernism. This concept, translated into terms of visual communication, consequently led toward the so-called International Typographic Style, which was successfully developed by American and European corporate designers, and in the intensely radical curriculum of the Ulm school, in Germany from 1955 to 1968.
At its best, the International Style incorporated aspects which seemed to contradict functionalism, i.e., the traditions ofFuturism, Dada and Surrealism. The work of Marinetti, Schwitters, Ernst and many others, resulted in the development of extremely powerful tools of persuasion. That element of visual rhetoric borrowed directly from the Surrealists — the unexpected results of odd juxtapositions of image and typography — became one of the most distinctive aspects of the visual vocabulary of the Gaberbocchus Press (clarity and readability of type arrangement was another).
The Gaberbocchus books might have taken their typographical clarity from the designers of the new typography, or from their British equivalents, Eric Gill and Stanley Morrison, or perhaps from Jan Tschichold working concurrently in England on the commission to redesign Penguin books. The hierarchy of typographical structure, including functional elements such as subtitles and notes on margins, helped a reader to navigate through a book and understand its content. The founders of the Gaberbocchus Press, treated book design as visual metaphor and exploration, sometimes in extremely unconventional and experimental ways, yet always endeavored to respect the author and perhaps even more so, the reader. Clearly structured text combined with the uniquely gestural drawings of Franciszka Themerson managed to inscribe in the readers’ minds that remarkable visual fingerprint of Gaberbocchus books.
The Gaberbocchus Press — Visual Context Vocabulary
There are many levels on which a book can be comprehended.
There is a level of macroscale, when a reader approaches a book as an object comprehending it as a coherent physical whole. Holding a book, one perceives its size and weight and realizes its structure by noticing the ingredients of cover, spine, texture of paper, or linen, the smell of printing ink on a book-jacket. One might first decipher the title and author, or try to grasp all elements at once, putting words and images together in one meaningful message. Obviously, many details escape notice, but a book still might feel inviting or friendly or formal or arrogant.
Gaberbocchus books are friendly and inviting. They are distinctly normal in size and thickness. The large ones cannot compete with the arrogance of coffee-table-books; the small ones seem modest and unpretentious. Regardless of the size, number of pages or type of binding — they attract attention.
Stefan Themerson’s Jankel Adler or an Artist Seen from One and Many Possible Angles and Aesop’s The Eagle & the Fox, the Fox & the Eagle were limited editions hand-printed on heavy, hand-made, highly textured stock. Their design joined an awareness of the material, texture and color, with the rhythm of old-style typography and line-drawings printed in sepia. They were designed as objects to be touched as well as looked at. The book-as-object approach and the focus on materials culminated in Stefan Themerson’s Kurt Schwitters in England: 1940–1948. The book was assembled from many varieties of colored paper, and the whole book was treated as an object/collage — the essential Schwitters.
In the process of reading a book there is a level of microscale, when a reader sees a page or double-page spread. The spread is a unit of rhythm in the space/ time continuum of the book structure. In the process of turning the pages, the double-page spread functions as a single frame, a surface which the reader attempts to capture in one glance. In fact, a complex process of scanning takes place. The reader’s eye is directed to several focal points of a composition created by a contrast of visual elements. Usually, a reader is not fully aware of this process but can easily experience its result the feeling of visual balance or instability, order or disorder, clarity or confusion in the arrangement of columns, illustrations, subtitles, headlines.
The founders of Gaberbocchus Press explored all kinds of visual arrangement using unusual, unpredictable and inseparable combinations of illustration and typography.
Bertrand Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet (New Edition, 1970) demonstrated the basic juxtaposition of typography and illustration in isolating word from image by large areas (relative to the small page size) of white space. After examining a few spreads, the purpose of this isolation becomes clear: The reader is meant to comprehend the illustrations and text separately. Franciszka Themerson’s illustrations do not make Russell’s definitions visual. Instead, they create subtle and meaningful contexts which can result in a very sophisticated, and very funny, visual/verbal interpretation. It requires time to connect these two aspects, and closer integration would have destroyed that effect.
