Retrospective pays tribute to experimental filmmakers and avant-garde collaborators

PUBLISHED: 08:00 30 March 2016

Credit: Kung Ubu, directed by Michael Meschke at the Marionetteater, Stockholm, 1964. Costumes and set designed by Franciszka Themerson. © Themerson Estate, London

Credit: Kung Ubu, directed by Michael Meschke at the Marionetteater, Stockholm, 1964. Costumes and set designed by Franciszka Themerson. © Themerson Estate, London

Archant

“I wish I’d been there” is a thought I often have when reading accounts of radical art events in past times.

1983, F&S at 12 BPG. Credit: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, c. 1985 © Themerson Estate, London1983, F&S at 12 BPG. Credit: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, c. 1985 © Themerson Estate, London

Most recently it happened when I found out about the Gaberbocchus Common Room whose purpose was to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences with performances, recitals, films and lectures.

It occupied the basement of 42a Formosa Street in Maida Vale from 1957 to 1959, just ten years before I moved to the area as a student, knowing nothing of its cultural activities or history.

I was unaware that Formosa Street was still the home of what was then the largest small press in London, the Gaberbocchus Press. Named after the Latinised version of Lewis Carroll’s poem Jabberwocky, a surreal and often absurdist sensibility runs through the publications.

The press was started in 1948 by Franciszka and Stefan Themerson and the first book, by painter and printmaker Jankel Adler, was hand-printed on a hand-press on hand-made paper at their home in Maida Vale. 58 subsequent books included Bertrand Russell’s satire The Good Citizen’s Alphabet, begun as a private joke in correspondence with the Themersons.

Copies of both books, plus much other intriguing Gaberbocchus material, are in the first major UK retrospective of the creative collaboration of the Themersons, opening tomorrow at Camden Arts Centre. Books, Camera, Ubu focuses on their literary collaborations, experimental films and the stage design, puppets and comic strip based on Alfred Jarry’s revolutionary satirical play, Ubu Roi. Gaberbocchus published this in 1951 and Franciszka designed the set and costumes for a celebrated marionette production in 1964, pictured.

Both of Jewish extraction, the Themersons met in Warsaw in 1929 and married in 1931. They played a central role in Warsaw’s avant-garde circles before moving to Paris in 1938. They enlisted in the Polish army in the war and after a two-year separation were reunited in London. They lived in Maida Vale from 1944 until their deaths within weeks of each other in 1988.

Stefan was a writer, poet, philosopher, composer and photographer, Franciszka a painter, graphic artist and theatre designer.

Their shared practice included concrete poetry, satirical drawing, book design and, perhaps most importantly, films making use of their photograms in motion, photography and photo-collage. The surviving three are in the CAC exhibition. This was organised in collaboration with Franciszka’s niece, the curator and writer Jasia Reichardt, and her partner Nicholas Wadley, who live in Belsize Park and look after the Themerson Estate. The Themerson Archive is now in the Polish National Library in Warsaw.

Until June 5 at Camden Arts Centre, at the junction of Finchley Road and Arkwright Road NW3. Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 6pm, Wednesday 10am to 9pm.


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