File Note 102: Franciszka & Stefan Themerson - Camden Art Centre

Essays by Nick Wadley and Colin Perry



Franciszka & Stefan Themerson A Quiet Revolution Images References Biography Credits

Franciszka & Stefan Themerson

Franciszka Themerson was born in Warsaw in 1907, the daughter of painter Jakub Weinles, and pianist Łucja Kaufman. She grew up in a world filled with art. She studied painting at Warsaw Academy of Art and graduated with honours in 1931. 

Stefan Themerson was born in Płock in 1910, son of a family doctor (who was also a published writer). In 1928 he moved to Warsaw. After a year studying physics, he transferred to the School of Architecture at the Polytechnic. He abandoned architecture for writing and at the same time started to experiment with the camera — film, photo-collages, photograms, etc. 

Franciszka met Stefan in 1929 and they married in 1931. The Themersons played a major role in the history of experimental cinema and photography in 1930s Warsaw. Their significance for the development of the Polish avant-garde film is enormous.

They co-founded the Polish Film-makers’ Co-operative in 1935. They edited and published two numbers of its journal, f.a. (art film) in 1937. Visiting Paris and London 1936/37, they met Moholy-Nagy, John Grierson, Len Lye and other film-makers, and took their work back to screen in Warsaw. In 1938 the Themersons moved to Paris, wanting to be at the heart of the avant-garde art world. Two days after the start of the Second World War, they both volunteered for the Polish army. In 1940, Franciszka escaped by moving to London with the Polish government- in-exile; Stefan served as a soldier in France, ending up in a Polish Red Cross hostel in Voiron, 1940–42. It was during this time that he wrote his novel, Professor Mmaa’s Lecture. After two years of separation, they were reunited in London in 1942. They made two more films, 1942–44.

In the event, the War had brought them to London permanently. Following their two last films, funded by the Polish government-in-exile, they channelled their creative energies into making books together. In 1948 the Themersons founded a publishing house: Gaberbocchus Press. In the course of the next thirty years they published over sixty titles, including first English translations of European writers (among them, Jarry, Queneau, Heine’s Versions and Perversions), as well as the work of Jankel Adler, Apollinaire, Schwitters, Stevie Smith, Bertrand Russell — the list goes on. Gaberbocchus books were also celebrated for their original design.

Through the 1960s and 1970s, the Press also published Stefan’s philosophical novels, essays, a play and an opera, as well the children’s books they made together. The recurring focus of his work was on ethics, language, freedom, human decency. His books have been translated into nine languages.

Over the same years and until her death, Franciszka also pursued her independent life as a painter. Many major exhibitions of her work were held. As art director of Gaberbocchus, she designed and illustrated many of the titles. As a designer, she created an award-winning production of Jarry’s Ubu Roi for the Stockholm marionette theatre in 1964, and drew a brilliant comic strip version of UBU, 1969/70. In 1979, Gaberbocchus Press was taken over by the publishing house De Harmonie in Amsterdam, which still maintains the imprint. 

Franciszka Themerson died in London in June 1988, Stefan Themerson in September 1988.

A Quiet Revolution

History has not been entirely kind to the Themersons. Franciszka and Stefan began their earnestly jocose work in Warsaw in the 1930s before moving to Paris and then London in the early 1940s, the flames of war licking their heels. They were among Poland’s finest, heirs to those great currents of European modernism — Futurism, Dada, Constructivism and Surrealism. Working in film, photography, illustration, typographic design, poetry, novels and theatre design, they produced a body of work that suggested new ways of thinking and feeling for a reborn society. The Themersons were conduits, importing into grey, socially conservative Britain a strain of mischievous modernism that snubbed starch-shirted bourgeois conformity. Outside a select few friends and acquaintances, London’s elite art establishment largely overlooked them; their influence would be slow, diffused, and only very belatedly recognised.  