Semantic Divertissements, on the other hand, demonstrates the highest degree of suggestive and eloquent integration of image and text. The unusual process of creating this book might explain the remarkable result. After Franciszka’s drawing were completed Stefan wrote and typed his verbal interpretations. These descriptions are reminiscent of sterile, dull dictionary definitions. As a consequence the reader faces a powerful tautological presentation, demonstrating the impossibilities of translating between visual and verbal languages. On the cover, the byline reads: Themerson & Themerson. Who was the author?
Alfred Jany’s Ubu Roi, undoubtedly the most acclaimed book of the Gaberbocchus Press, was celebrated in many editions including Ubu Comic Strip by Franciszka Themerson.11 Again, the unusual concept and extraordinary process of execution shaped the final result. Barbara Wright, who translated the play, was asked by Franciszka to handwrite the whole text directly onto printing plates, upon which Franciszka then added her own layer of drawings. The result was astonishing. The handwritten text interconnected with spontaneous, gestural drawings, creating a strong contrast with the yellow paper on which the book was printed. These gestural forms seemed free from compositional rules or the structure of the book. They communicated in an expressive and memorable way the nature of the bizarre, grotesque and monstrous anarchist, Ubu. Within the duality of content and form, Franciszka’s goal was always the attainment of a proper balance. In the case of Ubu Roi, the capricious and volatile content allowed an extremely subjective and unpredictable form to emerge.
molecular / atomic scale
There is a molecular level in the process of reading a book — a level of words, which form lines, and columns, the whole typographical topography (Stefan Themerson’s term) which needs to be read to be understood. And there is an atomic level in the process of reading a book — the scale of a single punctuation mark, or a single character of a certain typographical style.
On the atomic level, the universe of Gaberbocchus books consisted of elements, some of which would have been uncommon for more ordinary publishing firms. While there were different weights of serif and sans serif type in the Gaberbocchus typographic tongue, there was also calligraphy, handwriting and the typewriter. Typewriter font in black and red, borrowed from twocolor typewriter ribbon (in turn borrowed from early printed books) became an important part of the Gaberbocchus visual identity. The exploration of typewriting and handwriting was a continuation of the search for personal qualities in the spirit of Dada. Such Dada characteristics as intellectual improvisation and imperfect visual notation were successfully conveyed by the contrast between calligraphy and typography; the gestural and the mechanical.
Even more unusual arrangements can be observed on the level of Gaberbocchus typographical topography: type arrangement which became more planar than linear. This new idea started with Bayamus, Stefan Themerson’s first published novel, in which he proclaimed the invention of semantic poetry. In A well justified postscript … Typographical Topography12, the author, in the dialogue with a talking dog named Brutus, explained the concept:
“Twenty years ago I met a man who had three legs and wanted me to translate some poems not from one tongue into another but from a language composed of words so poetic that they had lost all their impact, into something that would give them a new meaning and flavour. I decided to do it by replacing some of the key-words of those poems by their definitions. For instance: instead of the word war, I put: “The open conflict between nations, or active international hostility carried on by force of arms.” Instead of the word snow, I wrote: “multishaped crystals, belonging to hexagonal system, formed by slow freezing of water-vapour”. This, of course created a typographical problem. How to print five, ten, fifteen words in place of one, and so they would hold together as one entity. Well, I said to myself, you may read a musical score HORIZONTALLY, following the melodic line, and you may read it VERTICALLY, following the structure and arrangement. Why shouldn’t it be the same with poetry? Typographical topography of a printed page is two-dimensional, is it not? If I have a number of words that form one entity, I told myself, why shouldn’t I write them as I would write the notes of a chord: ONE UNDER ANOTHER, INSTEAD OF ONE AFTER ANOTHER? Internal vertical justification is the answer to my problem. I.V.J.” (capitals by J.K.)
