Spring 1994

Experiments in publishing

Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’s Gaberbocchus Press was founded on the conviction that all the books they conceived together, wrote, designed and published should be “best-lookers.”

I owned a book by each of the Themersons long before I began to think of them as real people, let alone to meet and become close to them. In 1955, in a bookshop in Oxford Street, I had come across a little black book with a window in its cover, through which I could see the head and shoulders of a very attractive donkey wearing a polo-necked sweater. The book seduced me long before I opened it. Inside were line drawings whose simplicity appeared almost artless. They were pictures of little men inspecting, admiring, displaying or clambering inside ambiguous geometric configurations, some of which looked like modern art, others more like modern technology. The book was Franciszka Themerson’s The Way It Walks (1954), the third volume in the Gaberbocchus Black Series.

What attracted, then maintained my interest was that for all their appearance of naiveté, the book’s drawings are subtle, wise and funny - affectionate, ridiculous, merciless and moral all at once. The satirical montage of modern texts with which each drawing is associated only serves to compound these qualities. The ‘it’ of the book’s title is man. Franciszka watched the way it walks very shrewdly. And the book’s understated presentation expresses all this perfectly.

Towards the end of the 1960s, in the course of teaching art history, my interests had focused on turn-of-the-century Paris. Browsing in another London bookshop, I picked up a slim volume of Apollinaire, attracted initially because it reproduced several calligrams I had not seen before. I bought it because its visual presentation prompted thoughts about Apollinaire that were new to me. The book was Stefan Themerson’s 1968 edition of Apollinaire’s Lyrical Ideograms. When I got to the text, I found it not only a delight, but just what I expected from the book’s design. Not remotely academic but with a scholar’s pertinent spirit of enquiry, Stefan used his eyes to explore the material in a quite different way from that of historians I had read or heard on the subject. He opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the art-and-literature dialogue of Apollinaire’s time that have remained of fundamental value. Stefan also nudged me towards a more subtle understanding of Cubism. I started to recognise and enjoy its poetry.

When I met Franciszka and Stefan Themerson about ten years later, it became clear that my fortuitous choice of books had served as an accurate foretaste of their personalities and as appetisers to their respective oeuvres. My choice had also introduced me to a consistent quality of Gaberbocchus books: the use of appearance to express content.

The Gaberbocchus Press was formed with the idea that before being best-sellers, its books should be ‘best-lookers’. The Themersons had already made books together in Warsaw in the 1930s, and after the war both of them had met with frustrations in trying to get their work published in London. They published one or two things privately, but the press represented the most likely way of being able to do what they wanted, when and how they wanted. Another concern was that certain modern writings that were unpublished in England might otherwise remain so. Hence their editions of Jarry, Schwitters, Hausmann, Apollinaire, Queneau, Anatol Stern, Grabbe, Heine and Pol-Dives, as well as the work of younger writers and artists.

The other side of their ambition - the side that leaned towards the idea of ‘best-lookers’ - may be linked to their earlier collaboration in the 1930s, as independent film-makers. They had been at the forefront of the Polish avant-garde, founder members of a film-makers’ co-operative and respectively editor and artistic director of its journal. They made five films together in Warsaw, of which one survives. These reveal an inhibited attitude to technical improvisation, an intimacy with materials and a belief that form must suit content. Many of the instincts that had generated and shaped their films were turned, in 1948, to the making of books.

Their first books demonstrate their sensitivity to materials. They were made in the hall of his flat in Maida Vale, printed in two or three colours with a small handpress on handmade paper in editions of 400 each. Stefan’s Jankel Adler, An Artist as Seen from One of Many Possible Angles was published in October 1948; Aesop, the eagle & the fox & the fox & the eagle, designed and illustrated by Franciszka, followed in April 1949. Each of them provides instant gratification from touch, followed by visual and intellectual pleasure at the meshing of word and image.

The focus of jankel Adler is Adler’s monotype drawings, in sepia lines embedded into the porous fabric of the paper. Even with the Gaberbocchus archive at my disposal, there is no way of knowing whether the text was woven around the images or vice versa. What I am sure of, however, is that the intimacy of text and image is a hallmark of the press. The 1949 Aesop edition, while credited to Franciszka, is clearly a collaboration. My lasting memory of the book is that the symmetries and inversions of meaning were framed in the Themersons’ minds and then realised by a conspiracy between illustration and typography. Aesop’s fable is of the eagle and the fox. By inventing a sequel in which the protagonists are reversed, the book proposes a moral with wider, very modern applications which went unnoticed in contemporary reviews.

