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The Themersons and the Polish Avant Garde
A.L. Rees on the films of Stefan and Franciszka Themerson for PIX.

Polish artists between the two world wars shared a passion for the new art of cinema with such early — and diverse — modernists as Man Ray and Fernand Leger, who made films themselves, and those like Picasso, Malevich and Heartfield, who planned to do so. Among the prime movers for a Polish avant-garde cinema were members of the Constructivist movement. Like its sister groups in the Soviet Union, Holland and Germany, Polish Constructivism was both rationalistic — in its search for aesthetic purity — and socially utopian, in its faith that machine-age functionalism could build a new cultural order in the aftermath of world war. The first art movement to unambiguously embrace the mass media and the modern age, Constructivism saw art as a unified force-field, in which the classic arts of painting, sculpture and architecture (purged of realism, romance and ornament) were linked with craft tradition and the new arts of photography, montage, design and cinema.

The young Polish artist Teresa Żarnower wrote as a Constructivist in 1923 that "The artist has the broadest scope for expression in the cinema, where elements of the individual branches of art may be combined, ... enhanced by the perfection of technical methods." As was common in this period, the dream of a new cinema came before the reality. Although Żarnower's artistic collaborator Mieczysław Szczuka began work on abstract films only two years after her statement on cinema, they were unfinished by his early death. The fulfilment of the Constructivist vision of film only came in the 1930s, just as the 'Cubist Cinema' mooted by French artists around 1912 had to wait a decade before the finance and the technology were available for such films as Leger's Ballet mecanique. But by the 1930s, Polish Constructivism was no longer in the forefront of art as a single voice, having split into factions. The principle of hope embodied by the movement was also battered by rising militarism and fascism in Europe and dwindling prospects for utopia. Poland was itself ruled by a General, and soon had Hitler on one side of the border, and Stalin on the other.

In this apparently grim climate, the young Themersons — just out of their teens — made the first Polish abstract films, and with wit and humour pursued the vision of film heralded by their older acquaintances, themselves also only in their twenties, the Constructivists, Szczuka and Żarnower. In the case of the Themersons' film Europa (1932), these near contemporary predecessors were honoured in letter as well as spirit, since it partly stemmed from their own design and graphics.

In complex ways, the Constructivist legacy was passed to a new generation of experimentalists in the 1930s. As in France, where such writers as Louis Aragon, Maurice Raynal and Guillaume Apollinaire were amongst the first to support the new cinema, so too Poland produced a number of important critics to promote non-narrative film. As early as 1913, Karol Irzykowski had attacked the failure of film drama to construct an imaginative cinema free of theatrical conventions. He continued as a voice of the avant-garde throughout the 1920s and 1930s, publishing his influential book The Tenth Muse in 1924, the same year as the first of Breton's Surrealist Manifestos.

Despite the enthusiasm of earlier Polish Constructivists for film, the Polish avant-garde largely skipped the phase of graphic abstraction which led to the early films of Richter, Eggeling and Ruttman in Germany, which they, in any case, abandoned around 1926-7 for the first lyrical documentaries. Reviewing the situation in 1928, the critic Stefania Zahorska argued that graphic cinema should be superceded by films which abstracted the texture and light of the objective reality caught by the camera-eye, and were edited by montage methods derived from musical form. She voiced a concept of photogenic film-making which had been eloquently promoted in France by the writings of the Polish emigre director Jean Epstein, as well as by Man Ray and Henri Chomette. Zahorska was writing in advance of the first flowering of the Polish experimental cinema, but she signalled the direction it was to take: a mixture of poetics, montage and documentary. Like Irzykowski and Jerzy Toeplitz, she supported the new film-making throughout the pre-war period.

The period between 1930-34 was formative for the Themersons. In contrast to the formal bias of Constructivism, it was characterised, in the phrase of Karol lrzykowski, by "the search for content," and parallel slogans were also promoted by Hans Richter in Germany as the hopeful 20s dwindled into the harsher 30s. Irzykowski now argued that artists and film-makers faced pressing problems of social reality and should take their subject matter from anti-fascism, anti-authoritarianism, the needs of mass audiences, the critique of visual conventions and cliches, and the growing struggle for women's rights. Artists were exhorted to mix new cinematic techniques with overtly social statements, blending poetry and polemics.

The Constructivist era and its aftermath is bridged by the prolific Mieczysław Szczuka, a pioneer film-maker who died in 1927, in a climbing accident, aged 29. Szczuka's best-known work is in the theory of architecture — but he was protean and active in design, photomontage and graphics. (Coincidentally, Stefan Themerson, when making his first film, was still an architecture student). A vigorous debater in the complex stages of later Constructivism, Szczuka was a member of the group which invited Mayakovsky to visit Poland and as a leftist radical, though not a Party member, he was also a graphic designer for Polish Communist Publications, while nevertheless designing advertisements.