I.V.J. was an attempt to make type arrangement more visual and therefore more easily comprehensible. The term visual, here means diagrammatic — a designer has at hand certain visual strategies in order to designate the locations for certain components: words in a sentence, in a paragraph, etc.
Linear, one-dimensional text, broken into lines, to form columns, requires monotonous left to right scanning eye motion.
I.V.J., two-dimensional text, broken into customized units, based on sentence structure, could be spaced horizontally or vertically, and have tabular arrangements. This allowed irregular scanning eye movements depending on the particular, visual solution.
In A well justified postscript… Typographical Topography, Themerson not only explained I.V.J. to Brutus (who remained skeptical), but he also applied the I.V.J. treatment to Printers and Designers, a paper by Herbert Spencer, the influential English graphic designer (and a friend of the Themersons). Stefan used I.V.J. in several other works including Bayamus, (1949), Semantic Divertissements, (published in part in 1946; as a book in 1962), and St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio, (written 1954-1960; published 1972). The last one is an opera with remarkable visual musical notation.
The continuation of the concept of 2-dimensional diagrammatic notation of words and images including typography (some treated with I.V.J.), typewriting, handwriting, arrows, asterisks, rules, numbers, illustrations, photographs, etc. — was the basis for one of Stefan Themerson’s most creative experiments: Kurt Schwitters on a Time-chart.13 It was not an essay, nor a collage, nor a diagram, but it included all of the above. The design allowed the reader to select the sequence, order and direction of what he or she would like to explore and read. One could enter the diagram at a certain point to follow chronological order, or to investigate all topics limited to one particular selected time-frame — for instance 1920. The chart included definitions for such words as collage, quotations from Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto, miniature stories such as Three Little Dogs on a Time-chart, and separate diagrams, for instance, for Art as Investment. Kurt Schwitters on a Time-chart can in retrospect be seen as anticipation of the contemporary concept of electronic books and interactive media.
The Gaberbocchus Press — Language and Message
What survives from the Gaberbocchus Press is not limited to the aesthetics of the books’ visual form. The content of Stefan Themerson’s own books remains timeless and absorbing.
Semantic Poetry was Stefan Themerson’s major conceptual invention and contribution.14 For Themerson the word ‘semantic’ refered to linguistic manipulations, the purpose of which were to “rediscover” the primary meaning of words. Exploring dictionary definitions was an attempt to reach for original meaning beyond the facade of stereotypes, figures of speech and cliches, and beyond the daily usage of the language.
In Bayamus, of which Bertrand Russell was to say, “The highest compliment I can pay is that it is nearly as mad as the world,” Themerson explained:
It was a refusal to be taken away from reality, a refusal to be taken for a ride, that made me “devise” (not to say “burst into”) SEMANTIC POETRY, some 30 years ago, before the time of television, at a time when political demagogues of all sorts were using oratory devices stolen from poets, just as today, at the time of Enlightenment Through Advertising, commercial demagogues are using motion-picture tricks stolen from visual artists.15
On more than one occasion Stefan Themerson warned that “the world is more complicated than the truth about it” expressed in any language. His semantic investigations examined to what degree natural languages as well as formal systems, dominate, shape and falsify reality. As in everything he investigated, Themerson retained a skeptical position, commenting ironically on language’s incapacity to describe itself.
Nevertheless, his interest in linguistic exploration resulted in broadening Themerson’s spectrum of interdisciplinary studies, for which language was a vehicle. In fact, many topics and methods of Themerson’s linguistic investigations could be claimed by those who argue in favor of the Modernist tradition, or against it. Themerson could not have cared less. He insisted on defying categories, classes and labels. Even so, some of his writing — such as a dialogue between a painter by the name of Mondrian and Cardinal Pölätüto, on the relationship between an abstract image and a song – reminds one of the most brilliant lectures on abstract art in the spirit of Modernism.16
The body of Stefan Themerson’s literary ceuvre examines the moral principles of the ‘Tragic factor’ in the human condition, introduced in the early essay, factor T in 1956.
