Normally, l’étrangère exhibits works by contemporary artists, but the gallery is currently focussing on Franciszka Themerson (1907-1988), a Polish-born artist who contributed to the interwar avant-garde in Poland, before eventually ending up in the UK amidst the turmoil of the Second World War. What we see at l’étrangère is Themerson’s work from the early 1950s through to the 1980s – a small insight into the life and work of an artist, whose biography reads like an adventure.
Across two rooms, the exhibition highlights Themerson’s multi-dimensional practice, ranging from fragile ink drawings to heavily-layered oil paintings. In l’étrangère’s pared-down gallery interior, with dark painted floors and white walls, Themerson’s drawings seem all the more exquisite: humorous and fantastic compositions, works like ‘Woof woof’ (1950), ‘Dialogue’ (1951) and ‘Triple Drinkers I’ (1955) are a near-perfect mix of abstraction and tender humour, which emphasises the power of simple lines. These images, which remind us of Themerson’s practice as a children’s books illustrator, show that her work relies on everyday scenes, but abstracts them to the absurd, allowing us to see them in a different light – no wonder she has been called a ‘radical observer of society’.
The drawings also remind us of Themerson’s interwar avant-garde activities: like many young Central European artists of her generation, she forged connections with the Paris art scene, and read Apollinaire, after whose 1918 collection of poems she named her abstract Calligrammes series, following a variety of creative activities: not only publishing her drawings in illustrated weeklies’ like Płomyk, but also contributing to text- and children’s books by her husband Stefan, and producing a number of films together with him in the 1930s. Once in London, the couple founded their own publishing house, Gaberbocchus, where Themerson was the art director, while also completing costumes and stage designs for various theatre productions. This variety in her work informs Themerson’s drawings: they are naïve with their use of simplified, single lines, theatrical with their fantastic figures, and tell a number of stories at the same time.
What we see in the exhibition, paintings and drawings alike, is mature work, something that Themerson clearly had begun to develop years earlier. At the same time, the show’s inevitably based on the artist’s emigration background – and we can’t help but wonder how much of her art relates to this post-war moment, when she managed to escape from the horrors of Nazism and continue her life and work elsewhere. The grotesque bodies in her images thus also gain a darker dimension, emphasising the power of simple imagery to convey the horrors of history.
With so much insight into the artists’ multi-faceted career, ‘Lines and Thoughts’ fits perfectly with l’étrangère’s usual exhibition focus, even though Themerson is a much earlier artist: having shown solo exhibitions of Joana Rajkowska and Anita Witek in the previous year for example, l’étrangère is not an ‘easy’ gallery. The works on show always need context and become better through our efforts to learn more about their background. There always seems to be a connection to texts, in one way or another, emphasising that, even though this is a fine art gallery, culture is multi-faceted – and often more successful in collaboration.