Szczuka was a fierce defender of functionalist design and held that the category of art would disappear within a commitment to social practice. His essays attack purist definitions of art, the issue on which the main Constructivist group BLOK split in 1926, and which led to the exit of the painters and founders of the group Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński. (They had studied in the Free Studios in Moscow, 1918-1919, and worked with Malevich in Vitebsk. But even as Purists they showed an interest in social activity typical of the Polish avant-garde: Malevich when visiting his homeland was criticised by his disciples for metaphysical traces in his theory of art; and in 1932 they persuaded the socialist council of the industrial city of Łódź to support one of the first museums of modern art, the still functioning Muzeum Sztuki). Szczuka agreed with Tatlin's Productivist group in Russia and the Bauhaus school in Germany that artists should collaborate with factories to produce strictly utilitarian objects.

But while Szczuka was arguing for a strict functionalism in design, he was also working on ideas for abstract films. In 1924, BLOK published his article 'Essential elements for an abstract film', accompanied by a diagram of geometrical shapes and forms on a filmstrip — a graphic notation rather than anything that could be actually shot, like many outline plans of the period. Szczuka notes: "Movement as change in place; the coming and going, but not changing, of geometrical forms, the disintegration or construction of forms [...]" A mini-scenario goes on to refer to colour, brightness, direction, interplay of shape, tempo, harmony and pauses.

The film was eventually drawn out on long rolls of paper, according to Stefan Themerson, who saw them in Szczuka's studio after the artist's death. The impulse for the film was probably based on the work of the ex-Dadaist, Viking Eggeling, who had begun using the 'Chinese scroll' method in Zurich around 1919, later moving to Berlin where he died in 1925 after completing his surviving project, Diagonal Symphony. Szczuka could have found details of Eggeling's films in the international art press, (e.g. De Stijl), but could also have learnt of them from his friend Henryk Berlewi, recently returned from Germany, where he had belonged to the radical November Group in 1921-3. Berlewi too was experimenting with light-play as well as abstract paintings that gave the illusion of pulsating, and had reviewed his friend Eggeling's work in the journal Albatross.

The following year, in 1925, Szczuka began the more adventurous film He Killed, You Killed, I Killed. The words of the title were to be shown and permutated in different typefaces and intensities, and evidently it aimed to elicit an emotive and physical response through its wordplay. Here abstraction now passes through language, the word doubling as a visual sign in the montage structure. As with the earlier abstract film, it is not known how far Szczuka got with it before his death. The only comparable semiotic film of the period is Duchamp's Anemic Cinema (1926), with its revolving spirals and scatological puns, or more distantly Man Ray's use of allusive titles in L'Etoile de mer (1928). Szczuka's second film predates the semiotic cinema of the structuralist 1970s by over forty years.

In contrast to these lost and certainly uncompleted films, Szczuka was to leave another legacy to the avant-garde cinema through the designs he prepared with Teresa Żarnower for the publication of the Futurist poem Europa by the young socialist writer Anatol Stern. This project was to pass through many interlinked media and variations. Published in 1929, two years after Szczuka's death, the poem is a strident attack on the destructive militarism of European capitalism. In a later tribute, Stern commented on its experimental typography and collaged illustrations: "Szczuka shows in two of his images the two faces of modern art. Chaplin bursting into sardonic laughter before the European spectacle he contemplates and Petrarch, crowned with laurels, among a thousand others, turning his back on the continent drowned in a sea of blond. Szczuka saw only the two extremes; he abhorred the debauchery of nuances." In the words of another advocate of collage as a device in art, Walter Benjamin, the poem and its design imply that "every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism."

During an era rich in collaboration, it is interesting that Stern too treats the images of Europa as equal in meaning to his own text. His stress on Szczuka's thought as representing 'two extremes' is in apparent contrast to the characteristic major theme of unity that runs through much Polish art of the time, and underscores Szczuka's radical politics. At almost the same time, Jean Cocteau also used the image of a laurel-wreathed muse and a bull on whose hide is traced the map of the continent (perhaps an echo of the myth of the rape of Europa). The final shots from Cocteau's Le Sang d'un poète (Blood of a Poet) offer an image of transcendence, as the muse enters eternity — while Szczuka's Petrarch turns his face from Europe "drowned in a sea of blood," in a gesture of refusal. The two related images refer to different accounts of history, mimesis and aesthetic vision.

Cocteau's film was released in 1932, the year in which Stefan and Franciszka Themerson turned Europa into a film, now sadly lost as a consequence of the wars and upheavals which it predicted and denounced. Thirty years later the Themersons published an English facsimile of the original design, illustrating it with some surviving stills from the film, and adding another layer to the circles of history, language and place which the Europa project embodied. (The film version is now recoverable only in fragments and in the descriptions given by reviews such as those by Stefania Zahorska. In the 1980s the Themersons helped prepare a tape-slide version of the Europa material by the London Film Makers' Co-op).

