Janusz Lachowski Anatol Stern and Stefan Themerson. On Europa and the Friendship Between the Two Avant-garde Artists on the Basis of Their Mutual Correspondence from the Years 1959-1968

This article studies the relationship between Anatol Stern and Stefan Themerson, two major figures of the Polish literary avant-garde, who met
each other and began to work together already in the early 1930s. The article is mainly based, among other sources, on the artists’ mutual correspondence, recently compiled by the National Library of Poland.11 Their letters date to the years 1959–1968: 1959 is when the writers re-established communication and 1968 is the year of Stern’s death. Regrettably, none of their letters, if any, dating back to the interwar period have survived to date in any of their archives, sharing the fate of the majority of other pre-war materials. Neither has the only product of their collaboration from the interwar years, namely a film adaptation of Stern’s narrative poetry entitled Europa – which Themerson believed to be his greatest cinematic achievement12 and which was probably one of the most interesting accomplishments of Polish pre-war cinema – been preserved to this day.

It was based on a piece of literature first printed in 1925 in the Reflektor literary magazine from Lublin.13 Two years later, its extended version
appeared in Stern’s book of poetry entitled Bieg do bieguna [Run to the Pole]. The last publication of this narrative poetry in the interwar
period was a separate bibliophile edition of 1929, with a modified graphic layout of the text14 designed by Mieczysław Szczuka, a graphic
artist (who died soon after completing the project, before it was published, falling to his death from Dead Peak in the Tatra Mountains), and
Teresa Żarnowerówna, responsible for the collage on the book cover. The Themersons, who at that time already had one title in their filmography, soon became interested in this text, and started working on the film in 1931. In a post-war article on Europa, Anatol Stern gave an account of how he first met Themerson and started to work on this adaptation:

“One fine day a young man in glasses with a collected face, an exceptionally intelligent look and a rather frail posture came to me. He said he was a parttime poet also attempting to write prose, but his main passion was the cinema. […] I asked my guest how I could help him. This was when the word “Europa” was said out loud. With the help of his wife, a young graphic artist, this young man wanted to make an avant-garde film based on my and Szczuka’s work. Naturally, with understandable enthusiasm, I agreed. Such a proposal in a country where experimental films by René Clair, Man Ray and Buñuel were regarded as freak pieces of oddity was a truly wonderful, reassuring surprise. We discussed the script. Then, Stefan and Franciszka brought me the finished screenplay. I made almost no corrections; to be honest, I felt so enthusiastic I was not even able to critically assess the Themersons’ work, for I knew far too well how thorny was the trajectory of new art adepts in Poland.”15

What was it in Stern’s poem that fascinated Themerson? Even though the meanings of this avant-garde poetry must be interpreted firstly within
their specific social and cultural context and read as a poetic and journalistic diagnosis of the human condition in the 1920s, an anarchic vision of the upcoming mass rebellion of impoverished workers, or a catastrophic portrait of a world heading for annihilation, articulated in a futuristic and expressionist language, Europa remains a universal work of art, surprisingly fresh even today, as it still imposes careful reading, inspiring new interpretations.16 It might have been the picture of modernity, dominated by absurdity, wickedness and violence – topics which interested Themerson as a prose writer and essayist later in life – that he found particularly striking. On top of that, beyond Europa’s semantic dimension, the young artist might have been impressed by its suggestive, visual imagery, which made this piece of poetry so apt for translation into the language of experimental cinema. Many years after shooting his visualisation of Europa, Themerson admitted himself, with what now seems to be excessive modesty, that Europa as written by Stern was not an inspiration for a film script – it already was a film script.17

11 In the early 1990s, in accordance with the will of Alicja Stern, the Sterns’ home archive was donated to the National Library of Poland, where it was deposited and inventoried at the Manuscript Department. Until then, only the letters from Stefan Themerson (or from Franciszka Themerson) to Anatol Stern, along with a few copies of letters sent by Stern to Themerson, were available in Poland (compare: Listy od Stefana Themersona [Letters from Stefan Themerson], Manuscript Department of the National Library of Poland [ZR BN], shelf mark: rps akc. 14359), along with a letter from Franciszka Themerson and a New Year’s greeting card from Jasia Reichardt to Alicja Stern (compare: Korespondencja Alicji Stern [Correspondence of Alicja Stern], ZR BN, shelf mark: rps akc. 14370, vol. 2). At the end of 2014, the National Library obtained nearly the entire London archive of the Themersons from Jasia Reichardt, with original letters from Stern and his wife to the
Themersons, a few copies of Themerson’s letters to Stern, as well as at least one letter from Alicja Stern (condolences on the passing of Stefan and Franciszka) to Jasia Reichardt. With materials from both archives, it seems that the National Library is now in possession
of their entire correspondence.

12 N. Wadley, ‘Reading Stefan Themerson’, Dalkey Archive Press, www.dalkeyarchive.com/reading-stefan-themerson/ [access: 19/09/2016].
13 Reflektor, vol. 3, 1925, pp. 99–101.
14 For example, in a few verses Stern applied font size gradation, which could influence interpretation of the entire text. This procedure may remind one of cinematic inspirations, so symptomatic for Polish poetry and prose of the interwar period (imitating the zoom-in effect). Cf. W. Otto, Literatura i film w kulturze polskiej dwudziestolecia międzywojennego [Literature and Film in the Polish Culture of the Interwar Period], Poznań 2007, pp. 127–128.

15 A. Stern, ‘“Europa”. Polski film awangardowy. (Dokończenie)’ [“Europa”. A Polish avant-garde film. (Conclusion)], Film, no. 4, 1959, p. 6 (for a copy of this article in an extended and revised version, see: A. Stern, ‘“Europa” – polski film awangardowy” [“Europa” – a Polish avant-garde
film], in idem, Wspomnienia z Atlantydy [Memories from Atlantis], Warszawa 1959, pp. 163–186).
16 Cf. an analysis of this poem from the perspective of a reflection on modernity in A. Dziadek, ‘Doświadczenie nowoczesności w Europie Anatola Sterna’ [The Experience of Modernity in Europa by Anatol Stern], in Nowoczesność jako doświadczenie: analizy kulturoznawcze [Modernity as an Experience: a Cultural Studies Perspective], A. Zeidler-Janiszewska, R. Nycz, B. Giza (eds.), Warszawa 2008, pp. 12–20 (reprint: A. Dziadek, ‘Relektury Europy Anatola Sterna. Poemat na nowy wiek’ [Re-reading Europa by Anatol Stern. A Poem for the New Century], Gościniec Sztuki. Magazyn Artystyczno-Literacki, vol. 2/17, 2011, pp. 54–61).
17 Letter from Stefan Themerson to Piotr Zarębski, 24 April 1988, carbon copy of typescript [attachment: Parę uwag na temat filmu EUROPA (1931/32) [A few notes on EUROPA, the 1931/32 film, carbon copy of typescript], ZR BN, Themerson Archive (works on organising and cataloguing the archive in accordance with the Polish standards are underway, which is why most of its items have no shelf mark in their bibliographic description yet; the author of this paper will refer to further manuscripts by the Themersons quoted here using the acronym “TA”).
More about Stefan Themerson’s correspondence with Piotr Zarębski in footnote 26.