Born in 1907, the Polish artist Franciszka Themerson was a prolific creator, producing paintings, drawings, children’s illustrations, experimental films, and stage and costume designs. Her work is often shown in conversation with that of her husband Stefan, with whom she also collaborated, together producing avant-garde films and printed matter through their publishing house, Gaberbocchus Press. Franciszka, however, had developed her own, distinct pictorial language that emphasizes the role of the line and its potential even in its most minimal form. An exhibition devoted entirely to her individual body of works is currently on view at l’étrangère in London, which the Themersons called home after moving to the city during World War II.
Franciszka Themerson: Lines and Thoughts recognizes the wide scope of the artist’s personal creative output during the later years of her life, featuring work from 1955 until 1986, two years before her death. Pen and ink drawings centered on the human figure comprise much of the exhibition, stressing her affinity for the line, but a number of what she referred to as “calligrammes,” as well as her paintings, are also on view. (Calligrammes, typically an arrangement of words into an image, are most famously associated with Guillaume Apollinaire, whose work Gaberbocchus Press promoted to a British audience.)
Themerson clearly loved the theater, and while none of her designs for the stage — from masks to life-size puppets — are on display, a number of her works on paper reveal her unique perspective of those involved in these productions. Musicians, particularly, often served as her subjects, perhaps because she was drawn to the rhythm of their performance. Her particular handling of drawing tools imbued her illustrations with a sense of animation: she spread ink and pencil marks across surfaces continuously, lifting her hand infrequently so the resulting lines quiver slightly like the strings of instruments.
“Throughout her life, Franciszka developed a pictorial language that, while ignoring expressionism, conveyed emotion with a lightness of touch and delicacy of line,” co-curator Joanna Mackiewicz-Gemes told Hyperallergic. “The sense of immediacy in her work is an expression of her desire for a seamlessness between internal thinking and the external execution.” Themerson’s later drawings veered towards abstraction and are much more sparse; but they reveal her constant fascination with the line — how simple strokes set against white could denote suggestive voids and stir the imagination strongly.
A set of calligrammes from 1960 mark the start of her turn towards her “bi-abstract pictures” — a term she used to describe her way of representing geometric abstraction as well as abstractions of the human condition, from the physical body to behavior to emotions. Formed from the spontaneous splattering of black, gold, and red paint on paper, these bolder works emerged from Themerson’s residency at the Fondation Karolyi in Vence, France. There, she grew acquainted with the works of artists such as Jean Dubuffet and Joan Miró, both of whom influenced her artistic vocabulary.
Her paintings, like Dubuffet’s, are incredibly textured — the result of her general preference to paint with her fingers and sharp implements such as knives or sticks, rather than with a traditional brush. They were, according to Mackiewicz-Gemes, once described as “modern white cave paintings.” Although more dense and much more involved than her illustrations, they still emphasize fluidity of the line, and her particular methods were still grounded in the act of drawing. Themerson maintained her focused on illustrating the human world, but these later paintings are much more cryptic, stitching together features so they overlap, or stacking them like eccentric totems. The strange portraits seem to offer dilemmas she observed in her surrounding world rather than straight observations; together with her more lighthearted, playful pen and ink caricatures, these paintings attest to Themerson’s different approaches to chipping away at her subjects in attempt to understand and literally draw out their unseen essence.
Franciszka Themerson: Lines and Thoughts continues at l’étrangère (44A Charlotte Rd, London, United Kingdom) through December 16.