The film exemplified a new wave of Post-Constructivist imagism. Stefan Themerson stated that the film "took an abstract approach to reality," while Zahorska (who had argued for such an approach several years before) explained that "the relationship between the images exists not 'realistically' but only at the level of ideology, at the threshold of symbolism. Its images [...] materially and tangibly show that Europe eats, Europe reproduces, Europe functions in the normal cycle — and continually gives birth to cannon-fodder." The film's figurative imagery and overt social statements underline a move away from Constructivist abstract precision, while its rough, brisk expressionism and direct use of metaphor reach back to the anarchic alliances between Constructivism and Dada a decade earlier, around 1922 (at a time before hard lines had been drawn, and when the de Stijl theorist Theo van Doesburg could write Dada poems under the nonsense pseudonym of I. K. Bonset).

If the Themersons rediscovered how to fuse Constructivist form with Dadaist iconoclasm, the film also implies a link to Surrealism, whose ideas had been permeating the continent since the mid-1920s. Polish history has perhaps made its artists receptive to Surrealist irony and black humour.

Alfred Jarry, who stood high in the Surrealist canon as one of its progenitors, had set his abrasive Ubu Roi in an imaginary Poland, circa 1900. It was translated into Polish as Ubu Król — czyli Polacy (Ubu Roi i.e. The Poles). When Jarry wrote the play in 1894, Poland literally did not exist as a state, being totally divided up among its neighbours. Ubu was therefore set 'nowhere', in a dyspeptic Erewhon or Utopia. Gaberbocchus Press published the first English translation of Ubu Roi (1951) with illustrations by Franciszka Themerson who went on to elaborate many versions in different media. Nick Wadley commented recently that "the violent scale of Jarry's sense of the absurd was a formative influence on her development as an image-maker."

It was possibly Surrealism which preserved the Themersons as well as others in the Polish avant-garde, from an outright descent into the growing tendency to social realism in the 1930s, which was to become institutionalised under the post-war Stalinist regime. "The search for content" renewed the call for a radical documentary cinema in the 1930s. However, the originator of the slogan, Karol Irzykowski, had already argued a decade earlier — in his book The Tenth Muse (1924) — that the role of radical cinema was to "reawaken" the image in art, blunted by convention and habit; and he continued to defend this view in the later, politicised period.

The Tenth Muse claimed that the cinema can bring together "the visible and the invisible"; the perceived and the imagined object. Cinema has this capacity because it can manipulate and alter images, restructuring them through montage editing. Irzykowski's wit and his stress on unity, are characteristic of the Polish avant-garde. And yet his metaphors of the sea recall Klee (who also claimed that art must "render the invisible visible") just as his theorisation — "The task of cinema [... ] is to compress, to select and multiply" affirms a semiotic of film akin to Vertov's.

"We live in the sea of matter, ... We not only swim amid matter in large circles; we also dabble playfully at one spot, as fishes do when slightly moving their fins. The art able to show this co-existence has barely begun ... The task of the cinema, this mirror of the visible — both real and imagined, known and future — is to compress, to select and to multiply the visible, as well as to present it in growth, and this is how it earns its dignity. The visible is no longer an everyday fact but turns into something important and wonderful. The roots of the visible and the invisible may grow into unity in some metaphorical extension, just as according to Schelling the subject and the object are one."

The Themersons had links with many of the artistic groups which were formed in the late 1920s and the early 1930s, but they uniquely stayed unaffiliated to any of them. Most of the artists who promoted film did so as members of associations. In Kraków, for example, Janusz Brzewski and Kazimierz Podsadecki of the Linia Group held an exhibition of experimental photography in 1931 that included work by Man Ray, Hans Richter and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy — all of them film-makers, incidentally — in an event that recalls the influential Film und Foto show in Stuttgart in 1929. The first Avant-Garde Film conference in 1929 at La Sarraz, Switzerland (Richter, Ruttman and Eisenstein were present), had as its topic "the art of the cinema, its social and aesthetic purposes." A year later in its final session in Brussels, the Congress unmistakably announced a shift of purpose in its statement that the avant-garde as a purely aesthetic movement had passed its climax, and was on the way to concentrating on the social and political film, mainly in documentary form. In his unpublished book The Struggle for the Film, (1937) Richter argued that political tensions "made poetry no longer suitable." The age demanded "the documented fact," he concluded, under "the social imperative."

Brzewski and Podsadecki went on to form the Kraków-based 'Studio of the Polish Avant-Garde Film,' screening new work that included Europa and their own films — Sections (1931) and Concrete (1933), as well as European experimental work. The two artists seem also to have wanted to combine the formal tactics of Constructivism with a freer use of images that evokes Surrealism. According to the film-makers, the theme of Concrete was "Human alienation in the technology of the city," which shows a growing distance from the urban utopianism of the earlier decade. Podsadecki's essay, "We need the abstract film," echoed Zahorska's earlier defence of photogenic cinema, arguing that the camera-eye and montage editing could renew visual perception of the objective world.

Jalu Kurek, also of Linia, had been showing films since 1931, screening his own O.R. in 1933 — the title is an acronym for 'Rhythmic Calculations' in Polish. It was described as showing how two apparently unrelated events are "forged into unity" by rhythm and composition — a further sign of the Unist theory widespread in the avant-garde and adopted as the title of his aesthetic system by the Constructivist Strzemiński.