Britain took some time catching up with the Themersons’ multiple media engagements. At first, they were known mostly for their books. In 1948, they founded the Gaberbocchus Press (a made-up Latin translation of ‘Jabberwocky’), which published texts on and by diverse artists, writers, poets and intellectuals, from the then-obscure émigré Kurt Schwitters, to the philosopher Bertrand Russell. Gaberbocchus’ volumes are delights, printed with Franciszka’s precise typographic arrangements and keen-eyed illustrations (see her extraordinary production of Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, 1953). Stefan’s tribute to the eponymous Dadaist in Kurt Schwitters in England, 1940–1948 (1958) is similarly striking. It is an object of tactile delight, with a proto-punk cover of a defaced royal decal détourned into the book’s title. In 1951, they also produced the first English translation of Alfred Jarry’s anarchic play Ubu Roi (1896), a work whose antiauthoritarian stance presages the Themersons’ own. Franciszka later produced masks for a reading of the play at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (1952), sets and costumes for a touring production of the play (1964 onwards), as well as another book, this time a comic-strip version, in 1969–70. These subversive currents found a keen audience amongst London’s art school students, intellectuals and the emergent counterculture, providing the Themersons with a basic living and a growing audience. 

The couple’s infectious sense of freedom would gain its widest cultural manifestation in the 1960s in London’s experimental trans-media explosion (Franciszka’s poster for the exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity, 1968, almost defines the era’s interdisciplinarity). Their books were sold alongside Beat poetry anthologies and underground comix in Better Books, a small but vital shop, gallery and Happening space on Charing Cross Road. In the 1970s, they continued to produce and publish, but fell partly out of fashion with the development of more theoretically dense political avant-gardes (such as structural film and counter cinema), which were often strictly opposed to the humanist use of reason that the Themersons advocated. However, by the later 1970s and 1980s, historians and writers on experimental film (Deke Dusinberre, A.L. Rees, and others) found in the Themersons’ works a path beyond these strictures. With a retrospective glance, it’s possible to see in the duo’s dizzyingly freedom — collaborating, switching effortlessly between media and disciplinary boundaries — a signal towards a postmodern era and the heterogeneous qualities of art practice today.

Following others’ footsteps, I have also stumbled into the Themersons’ charmed, anarchic world. Their work in film reveals their serious use of pleasure to win over the viewer without resorting to diktats or condescension. Shortly after they arrived in the UK, they joined the war effort, making a film that gently cajoles a blinkered British everyman to wake up to the Nazi’s evisceration of Polish culture and liberties (Calling Mr Smith, 1943). The work is as close as the Themersons get to a polemic. It’s nevertheless a visually and aurally extraordinary piece, exploding with techniques that were developed by the Themersons and other figures in the European avant-garde film of the 1930s: shadowy photograms-in-motion, sampled newsreel footage and stop-motion animation. Their final film, The Eye and the Ear (1944–45) is an abstract work visualising Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s music, which returns us to central themes of the early Absolute Film movement of the 1920s: the use of music as a model for a spiritual art, the equivalences between sight and sound, beauty, harmony. In the Themersons’ film, the suggestions of mysticism in Absolute film are re-formed as scientific exposition, with a crystal-voiced narrator describing what the filmmakers are up to.

The Themersons resisted social oppressions with a childlike, wide-eyed freshness of vision. It’s important to know that Stefan wrote children’s books (and Franciszka illustrated them), while his adult novels are also guided by this innocent logic. In Bayamus and the Theatre of Semantic Poetry (1949) the eponymous narrator meets a man with three legs, with whom he begins a Socratic dialogue in which it becomes apparent that it is logically better to have more limbs than less. The novel is a defence of difference against conformity, and a vindication of reasoning against ingrained superstition. Why not re-think writing itself? This, ultimately, is the purpose of Bayamus — to introduce the reader to the viability of avant-garde poetic forms, in which the reader can enjoy scaling and descending though a text at their own will. 