Manual assembly, not only of things but of the means to assemble things, was a natural activity to both of them. They were pragmatic in their use of available materials. The black, red and white house style that evolved in the later Gaberbocchus books, although it has precedents in the history of modern typography, owed its origins in their case to the standard black and red ribbon typewriter. They could buy interesting coloured papers that were not much more expensive than white, and their improvisatory attitude to colour contributes much, for instance, to the apposite scattered brilliance of Kurt Schwitters in England 1940-1948 (1958).

The first English edition of Ubu Roi (1951) was probably the press’s greatest tour de force. Bright yellow pages and hand-written text emerge as the inspired means of endorsing the play’s anarchy. The book gives off the odour of its content as you open it. With litho printing, it was possible for the artist to work directly on to the zinc plate. Franciszka asked Barbara Wright to hand write her translation on to the plates and then illuminated it with drawings in lithographic crayon which sometimes appears to insinuate themselves between ink and paper. The method was improvised: it was practical and economical, and its effect is dazzling.

The spirit of Jarry’s Ubu lit a touch-paper to Franciszka’s maturing drawings. The acceleration influence of Jarry’s hilarious sense of grotesque is clear in her successive treatments of Ubu through the 1950s and 1960s. She made masks for a 1952 reading at the ICA, London; she designed medal-winning sets, costumes and puppets for the Stockholm Marionetteatern’s production of 1964 (which still tours); finally she made her own savage comic strip version in 1969. The momentum generated through this series - increasingly liberated in technique, caricature and frank hostility - had a profound effect on all her work as an artist.

Semantic Divertissements (1962) is an eccentric example of the Themersons’ collaboration. Stefan’s 1946 text and typographic adornment were conceived to accompany an existing series of drawings by Franciszka, as a form of commentary. The original drawings, mostly in ballpoint pen, have the quirky picturesqueness of much of her early work, poised between naiveté and the tragic / dramatic. The deadpan encyclopaedic language of Stefan’s semantic explanations, with their blend of fact, wit and profundity, matches them perfectly. The unassuming typeface is a good equivalent for the deceptive monotony of the drawings’ unchanging line. All the book’s elements contribute to a poetic dialogue between the extraordinary and the commonplace.

The same imaginative flexing of resources to the meaning and mood of a book is present in may others. Franciszka’s illustrations for Bertrand Russell’s The Good Citizen’s Alphabet (1953) delighted the author, heightening ‘all the points I most wanted to make’. A few years later she illustrated The Quest for Corbett (1960), a radio play by Harold Land and Kenneth Tynan. The distance between Russell’s elegant anarchy and the surreal knockabout of Lang and Tynan’s script is eloquently expressed in the contrast between her drawings for the two projects. To present the verbal spectacle of Queneau’s Exercises in Style (1958), the Themersons played a very different game. They used Stefan’s montage of the author’s photograph on the jacket, the typographic device of a proofreader’s corrections on the title page and illuminated the text with drawings not by Franciszka, the artist, but by Stefan, the writer. Each exercise starts with one of the witty contortions of his anthropomorphic alphabet.

When they published the art of others, the Themersons found the means to give full rein to its distinctness. Their books of Gwen Barnard’s monoprint drawings in Shapes of the River (1955), of Stevie Smith’s drawings and hand-written poems in Some Are More Human Than Others (1958), or of Cozette de Charmoy’s haunted collage-novel The True Life of Sweeney Todd (the press’s 25th anniversary book in 1973) speak for themselves. The extraordinary care they took as editor and art director were freely acknowledged by the writers and artists who were published by them. Whether we judge the press by the tactile delights and singularity of its limited editions, or by the clean, accessible and economical pleasures of the later paperback format, its acknowledgement of the book as both literature and object commands our attention.

Reminiscing about the press towards the end of his life - by which time the shelf life of books in bookshops was fast diminishing - Stefan reminded me of the importance of keeping good writings available. It worried him that newcomers to Gaberbocchus books might look at the enterprise through the wrong end of the telescope. He was afraid that their interest might be of the ‘so that’s what they were doing’ variety, rather than seeing the value of the published material in the present, on its own terms. Looking at these extraordinary books now, in the content of their modern equivalents, I think he was right. Our first reaction is inevitably that of wonder at their exotic and arresting difference, strongest in the best-looking of the best-lookers. I was first attracted to them because of their aesthetic personality; I still am, even after working with them for years. But the homogenous path of seduction from there to the meaning of the books suggests that Stefan’s anxiety about the longer term was misplaced.

This article is based on an essay in the Themersons and the Gabberbocchus Press - An Experiment in Publishing, 1948-1979, published by MJS Books & Graphics, New York.

First published in Eye no. 12 vol. 3, 1994