Among other documented screenings, Europa was shown by the Constructivist Praesens group of artists and architects in 1933, along with work by Hans Richter and Joris Ivens, and similar shows took place in a variety of artists' groups and amateur associations in Warsaw, Łódź (The Polish Amateur Film Club), Kraków and Lwów (The Avant-Garde Film Club). Of all these early Polish film-makers, the Themersons, the most prolific, were uniquely consistent in their intellectual and visual aesthetic. The core of this approach was largely expressed in the fundamental value they gave to light.

Stefan Themerson made his first photograms when he was still at high school, by simply exposing a match flame on a photographic plate. Much later, in his book The Urge to Create Visions, Themerson recalled an African myth which tells of a girl throwing a handful of sparks into the sky where they turn into the stars. Themerson playfully speculates that this is the story of the beginning of cinema, the film screen is prefigured in the "huge dome resting upon the edges of the flat Earth on which mysterious negatives, lyrical photograms, strange and distant pictures of the sky were projected." Suitably expanded with the aid of a home-made camera stand, and a "great yellow coffin" of a camera made in 1910 (the year of the film-maker's birth, as he was happy to point out), the photogram technique was adapted to animate the moving shadows of objects filmed through a translucent glass sheet covered with paper. The moving of lights during filming created the illusion of the objects in movement. In this way, abstract forms were created for the Themersons' first film Apteka (1930) and for the more sophisticated Europa. Even in the live-action comic drama The Adventure of a Good Citizen (1937), photogrammed birds appear to fly in a mainly handpainted section. The graphic abstraction in The Eye and the Ear (1944/5) was especially attuned to photogram images, while in Calling Mr. Smith (1943) the photogram was expanded into surreal and abstract solarised colour.

The seemingly primitive photogram is thus a founding moment of the Themersons' films, and emblematic of their purpose; a combination of materialist abstraction and visionary lyricism, since the photogram is both a literal record of the passage of light and a manipulated form, partly controlled and partly left to chance. The flare of a match sparked a long investigation into the tracing of light.

Stefan Themerson found many origins for the photogram: in Bushman legends, Eskimo poems, in Indian languages that used the same word for "shadow, soul, echo and picture," in astronomy, mediaeval fables and in early modern art. The line he traced from the magic lantern, through the camera obscura to the photogram led him, on Teresa Żarnower's recommendation, to hunt out the eccentric French poet Pol-Dives in Paris during the 1930s, where he found the elderly man giving slide-shows of his 'visual poems' in a shed, to the sound of a gramophone. In his 1937 book, Themerson prefigured the statement of another film magus, Kenneth Anger, who stated that "Centuries before photography there were talismans, which actually anticipated photographs, since the dyes they used on the cheap vellum produced patterns when they faded in the light... cunningly you printed on it a 'photograph' of the demon you wanted to capture on it." Themerson's "soul-trap" is more benevolent:

"Photograms are as old as the world. When the apple was still green, a little leaf got stuck to its surface. The sun shone, the apple reddened, but not under the little leaf. And when Eve took the apple, which was pleasant to the eyes, she flicked off the little leaf, but she didn't notice that a beautiful shape of the little leaf was created there, on the peel of the apple. Neither did the serpent notice it. Nor did Adam. Nor the author of Genesis (otherwise he would have mentioned it, and he didn't)."

Or perhaps he did. The Zohar comments on the opening of Genesis ("In the beginning") that "When the will of the King began to take effect, he engraved signs into the heavenly sphere. Within the most hidden recess a dark flame issued from the mystery of the Infinite. Like a fog forming in the unformed — enclosed in the ring of that sphere, neither black nor white, neither red nor green, of no colour whatsoever. Only after this flame began to assume shape and dimension, did it produce radiant colours. From the innermost centre of the flame sprang forth a well out of which colours issued and spread upon everything beneath..."

Photograms emerge in the most unexpected places, but only perhaps because one is not looking for them there. Stefan Themerson's interest in codes, typographic experiments that exchanged word and image, linguistic experiment (he published an important study of Apollinaire's Calligrammes), translatability and logical and formal structures, together with the constructivist argument that the structure of art has biological roots which nonetheless should not be imitated in the work of art itself, can all be taken as a kind of inspired secular gematria. The value of his theories and the signifying role of illumination, was expressed by Themerson in 1936 in yet another image of water to parallel Irzykowski's: "To sing images, like a luminous fish does in the dark depths of the ocean, not with a reflected light but with one's own light."

Modernism is sometimes seen as anti-naturalistic, because it relies so heavily on technique, concept and artifice. To some extent this is so, but the art of the Themersons is based on the connection of nature and culture rather than on antagonism between them. In this view, nature is not only a source of aesthetic experience — it is also a source of meaning and not 'alienated' from the human mind. In the spirit of Duchamp, chance (and the intervention of 'nature') is welcome. The conscious use of accidents is often praised by Stefan Themerson. From this point of view, nature is a readymade.