Stefan’s writing is — secretly — very grown-up, full of a wisdom borne of experience. In his aforementioned writing on Schwitters, Stefan recounts how he first met the Dada artist-poet in London in 1943 at a tricentennial celebration of the publication of John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644), a tract defending free speech and attacking censorship. Their shared interest in Areopagitica is rooted in the socio-political failures that lead to war, in the need for open discussion and freedom of expression. Stefan described Schwitters’s writing as having a ‘masterly freedom from artifice, and at the same time, palpably warm’ (Kurt Schwitters in England, 1958, pg. 9), and we might say the same of the Polish couple’s diverse output. In their work, the Themersons gave an object lesson in the importance of free imaginings, as well as in the vitality of friendship and love, in overcoming totalizing social norms. Their work was rooted in a desire to rid the world of pomp and prejudice, to clear the grounds for social relations that are more direct, democratic, generous and humane.


Apollinaire, Guillaume. Calligrammes, poèmes de la paix et de la guerre 1913–1916. (Paris: Mercure de France, 1918) 

Aristophanes. Thesmophoriazusae. (London: G.Bell, 1904) 

Diderot, Denis. Oeuvres de Denis Diderot; Jacques le Fataliste et son Maître. (Paris: Gallimard, 1935)

Ehrenburg, Ilya. The Fall of Paris. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1943)

Jarry, Alfred. Ubu Roi. (Paris: Mercure de France, 1896)

Joyce, James. Ulysses. (Paris: Sylvia Beach, 1922) 

Lear, Edward. A Book of Nonsense. (London: McLean, 1846) 

Ogden, C. K. (multiple other authors listed). The Meaning of Meaning; A Study of the Influence of Language Upon Thought and  of the Science of Symbolism. (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., 1923) 

Powell, Anthony. A Dance to the Music of Time (multiple volumes). (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951) 

Le Douanier, Henri Rousseau. La Vengeance d’une Orpheline Russe. (Paris: Pierre Cailler, Éditeur, 1947). 

Russell, Bertrand. The Impact of Science on Society. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1952) 

Russell, Bertrand. Nightmares of Eminent Persons And Other Stories. (London: The Bodley Head, 1954) 

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. (Ireland: Joseph Pearce, 1726) 

Thurber, James. Men, Women and Dogs. (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1943)

Vercors (pseudonym of Jean Marie Bruller). Le Silence de la Mer. (London: Les Cahiers du Silence, 1943)

Entr’acte. Dir. René Clair. (Rolf de Maré, 1924) 

Napoléon. Dir. Abel Gance. (Abel Gance, 1927) 

Ballet Mécanique. Dir. Fernand Léger. (André Charlot, 1924) 

A Colour Box. Dir. Len Lye. (GPO Film Unit, 1935) 

L’Atalante. Dir. Jean Vigo. (Argui-Films, 1935)


Major exhibitions of Franciszka Themerson’s art were held in Gallery One, London (1957 and 1959); Drian Gallery, London (1963); Zach˛eta, Warsaw (1964); Whitechapel Art Gallery (1975); Nordjyllands Kunstmuseum, Aalborg, Denmark (1991); Royal National Theatre, London (1993); Imperial War Museum (1994); Kordegarda, Warsaw (1998); Europe House and GV Art Gallery, London (2012). Major exhibitions of the Themersons and the Gaberbocchus Press were held in La Hune, Paris (1956); Muzeum Sztuki, ‎Łódź, Poland (1981 and 2013); La Boetie, New York (1993); Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris (1996); Galerie Signe, Heerlen, The Netherlands (1998). Płock has celebrated the Themersons with an annual festival, and the dedication of a street in their name. In England, examples of the Themersons’ work are in the public collections of the Arts Council of Great Britain, the British Museum, British Film Institute, Imperial War Museum, Royal Holloway College (University of London), Victoria and Albert Museum, and Tate. Their work is represented in several public collections in Poland.


Nick Wadley is an art historian and artist, and was a close friend of the Themersons.

Colin Perry is a writer and researcher based in London 

Supported by the Art Fund, the Polish Cultural Institute, the Franciszka & Stefan Exhibition Circle and Unity Theatre Trust.