When American film director and curator Bruce Checefsky decided to teach Pharmacy, an early 1930s film by Polish avant-garde artists Franciszka and Stefan Themerson, he faced a dilemma: The film didn’t exist, as it hadn’t survived World War II. It’s the story of more than a few early Polish films, at times documented only by critics. As Checefsky told the audience at the New York Jewish Film Festival, he’d seen the Themersons’ other work in Poland, along with a few stills from the black-and-white Pharmacy, a work whose demise he didn’t guess at the time.
The Themersons have been compared to artists László Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. They were visual artists more than filmmakers: Franciszka Themerson was a painter, illustrator, and set designer, and both published artist books. Like Ray’s, their work at times evoked the glamorous world of fashion, or even served it directly, as in the playful Moment Musical. The 1933 short was a commercial commissioned to advertise jewelry, but the Themersons’ approach is typical of their late-modernist exuberance. In the film, pearls and beads prance against a dark background as abstracted forms. They have little affinity to pearls as commodity that adorn a woman’s neck and signal social status. Bracelets look like gyrating orbits, or like bouncing neurons, or streaming blood cells. The general sense is of an activated space, far from static beauty or harmony, a whimsical abstraction rather than an idealization.