The Themersons' best known film was made in 1937. The Adventure of a Good Citizen, subtitled an 'irrational humoresque,' shows how an unconventional gesture — in this case walking backwards — can baffle authority and challenge social norms. The good citizen of the title overhears on the telephone an instruction shouted to some workmen manhandling an awkward cupboard — "Walk backwards, the sky won't fall if you walk backwards!" (Or, in a later translation suggested by Stefan Themerson, "Walk arse forwards"). Misunderstanding the situation, the citizen duly walks backwards through the streets and bumps into the removal men. They join forces and finally arrive in a forest, where they play with the wardrobe mirror in a lyrically photogrammed and handpainted episode. Meanwhile, a hostile banner-waving crowd, angry at the nonconformists who choose to walk in reverse, chase after them. But the workmen and the citizen have disappeared to Parnassus in the sky, and the crowd finds that the wardrobe is an empty shell. With an imaginative leap, they too disappear. A flute-player tells the audience that they must "understand the metaphor." The film ends with a shot of a naked child in a meadow.

The phrase shouted over the telephone is echoed throughout the film, in a series of transformations. In fact the skies 'do' fall when the act of walking backwards incites social disapproval, just as they fall visually when 'the world turns upside down' in a sequence of photogrammed birds and hand-drawn trees. The man seen in a field celebrating his freedom by dancing half-reflected in the mirrored wardrobe door is actually inverted at this point, in a final flourish of liberty which is almost a literal emblem of the surrealist epoche.

Of all the Polish films of the period, this is perhaps the one closest to surrealism in feeling. Surrealism has as many heretics as ideologues. A year before the film was made, another renegade surrealist, Rene Magritte, living in another small country — Belgium — beset by Europe's wars, painted The Key to the Fields (1936). Here again the skies have fallen; shards of broken glass lie heaped beneath a smashed window, the fragments bearing on them the images of sky and landscape which the window still impossibly frames.

Fallen skies, imaginary birds and visionary landscape, along with images of reversal and duplication, are common to the Themersons and Magritte in these near-contemporary works, a partial meeting of minds on the far shores of surrealism. They are linked by a shared wish to break with illusionist habit, a taste for semantic play, literalism and paradox, while still insisting that fantasy is based on the texture of everyday life.

Unlike Borges — a writer to whom he might be compared in the intricacy of his plots and the use of emblems and logical conundrums — Stefan Themerson's fictions were always to be rooted in human behaviour and the strangeness of everyday reality. In his novels, he finds the extreme in the normal, while his plots are based on simple mistakes which lead to complex situations (as in The Adventure of o Good Citizen). The surreal topology of his novels and writing is not chaotic but supremely orderly. Its world is balanced, but its characters — who may be humans or termites differ one from another in their perceptions and how they describe them. From this asymmetry of individuals, disorder and misalliance can often take place. In this, Stefan Themerson never lost his early training in the sciences. Nature is always the origin, but he shares with the Polish Constructivist Karol Hiller a concept of "rebellious matter" and with Jarry and Duchamp a belief in the laws of chance. The photogram is the emblem of this philosophy, just as anti-authoritarianism is its political ethic.

In a later radio interview (1978), Stefan Themerson recalled that the early avant-garde believed that "a new order or disorder — in art" might change the world for the better. This is the practical meaning of the film's metaphor which the viewers are asked to understand by the flute-player who speaks at the end of The Adventure of a Good Citizen. In Poland, 1937, the metaphor of the film needed little interpretation; if you conform, you may not become a fascist (the outraged crowd are a motley crew, and include a Jew in a caftan), but even so the "forward march" of fascism will beat you. The German invasion two years later proved the point. The Themersons, who were then in Paris were to be driven into exile to England.

The section of the film in which a mirror acts as a transition to a fantasy sequence depicted by photogram images is also a key to Themerson's imagination. Mirrors — a recurring theme in the later novels — are complementary to photograms, but seen (as it were) from the other side. While the mirror reflects the virtual image of its object, a photogram encodes directly the shadowed imprint of an object's surface. Several of the early films use two kinds of visual signification and their accompanying metaphors: the iconic image of cinematography (which works by resemblance) and the indexical photogram (in which the image is a trace of its source).

In The Adventure of a Good Citizen, the wardrobe mirror carried by the workmen reflects chance encounters with daily life which enter the fictional world of the narrative. Caught unawares, amused bystanders watch the antics of the film-makers (also glimpsed in reflection) and are indiscriminately caught by the camera-eye. In the final scenes in the forest, the mirror becomes a magical object, as the citizen plays with its reflections. When the hostile crowd follows the rebels into the forest and search the wardrobe, they only find an empty frame; the mirror itself has disappeared, along with the escaped protagonists.

