A life in lines: Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, Books, Camera, Ubu at Camden Arts Centre

Books are in the bones of the Camden Arts Centre. Once home to a library serving the Hampstead and Belsize Park area, it changed purpose in the 1960s, becoming the arts centre and then gallery you’ll still find on the corner of the busy Finchley Road today. The ghost of this past life reappears in the Centre’s newest show. The Hampstead library, asserts a former librarian, is “no real place for the baffling works of Franciszka and Stefan Themerson.”

The verdict of this librarian no longer remains in force. The Themersons’ work is now the subject of a thorough survey at the Centre, a celebration of an artistic collaboration and marriage that endured through most of the twentieth century. Divided into three parts – Books, Camera, Ubu – the presentation delves into the different strands of the couple’s output – their books, drawings, theatrical props and films. It’s a respectfully straightforward approach; with work as various as theirs, why bother with superimposed themes? The explosive, expressive works jostle for your attention without waiting for any introduction.

Arranged across several rooms, the show completes a kind of circular trip through the couple’s oeuvre. It begins with their work as the Gaberbocchus Press, founded soon after they settled in London. The pair had left their native Poland just before the outbreak of the Second World War, bidding farewell to the avant-garde scene in Warsaw where they enjoyed prominence.

“Gaberbocchus” is a nonsense word, a play on Carroll’s Jabberwocky. Like their Victorian forebears, the works they published from the press are full of inventive wit. Franciszka’s pen is deft, and in a few flicks, whole worlds comes alive. Alongside, authors – in some cases Stefan’s – words flex and quip. The books, he once remarked, are meant to be “best lookers”. Printing bestsellers is far less fun.

This predilection for entertaining makes the movement from the printed page to the stage feel almost inevitable. Franciszka’s marionettes and stage designs, based on Alfred Jarry’s controversional play Ubu Roi, are exercises in the surreal. Though in essence comic, they share a common thread which runs throughout the couple’s work, where jest cohabits with chaos and violence. It’s these undertones which turn many of their works into strange cautionary tales. As one short booklet made with Bertrand Russell to mark his ninetieth birthday reads, “since Adam and Eve ate the apple, man has never refrained from any folly.”

This pushing and pulling between the playful and the polemic surfaces again in their films. One, Calling Mr Smith, was commissioned as propaganda by the exiled Polish government – the mandate was simple: denounce the rise of the Third Reich and in no uncertain terms. Yet even this work, with its clear-cut motive, sidesteps any straightforward convention. Almost Dadaist, with flashes of Brecht and Man Ray, it remains a brilliant, impassioned lament for the loss of Poland’s heritage to its occupiers.

By returning you, in the final section of the exhibition, to the works which prefigured much of what was to come for the pair, your education in the Themersons’ prolific genius is complete. The darkness hovering at the margins of their pages has stepped, finally, into the fore.

Imogen Greenhalgh

Franciszka & Stefan Themerson, Books, Camera, Ubu is at Camden Arts Centre until 5 June.

1. Franciszka Themerson at work on the Ubu comic 1969/70. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre
2. Kung Ubu , directed by Michael Meschke at the Marionetteatern, Stockholm, 1964. Costumes and set designed by
Franciszka Themerson. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre.
3. Installation view of Franciszka & Stefan Themerson, Books, Camera, Ubu. Courtesy of Camden Arts Centre.