There is a tragic discrepancy between our dislike of killing and the necessity of doing so. I call that discrepancy factor T, and it seems to me neither virtuous nor wise to ignore that.17
In his 1981 Huizinga Memorial Lecture in Leyden, Holland, titled The Chair of Decency, Themerson examined simple moral questions and decent human values confronting great missions: beliefs and aims of religion, politics, power, patriotism and even love:
Contrary to what clergymen and policemen believe, [ … ] gentleness is biological and aggression is cultural [ … ]. [ … ] aggression for the sake of food, degenerated into aggression for the sake of ideas. In general, people don’t like to be murderers unless it is for the sake of an idea.18
Examining these Aims, led Themerson to a deeply human, utopian and somehow unfashionable moral message:
Thus, I have come to you tonight empty-handed, having no offerings of Aims to give, because no Aim is so exalted that it be worth a heartbeat more than Decency of Means. Because, when all is said and done, Decency of Means is the Aim of aims.19
Instead of Epilogue
In 1979 the Press was taken over by a Dutch publisher Jaco Groot, a friend of the Themersons, who runs Uitgeverij De Harmonie in Amsterdam.
Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’s life and work should be of great interest to artists, writers and historians. The couple’s deaths in 1988 — Stefan died two months after Franciszka — ended a personal and professional creative partnership of nearly six decades. He was a photographer, children’s book author, poet, novelist. and philosopher who also wrote a play and an opera. She was a painter, illustrator, typographer, book designer, stage designer, costume designer and art director. Together, they were film-makers and publishers. They started their careers in their native Poland in the 1930s, but spent most of their life together in England. Because they were never fully accepted by the British literary and artistic establishments, they successfully initiated a cultural ferment on their own. They grew to value their artistic freedom, and diligently guarded their independence from established channels. This autonomy enabled them to create an inspiring and perhaps timeless model for alternative voices — such as Stefan’s uncompromising moral message — which can emanate only from outside the confines of the establishment.
1. Franciszka Themerson,Bi-Abstract Pictures[Based on a talk given at the Gaberbocchus Common Room in November 1957], in: The Drawings of Franciszka Themerson,edited by Nicholas Wadley (Amsterdam: Gaberbocchus/De Harmonie, 1991), p. 20.
2.Films of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson,an essay by Marcin Gizycki in this volume, examines in detail that important part of the Themersons’ work.
3. Janusz Zagrodzki, Outsiders of the Avant-garde, in: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson. Visual Researches, exhibition catalog (Łódź: Muzeum Sztuki, 1981), quotation translated by J.K.
4. Anatol Stern. Europa. Designed and illustrated by Mieczysław Szczuka. Cover designed by Teresa Żarnower after Szczuka’s death. Slightly reduced facsimile of the original edition translated from Polish by Stefan Themerson and Michael Horovitz with preface by Oswell Blakeston and introduction by Michael Horovitz (London: Gaberbocchus, 1962).
5. Croquis dans les Ténèbres by Stefan Themerson; illustrated by Franciszka Themerson; privately printed in a limited edition, distributed by Hachette, London, 1944; and The Lay Scripture (or ‘a draft for a preface to a textbook of physics’); London: Anthony Froshaug, 1947, limited edition.
6. Unposted Letters was a series of more than 100 drawings Franciszka Themerson made after her arrival in London, from 1940 through 1942. Some of them were published as Forty Drawings in a very limited edition of 25, by Lund Humphries in 1943. The drawings were also in a publication entitled London 1941–42, produced by Herbert Spencer in an edition of 200 in 1987, to mark Franciszka Themerson’s 80th birthday.
7. Graphis Vol. 3. #18, 1947, Amstutz & Herdeg, Zurich, Switzerland. The article included many reproductions: cover, title-page and two pages from The Three Bears; cover and title-page from The Little Pigs; cover and endpaper from My First Nursery Book — all three published by Harrap, London, 1945; pages from a series of books “to be published” by Harrap, London in 1947; illustration from The Lion Who Ate Tomatoes, Sylvan Press, London, 1945. One of the captions indicated: “line decorations on page 120-122 are for Professor Mmaa’s Lecture, a book by Stefan Themerson” — to be published by Gaberbocchus Press in 1953.