The mirror has become a metaphor, punning on its long history in western art, where — as 'the reflection of reality' — it alternately stands for truth or illusion, depending on the context. Here, it stands for both. In a much later novel, Tom Harris (1967), the narrator experiments with a dazzling arrangement of symmetrical reflections, to work out their laws and irregularities. The theme is prefigured in the earlier film, which (as Stefan Themerson stated) can be played forwards or backwards and still retain its meaning.

Stefan Themerson argued that formal structures in logic, art and language transform reality. Like all systems, they are reflexive and lead to what he called "thinking about thinking" — which should not stop there but go back to the consideration of human behaviour. This evokes Benjamin's argument for apperception, or audience self-awareness, in the cinema. The main visual figure for this self-reference is the mirror and its reflections. More explicitly than the other films of the period, because it is the least didactic of them, The Adventure of a Good Citizen also heralds a further theme in the later fiction, through its interlocking narrative in which apparently unrelated persons and events are brought together in a complex whole (rather like Kurek's 0.R. but via narrative structure rather than pure montage). The fractal symmetries of relativism receive later and equally tragic-humorous elaboration in such novels as Tom Harris (1967), The Mystery of the Sardine (1986) and Hobson's Island (1988) — which affirm the same message as the 1936 film — that other people have the right to live too.

There is a remarkable consistency about Stefan Themerson's work as film-maker and author, all the more striking because inconsistency is one of his major themes. He is a commonsense fantasist, for whom the most bizarre events spring from speculations based on facts. He treats ironically Kant's warning that reason should not speculate at all if it is to avoid fantasy; the dialectic of reason quickly leaps to unreasonable conclusions when left to its own laws and devices. The fantasies of reason are as self-embedded as a Themerson plot. This pessimistic view of fantasy is twisted in Themerson's later novels to yield an optimistic conclusion, just as 'semantic poetry' (developed from the 1940s) deconstructs poetic metaphors into factual statements, paradoxically freeing their semiotic meaning. By taking logical positivism to its ironic conclusion, the essays and novels argue that the fly-trap of language can be unglued and the prison-house of language given a key. As with the protagonists of The Adventure of a Good Citizen in their looking-glass world, the latter books show that language is a mirror in which logicians can free themselves from their own labels — in this case, self-adhesive ones.

Some elements of the later films were also present in the earliest ones. The title of Apteka (Pharmacy) 1930, hints at an alchemical theme, the blend of science and lyric, which flows through its development of the home-made photogram method its makers devised: the filming of shadow-traces in negative. This 3-minute work creates abstract images from items in a chemist's shop; the film-makers were, Stefan Themerson recalled, "indecently, unashamedly young;' in their early 20s. ("Franciszka was completing studies at the Academy of Art [...] I was in architecture.") He described an early screening to a film society, at a friend's invitation:

"First there was an American film in which Homer (or was it Hector?) rocked in a rocking chair. And then Apteka. Someone asked 'What are those drops doing on the screen?' I didn't then know how to talk when I had nothing to say. Since I had nothing to say regarding the drops on the screen I remained silent. Thus it was concluded I must be conceited. I wasn't conceited. I was merely a young boy from the provinces who knew what he wanted, yet thankfully was totally unaware of the nature and immensity of the barriers set out around him. The Himalayas, Carpathians, Alps and Pyrenees seemed to him insignificant playthings moulded out of pailfuls of sand. We put the tin with Apteka back in my pocket, and went out for a walk. Over the Poniatowski Bridge, to Praga and the Wilno Station and back over the Kerbedz bridge, we walked all night and into the morning. Such was our first meeting with the film club START — 'The Society of Enthusiasts for Art Cinema."

Abstracting directly from nature — by using the shadows and reflections of real forms — the early films combined a quasi-scientific technique with highly visionary images. Their next film, Europa was far more ambitious — overtly linked to the avant-garde: Neo-Coustructivist art, writing and the social impetus of the period — and was received with greater understanding and much enthusiasm. From the following year — 1933 — the Themersons' film-making took a subtle shift. Without losing their independent ideas, they accepted commissions which both allowed them to develop their range and also kept the 'social imperative' much debated during this period. This links them not only to the work of Richter and Ivens on the continent, but to the similar impulse towards a radical and social cinema in the British Documentary movement: within a few years they were to make contact with John Grierson, and their later films in England ally them loosely to the kind of cinema Grierson fought for — creative, didactic, committed.

Their first step in this direction was Moment Musical (1933), a 3-minute advertisement, also shown in cinemas, promoting a glass-ware shop, using a Ravel soundtrack. This new phase of their work expanded with their founding of the Film-Makers' Co-operative (S.A.F.) — the first of its kind — which was set up to promote and fund independent production and to expand knowledge of the film medium through screenings and — from 1937— a journal, with S. Themerson as editor, and F. Themerson as art director. Its dozen members included Witold Lutoslawski, who composed the music for the Themersons' next film, Zwarcie (Short Circuit), subtitled Symphony of Electricity, of 1935, funded by the Institute of Social Welfare as a public-awareness film on safety in the home. Given cinema release as a ten-minute short, Stefania Zahorska described it in 1936 as a "poem of objects, lines, lights — it is a drama of electricity, it is a short circuit of forms out of breath." Stefan Themerson described later how, in one of its scenes, a figure appears on the screen and is then 'struck' by a bolt of electricity scratched on the negative. The film was constructed on the basis of its soundtrack, some of the music composed in advance and later sections added, "each note carefully synchronised with the visual elements."

