The variant practice of partners and creative collaborators, Stefan and Franciszka Themerson, encompasses painting, photography, film, theatre, literature, concrete poetry, book design and satirical drawing. This multi-faceted approach to making not only renders any supposition of a single ‘discipline’ redundant, but as their exhibition at Camden Arts Centre demonstrates, ideas of connectivity and permeation are an inherent part of the Themersons’ artistic formulae.
Titled ‘Books, Camera, Ubu’, the exhibition focuses on three elements of the Themersons’ prolific output: their independent publishing house, Gaberbocchus Press, Franciszka’s stage design based on Alfred Jarry’s anarchic satire, ‘Ubu Roi’, and their experimental films. What becomes evident throughout these three movements is the significance of performance within the artists’ oeuvre, which arises directly through their work with theatre, costume and stage design, but also as a subtle device with which to activate both text and image. As the name of their publishing house suggests (the word ‘Gaberbocchus’ is taken from the Latinised version of Lewis Carroll’s poem ‘Jabberwocky’), this is a device that is fuelled by nonsense and the absurd. Erratic lines and humorous images are played out across their extensive printed matter. Not only do these book collaborations blur the boundaries of authorship, but the idiosyncrasy of their form and content resists any attempt to order and classify them.
A series of printed poems by Stefan, which have been expanded from their original book format into wall-based installations, make concrete the arbitrariness of linear time and its ability to carve out daily experience. Positioned next to the door is a clock, which reads: ‘it takes a minute to count a minute & the time spent counting doesn’t count’. The Möbius movement of the clock hands, which simultaneously undoes the seconds that it registers, creates an alternative understanding of process and duration. Drawings from the 1970s and 80s, also by Stefan, echo this cyclical motion through their fluid and curvilinear forms. They weave in and around one another in constant growth and varying constellations.
The performance of line and gesture continues into the adjacent gallery where on display are a collection of the cut-out forms and masks that formed part of Franciszka’s designs for Jarry’s play. Shifting between two and three dimensionality the installation indulges in the theatricality of light and shadow. A series of puppets on a shelf are starkly lit, whilst a human rendition of the same performance is played on a television screen opposite. The white-painted faces of each actor blurs into the backdrop, allowing the black contours of their costumes to dance upon the surface, as if the drawings had come to life.
This interplay between activation and stasis is implicit within the three films that are screened next door. Nonsense and absurdity have a further part to play here, as techniques of distortion, warping and the obscuring of sound and image create an abstract collage of filmic fragments (‘Calling Mr. Smith’, 1943). A Queen’s English voice narrates the undoing of culture and the pillars of knowledge that dominate Western thought. Produced as a series of war documents, the Themersons’ film visually subverts the expressions of power that it recounts. Knowledge, authority and mastery fall to process, play and becoming.