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Stefan Themerson was born in Płock in what was then part of the Russian Empire on 25 January 1910 and died in London on 6 September 1988. His father, Mieczysław Themerson, was a physician, social reformer and aspiring writer (some of his work was published) of Jewish descent. His mother, Ludwika Smulewicz. During the First World War Dr. Themerson served as a medical officer in the Tsar's army and his family lived in Riga, St. Petersburg and Wielkie Luki. In 1918 they returned to Płock, in an independent Poland, where Stefan attended the Jagiellonka Gymnasium. In this time he showed his first interest in photography and built a radio receiver. In 1928 Themerson went to Warsaw as a student, studying first physics at the University of Warsaw and then, after a year, architecture at the Warsaw Polytechnic, but actually spending most of his time working at photography, collage and film-making. His first published piece of writing was also in 1928. He never formally left his studies but gradually withdrew to follow his other interests. It was about then that Themerson met- or met again- Franciszka Weinles, an art student, whom he married in 1931.
1931 to 1935
During these years the Themersons lived and worked in Warsaw. Stefan contributed articles to various periodicals and prose and verse to school textbooks and wrote at least ten books for children which Franciszka illustrated. Pan Tom Buduje Dom [Mr Rouse Builds His House] is still in print in Poland. Stefan also experimented with photograms and the two of them made five short experimental films Apteka Pharmacy (1930), Europa (1931–1932), Drobiazg Melodyjny [Musical Moment] (1933), Zwarcie [Short Circuit] (1935) and Przygoda Czlowieka Poczciwego [The Adventures of a Good Citizen] (1937). These were shown with other experimental films of the time. All except Przygoda Czlowieka Poczciwego, which remained in Warsaw, were lost in Paris in the Second World War, but the script for Europa, based on a poem by Anatol Stern was later published by the Themersons' Gaberbocchus Press, illustrated by surviving stills from the film and Apteka was remade from descriptions of it when it first appeared, stills and storyboards. In 1935, with other young filmmakers, they founded a cooperative, S.A.F (Spoldzielnia Autorow Filmowych].
1936 to 1939
In 1936 and 1937 the Themersons visited Paris, then the centre of the world for avant-garde art, and London, meeting Moholy-Nagy and other experimental artists and arranged first screenings of French and English on their return to Warsaw. They also founded a review F[ilm] A[rtistique], Stefan as editor, Franciszka as artistic editor (the journal of the film-makers' co-operative). Two issues were published, one on the French avant-garde, one on recent English film. A third issue, on the Polish avant-garde, was planned but remained unpublished when, in the winter of 1937/38 they moved to Paris ("I just knew I had to be in Paris." Themerson said.) Here they found a circle of artists and writers, many Polish, to live and move in. Themerson wrote for various Polish publications in Paris and Franciszka started to paint. They planned to stay there, but - as for most of their generation - the War changed their lives. With the outbreak of war in 1939, both of the Themersons enlisted, Stefan joined the Polish army forming in France after the German and Soviet invasions and division of Poland, Franciszka was seconded to the Polish government-in-exile as a cartographer, first in France then from 1940 in London.
Second World War and after
In 1940 Themerson volunteered for a Polish infantry regiment, just in time for the débacle of the German invasion and the Allies' collapse. His memory was of marching day and night in summer heat to St-Nazaire. There, in June, the regiment was disbanded, the officers abandoning their men and the men dispersing where they could. Themerson travelled in France, first returning (on foot) to occupied Paris, then to Toulouse, where- through the Polish Red Cross- he re-established contact with Franciszka, who worked for the Polish Government in Exile as a cartographer in Paris and Normandy and then escaped to London on a troopship from Bayonne. He spent time in refugee camps, worked as a farm labourer, and spent over a year in a hostel of the Polish Red Cross, the Hôtel de la Poste in Voiron. Here he began writing Professor Mmaa's Lecture in Polish and wrote the long poem Croquis dans les Ténèbres [Sketches in Darkness]. Much of theor fitful correspondence from the years 1940-42 concerned attempts to engineer Stefan's escape from France. Finally, towards the end of 1942 Themerson got across France and Spain via Marseilles to Lisbon where he was flown to Britain by the R.A.F., rejoining his wife and re-enlisting in the Polish army. He spent time with the army in Scotland, where he finished Professor Mmaa, and then was sent to join the film unit of the Polish Ministry of Information and Documentation in London. There he and Franciszka made two further short films, Calling Mr Smith, an account of Nazi atrocities in Poland and The Eye and the Ear, inspired by four songs by Szymanowski. In 1944 at the PEN club meeting to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of John Milton's Areopagitica, Themerson met Kurt Schwitters, who was a close friend until his death. At about the same time he met others who remained close, including Jankel Adler, Julian Trevelyan and Anthony Froshaug. Also in 1944 the Themersons moved to Maida Vale, where they lived for the rest of their lives. A close neighbor was the experimental poet and publisher Bob Cobbing with whom the Themersons entertained warm relations.
Stefan and Franciszka Themerson published many of their own works through their highly original Gaberbocchus Press from 1948 to 1979, most were designed by Franciszka, and many included her illustrations. They also worked with the translators Barbara Wright and Stanley Chapman. Their list of some 70 titles included works by Guillaume Apollinaire Jankel Adler and Kurt Schwitters, the first English translation of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi, Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style and The Good Citizen's Alphabet by Bertrand Russell. The latter wrote a warm preface to Professor Mmaa’s Lecture. Stefan was the inventor of Semantic Poetry (see his novel 'Bayamus' 1945, and 'On Semantic Poetry' 1975), and he wrote an opera, 'St. Francis and the Wolf of Gubbio' (1972). In 1981, Themerson delivered the annual Huizinga Lecture in Leyden, The Netherlands, under the title: The Chair of Decency. He died in London, 1988, a few weeks after the death of Franciszka.
- Stefan Themerson, 'The Urge to Create Visions', (Gaberbocchus + De Harmonie, Amsterdam, 1983)
- Ilona Halberstadt (ed), Close-Up: The Art of Franciszka & Stefan Themerson [various authors], PIX no.1 (1993/4, Winter) pp.67-122.
- Jan Kubasiewicz and Monica Strauss (ed), 'The Themersons and the Gaberbocchus Press' [various authors], exhibition catalogue, MJS Books, N.Y.(October 1993-January 1994)
- Jasia Reichardt, 'Gaberbocchus Publishers', in Parenthesis; 12 (2006 November), p. 35-36
- Jasia Reichardt (ed), Unposted Letters, 1940-1942, Franciszka & Stefan Themerson, Gaberbocchus & De Harmonie, Amsterdam 2013
- Factor T
- Bibliography of works by Stefan Themerson
- Stefan and Franciszka Themerson archive
- Gaberbocchus Press website
- Dalkey Archive Press pages
- Reading Stefan Themerson by Nicholas Wadley
- Description of remake of Apteka
- Review of "Tom Harris" by Seamus Sweeney at nthposition.com
- Stefan and Franciszka Themerson at culture.pl
- GV Art website,