Review: Franciszka & Stefan Themerson

April 1, 2016
  • Rating: ★★★★☆
Camden Arts Centre

Polish husband and wife Franciszka and Stefan Themerson’s output is so varied, spanning so many types of media and so many artistic styles, that making sense of it all in one room is rather overwhelming.

Along the first wall is a row of cabinets filled with illustrations, mostly for children’s books – one features a small dog with the caption “This is rather like Lady Diana”, another a mother and daughter next to the phrase “There are some human beings who do not wish for eternal life”. On the next wall are a series of colourful geometric abstractions. Further along are macabre puppets, satirical comic strips and abstract photographs.

From 1929 until their deaths in 1988, the couple experimented with virtually every emerging artistic medium, the only threads tying the enterprises together being their absurdist sensibility, a wicked sense of humour and their enduring commitment to the freedom of expression.

The highlight is in the final room, where videos of their three surviving short films play. The Adventures of a Good Citizen is a kind of absurdist slapstick caper in which two men carry a mirrored cabinet across the countryside; imagine a Charlie Chaplin film directed by Luis Buñuel and you’ll be in the right ballpark. The second is a more overtly political film, Calling Mr Smith, touching on the Nazi ban on Polish art and music, featuring documentary footage, animation and drawings. The final film, The Eye and the Ear is a more conceptual piece attempting to create a visual representation of pieces of music. It’s a chaotic, bewildering but fascinating exhibition of these unsung pioneers of the absurd.

Also at the Camden Arts Centre is a new exhibition by Swedish artist Karl Holmqvist, who uses language and poetry as a starting point for visual art. He takes strings of words or phrases such as “The kid is not my son” or “This shit hits this” and repeats them over and over to form strings of near-indecipherable text. Other pieces uses words to create shapes and patterns, playing with and testing the limits of language.