8. Nicholas Wadley, On Stefan Themerson; in: Comparative Criticism 12; Cambridge University Press, 1990.
10. “So remember, and bear ever in mind in your thinking and your doings, that FORM EVER FOLLOWS FUNCTION, that this is the law — a universal truth.”; Louis H. Sullivan, Kindergarten Chats; New York: Dover Publications, 1979, republication of the revised (1918) edition as published by Wittenborn, Schulz, Inc., New York, 1947.
11. Alfred Jarry, Ubu Roi, Gaberbocchus Press 1951, first English translation by Barbara Wright, illustrated by Franciszka Themerson; other Gaberbocchus editions: 1959, 1961, 1966. 1969; New Directions, New York: 1951, 1961; Ubu Comic Strip by Franciszka Themerson (created 1969-70), first published in serial form in Dutch, in De Revisor, Amsterdam, 1983-1985; in a book form: by De Bezijge Bij, Amsterdam, 1987; and by Seido Sha in Japan, 1993.
Since the first Gaberbocchus edition, there were several exhibitions devoted specifically to Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi. The success of Gaberbocchus editions of Ubu Roi was enhanced by Franciszka’s designs of masks for a reading of Ubu at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London in 1952. Later she designed costumes and stage sets for the theatre production of Ubu Roi at Marionetteatern, Stockholm, which has been touring since 1964.
12. A well justified postscript. .. Typographical Topography; in: Penrose Annual, Vol 58, 1965. Edited by Herbert Spencer. Published by Lund Humphries, London. The essay includes Printers and Designers, “the paper read to members of the Double Crown Club by Herbert Spencer.”
13. Stefan Themerson, Kurt Schwitters on a Time-chart. In: Typographica 16, London: December 1967: reprinted in: Blueprint (or Counter Education), New York: Doubleday, 1970; and in: The Liberated Page, London: Lund Humphries, 1987; and San Francisco: Bedford Press, 1987.
14. Fourth volume of the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (1986), offers the following: “Semantic Poetry: 1949 S. Themerson, Bayamus and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry. 1951 Times 5 Apr. 5/1 Nothing could prevent Mr Vyshinsky or Mr Acheson from discussing Etruscan pottery or Semantic Poetry if they really wished to do so. 1969 Poetry Review LX. 274 Semantic poetry is based on the idea that words such as moon, night, heart, flower, etc., having become cliches have become devaluated and devoid of affective effect. SP avoids all forms of rhetorical device and relies upon a text derived from traditional language by replacing each word by its dictionary definition. Semantic Poetry does not rarefy the verbal material to condense the meaning.”
15. Stefan Themerson, On Semantic Poetry, London: Gaberbocchus, 1975.
16. The Xth Letter of Cardinal Pölätüto His Biographer, limited edition of 99; Lodz: Correspondance des Artes II, 1986. Bi-lingual extract of this particular fragment in English and Polish based on first editions: Stefan Themerson, Cardinal Pölätüto, London: Gaberbocchus, 1961, and Kardynał Pölätüto, Cracow: Wydawnictwo Literackie, 1971.
17. Stefan Themerson, factor T, London: Gaberbocchus, 1956.
18. Stefan Themerson, The Chair of Decency, The Johan Huizinga Lecture delivered by Stefan Themerson in December 1981 in the Hooglandse Kerk in Leyden. The complete text published by Polak & Van Gennep Uitgeversmaatschappij BV, Amsterdam, 1982.
Download PDF of the essay excerpted from the book The Themersons and the Gabberbocchus Press — an Experiment in Publishing 1948–1979, edited by Jan Kubasiewicz and Monica Strauss, published by MJS Books & Graphics, New York.
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