In 1940 the Polish artist Stefan Themerson published his delightful children’s story The Table that Ran Away to the Woods about a writing desk that one day 'grabbed two pairs of shoes/ran downstairs' and escaped to the countryside. It has now been translated into English, with illustrations by his wife Franciszca.
During the 1930s, Stefan and Franciszka Themerson were leading figures of the Polish filmmaking avant-garde in Warsaw. At the same time they published some twenty very successful books for children that he wrote and she illustrated. This pattern continued when they moved to Paris in 1938, and then to London (she in 1940, he in 1942).
The earliest published version of this delightful fable appeared in Moja Gazeta, the children’s section of a Polish expatriate newspaper published in Paris (April,1940), illustrated with pen drawings by Franciszka. It was reprinted in a slim volume of Stefan’s poems Dno Nieba, after the Themersons were reunited in London in 1942. Sometime between those two, Stefan made an (unpublished) version in coloured lino-cuts, probably in France in 1941 or 1942.
In this story, a table escapes from the man-made urban world, out of the house, out of the town, until finally it rejoins the trees from which it originally came, and puts down roots into the soil. The spirit of the fable is very close in spirit to much of the Themersons’ work of the late 1930s into the early 1940s – Franciszka’s drawings and Stefan’s writing. Most strikingly resonant is its similarity to the last film they made in Poland (Adventure of a Good Citizen, 1938), in which a man overhears a telephone message saying that ‘the sky won’t fall in if you walk backwards’. Inspired, he stands up from his desk, walks gingerly backwards towards the door, and falls into two men carrying a wardrobe. He picks up one end of the wardrobe, and spends the rest of the film walking backwards, out of the city, into the woods and – like the table – back to nature. He is pursued by protesters carrying banners reading ‘Forward March, Everyone! Walking Backwards is Wrong!’ Finally, he flies like a bird through the wardrobe mirror and ends up sitting on rooftops playing a flute.
The symbolic role of the natural world assumed a greater poignancy in the Themersons’ imagery during the war years, especially during their two years of separation, when it seemed to stand for all the lost values in a man-made world torn apart by the madness and destruction of war, when life was lived on shifting sands and in which nothing was stable or dependable or reasonable. Animals became the only sane inhabitants of the world. In Franciszka’s drawings she is consoled, sitting alone at her desk, by a cow; Stefan’s journey home is guided by a small dog. Stefan’s wartime novel, Professor Mmaa’s Lecture, observes the world through the eyes of a colony of termites. The animated life of the table belongs with that world.
The 1938 film, Adventure of a Good Citizen, was lost during the war and only resurfaced in 1960. When someone at the Polish film archives contacted Stefan about its survival, he wrote back wondering whether the film would still seem as subversive as it had in the 1930s (several people had walked out of an early screening). It was, like the story of the table, an allegory of independence, of the individual’s freedom to choose.
I think it’s no coincidence that rediscovery of the film in 1960 so immediately preceded – even precipitated – publication of this radiant new collage version of The Table that Ran Away to the Woods (O stole który uciekĪ do lasu, Warsaw 1963), translated here for the first time. Its simple eloquence has all the innocence of a child’s song, as the table dances back to nature, and the liberated typography floats across the page.