Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.
PROPERTY FROM THE STUDIO OF FRANCISZKA THEMERSON
‘What is avant-garde?’ I asked Franciszka. (I was 12 at the time.) ‘Avant-garde refers to various forms of art,’ she explained ‘which are new, which have something to say, and which usually take time to be recognised’. ‘Oh’, I said, not understanding a word.
About a month later during the spring of 1946, I walked into our large empty bathroom to find a frightening sight, a big, heavy man sitting on the floor twisting pieces of metal. Rushing out nervously I called to Franciszka, ‘will the plumber in the bathroom take long?’. ‘No, no’ she shouted from upstairs, ‘he is not a plumber and will be out soon, this is our friend, Kurt Schwitters, he is an avant-garde artist’. How could I have known? In the bathroom, unlike in Franciszka’s studio, there were no easels and no paints, but the avant-garde, so I was to learn, was a broad church and Schwitters, whose friendship with Franciszka and her husband Stefan begun in 1944, had come to visit and to give them a present. Schwitters’ use of an unconventional space to work was even more puzzling for me than Franciszka’s abstract paintings. ‘Is avant-garde popular?’, I continued my investigation. ‘It might be’, came the answer ‘but usually in retrospect’.
Both Schwitters and Franciszka belonged to the modernist avant-garde, which flourished during the first half of the 20th century, but Franciszka’s studio on the 4th floor of a white stucco building in Randolph Avenue had, to my mind, all the appropriate equipment of an artist’s work place, including the mandatory smell of oil paint. There were two easels, tables with boards on which the paints were mixed, a metal container with palette knives and a few other nondescript sticks and brushes. There were oil paints, stretched canvases, rolls of canvas, paper, and in a bag some fine grit or sand, which she used to create textures.
Franciszka Themerson, daughter of the painter Jakub Weinles, was born in Warsaw on 28 June 1907, and graduated with distinction from the Warsaw Academy in 1930. The following year she married the writer and experimental photographer Stefan Themerson, and during the 1930s they became kingpins in a small but vital Polish film-making avant-garde. Their films were financed in part by a series of inventive books for children (his words, her drawings). Moving to Paris in 1938, they were rapidly overtaken by the outbreak of World War II, separated for two years and only finally reunited in 1942 in London, where they made two more films, and then in 1948 they founded their highly original Gaberbocchus Press publishing house, which over the next 30 years produced a string of remarkable books. The Gaberbocchus list included their friends Jankel Adler and Kurt Schwitters as well as Jarry, Apollinaire, Heine, Grabbe, Queneau, Bertrand Russell, Stevie Smith, and C.H. Sisson. Franciszka designed most of the 70 books they published, and illustrated many of them, most memorably Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi (1951). She also designed marionette productions of Ubu in Stockholm and Copenhagen (1960s/70s), for which she received the gold medal at the 1966 Triennale of Theatre Design in Novi Sad, and drew a formidable Ubu Comic (1969/70).
Alongside this busy world, Franciszka’s independent career as an artist was forged. A natural draughtsman, she steadily accumulated ways of painting that enabled her to draw with and into the paint, using knives, sticks, fingers, anything but the right end of a brush, and always with an easy dexterity. Line is at higher premium than colour generally, and towards the end she even abandoned the light colour glazes of her mature art to work in luminous whites and off-whites.
My unanticipated encounter with Schwitters and his subsequent visits to the Themersons belong to the time when Franciszka was beginning to paint again. These four abstracts were among the first that she worked on after World War II and mark her rebirth as a painter. These paintings of the mid-forties on stretched canvases are abstract, colourful and animated but not simple. Even though she participated in various activities of the Artists International Association and other groups of London artists, her style of the mid-forties was closer to her Parisian contemporaries like Gustave Singier and Serge Poliakoff than to her English counterparts.
These four works are rare in that by the end of 1948 her paintings began to include figurative elements. Even so, these compositions based on regular patches of stippled colour that change in tone, despite their abstract character, tell a story. The rectangles and diagonals come together and become like an abstracted scene in which the elements with their own volition are caught in a moment of interaction.
Major solo exhibitions during her lifetime included shows at Watergate Theatre Gallery, 1951, where these abstracts were shown for the first time; Gallery One, 1957 and 1959; a retrospective at Drian Galleries, 1963; Zachęta, Warsaw, 1964; New Gallery, Belfast, 1966; Richard Demarco Gallery, Edinburgh, 1968; a retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, 1975; and Gruenebaum Gallery, New York, 1977. Public collections that hold her work include the Arts Council of Great Britain; British Museum, London; Art Museum, Belfast; Muzeum Narodowe, Warsaw; Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz; Victoria and Albert Museum, London; and Tate Gallery, London.
Jasia Reichardt, private correspondence, February 2019.