Perhaps helped by beginning to make films at the start of the sound era, the Themersons were able to overcome one of the factors which slowed earlier avant-garde cinema to a standstill in the '30s — the death of the silent movie and the expense of the new process. They were to use sound again in The Adventure of a Good Citizen, their last Polish film in 1937, and in both their English-made films of the 1940s they extended the creative use of sound well beyond the 'musical accompaniment.'

In the meantime, however, the Themersons put their efforts into showing and publicising the avant-garde cinema, constructing a climate in which their work and that of the other S.A.F. members could be understood; although, as it turned out, the other S.A.F. productions were not completed. Aleksander Ford and Wanda Jakubowska were to become influential film-makers in post-war Poland.

The magazine f.a. (Art Film) appeared twice, although a third issue was planned on Polish avant-garde film. The two published numbers were based on visits made by the Themersons to Britain and France in order to collect film prints which could be shown in Poland.

In the U.K. John Grierson supplied them with Song of Ceylon, Coalface, Night Mail and Colour Box — GPO and Crown Unit films on the experimental wing of the Documentary movement and mostly influenced by surrealist and abstract art. f.a.1 featured articles by Len Lye, Moholy-Nagy (then living in London) and Grierson to accompany a screening of these films in May 1937.

From France they brought back mainly historic films of the 1920s, and. f.a.2 carried articles on them for a second round of 1937 screenings. The films included Henri Chomette's Five Minutes of Pure Cinema (1926), Rene Clair's Entr'acte (1924) and Fernand Leger's Ballet mecanique (1924). The films were only licensed to be shown in Warsaw, frustrating the Themersons' plan to arrange a wider tour. In his notes for the films, Stefan Themerson wrote scathingly about these French films as 'museum-pieces' — but only with the aim of showing the limitations of Polish culture, for whom these older avant-garde films were still a novelty. The French collection also included Sandy's Pretexte (1929), Gitson's Changements des rues and Lacombe's La Zone (1928), a study of Paris rag-pickers.

The Themersons left Poland for Paris in 1938. When WW2 began a year later, Stefan joined the Polish Army and Franciszka left for London. From 1940-2 Stefan stayed in France, in the Polish Red Cross hostel, before he too escaped to London. Here they made two further films before devoting their efforts to the Gaberbocchus (Jabberwocky in Latin) Press from 1948, the Gaberbocchus Common Room from 1957 where they projected films among other events, and to their other activities in art, design and literature.

The Eye and the Ear (1944/5) was the culmination of the Themersons' ideas about film in the previous decade. During the 1930s, they had conceived an experimental cinema devoted to research and applied art, albeit with an imaginative core. Stefan Themerson proposed a kind of cinema which would include educational films, documentaries and advertisements, and cross realism with abstraction. The final two films in fact took up these ideas, constructing a cultural politics for the new cinema.

The Eye and the Ear embodies this urge towards didactic and experimental ideas, and was made as an artistic collaboration between music, graphic art, cinematography, image and sound. The film is constructed in four sections based on songs by the Polish modern composer Szymanowski. Each song is used to explore different ways of showing pictorial equivalents to the musical ideas. Green Words used "intentionally naive images" (ST) as illustrations of the music. St. Francis shows a formal analysis of musical shape, which Rowan Towers takes further through mapping the song in geometry and arithmetic. The final section, Wanda used abstract images taken from nature — shots of water — with photograms based on the human hand. It has, overall, the shape and development of a spiral.

The film's aim and many of its processes reach back to the earlier period of their work and explore further their cinematic approach. Szczuka's graphic cinema, for example, is here elaborated in the detailed analytical musical and visual score made to synchronise the film. Sound and vision are treated on equal terms: a modernist impulse towards the conceptual separation of parts within a constructed whole, and an implicit critique of the romantic synaesthetic 'fusion of the senses' announced in Wagner's programme for the totalising work of art. The film perfected the results of years of research into these issues. The collapse of its funding agency (The Polish Film Unit) limited the film's distribution.

At almost the same time they worked on their only colour film — Calling Mr Smith (1943), a 10-minute propaganda piece denouncing the destruction of Polish national culture under the Nazi regime (and hence ironically echoing some of the themes of Europa a decade earlier). The slightly awkward text and the over-ripe voice of Mr. Smith, the English 'Good Citizen', are less important than the extraordinary visual and audio construction of the film.

The film exploits the primitive Dufay colour process by heightening its rough non-realist contrasts (it was mainly used for animation, as in Lye's Colour Box) through solarisation, negative stock and printing through filters. Produced for the Film Unit of the exiled Polish Government, the first part illustrated the vandalism and anti-semitism of Nazi cultural policies, and then attacks German political brutalities (a shot of a girl hanging from a gallows was censored in Britain, its shock effect evidently working too well). The sound track is also manipulated, as when the Horst Wessel Nazi marching song is slowed and speeded to parallel the deconstructed montage of documentary footage which it accompanies. Here too, the researches into sound and non-naturalism of the preceding period come to fruition, in a film that exemplifies the abstract approach to reality which formed the Themersons' cultural programme of the 1930s.

The films of the Themersons are intimately tied to the period in which they were made, although they kept a distance from any of the formal groups of the period; in this sense they were part of an epoch and also eccentric to it. In other respects, their independence allowed them to create a unique vision of the modern media far in advance of the period. Stefan Themerson's 1928 essay on radio, for example, looks ahead to an audio-visual culture which is more attuned to the electronic present, envisaging stereo, 3D and multiple selection of programmes.

Similarly, their willingness to accept commercial and state commissions was part of the period in which they worked (exemplified by Grierson's methods of promoting a new cinema through similar methods), but it is also akin to the recent climate in which, during the 1980s, younger avant-garde film and video makers shifted towards commercial and promotional art. The Themersons themselves stopped film-making in the mid-1940s, partly because the future of commissioned work seemed to threaten unwelcome compromises.

In his radio interview (1978) Stefan points to the ironies and cynicism inherent in the contemporary interpretation of the old avant-garde. "The zeal, the ardour, the need to explore new possibilities — in the cinema, for example — the urge to create visions, a certain confidence that one can change the world for the better, that a new order or disorder — in art, a new logic, a new science, having new economic necessities, will impose she peaceful state of justice ... it is very bizarre that the works of art, created in that spirit, this way of thinking, should today have a purely aesthetic or even commercial value."

For two artists who set such a high value on creative freedom — both for maker and viewer — it can be seen why they founded their own press in 1948, allowing them the space so explore 'the urge to create visions', as they saw fit. In this way they ended a period in which, as Stefan Themerson wrote, they had been devoted to "conquest and control of the film material, and passionate experimentation." Like The Good Citizen, their heads may have been in the clouds, but their feet were firmly on the ground.

by F & S Themerson
based on Anatol Stern's Futurist poem 'Europa'
b/w, silent, 35mm, 15 minutes, Warsaw, 1931/32

"Growing grass — animated photograph; cotton fibres cut still by still, wind-back, white on black leaves in the wind photogram: movement of leaves by means of a moving source of light, negative and positive panorama following photomontages — a series of the artist's photomontages — penetration, revealing by means of light, etc., including a montage of a sky-scraper, cut by scissors from top, still by still, wind-back; boxer fighting without an opponent — Skulski, a fellow student of architecture; Eligiusz — unemployed, a model from the Academy: close-up, still by still, slide parallel to his body, from head down to shoes, apparatus of an easel dropped still by still study of eating — the model is a chap met in the street who turns out to be a butcher: head of the eating man devouring a beefsteak, his head horizontal to the screen — his mouth — menu with the inscription of 'Europe' from Hotel Europejski — repeated blow-up of the eating man with slices of an apple, eight exposures in the same reel, S.T. eats still by still — self/portrait — transmission strip with slices of an apple — newspapers — newspapers stuffed in a mouth — head and microphone; a drawing of Georg Grosz instead of his heart an animated motor still by still, this photograph was cut out by the censors who thought the drawing was a portrait of Prystor, a former Premier; panorama following photomontages — from the cover of Teresa Żarnower's 'Europa', and two figures — moulded in bread by two patients from the mental hospital in Twórki: Devil and Man in straight-jackets, the latter has movable head, it nods, still by still; these photographs are penetrated by those of a soldier wearing a helmet in the trenches who throws a hand-grenade — third penetration; barbed wire, hand on a cross, a hobnail — piano keyboard — jazz; photograph of a beating heart — white on black; bayonet and a stomach — bayonet withdraws! photograph of the palm of a hand — the Roman numerals V and XX against a background of loins; numerals fade, loins across the entire screen — pavement, paving stones, close-up, cracks between the stones, blade of grass — grows cut still by still, wind back; roots between paving stones stiffen — a blade of grass grows into a tree; the tree dominates — leans — falls straight into the apparatus; naked 'Bacchantes'? - models from the Academy: run straight into the apparatus — parts of their bodies — their hands tear up electric wire etc., rapid semi-abstract montages loins — bread — head: photograph of a stomach — close-up of skin; photogram of a beating heart — as before, across the entire screen with a heart in the background — a penetration of a tiny woman jumping from a diving-board into the water, in the centre of the screen; a naked child wandering through a meadow — it seems that the same photograph was at the end of The Adventure of a Good Citizen."

Recreation by S. & F. Themerson of the film script of their lost film Europa.

(from: Film as film, Hayward Gallery, London, 1979)

A.L. Rees
PIX 1 Winter 1993/4
Stefan and Franciszka Themerson in Paris, 1938.
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