"Unica Zürn: Drawings from the 1960s," Jan. 13-Apr. 16, 2005, at Ubu Gallery, 416 E. 59th Street, New York, N.Y. 10022
During the 1960s, when she was well into middle age, the German painter and writer Unica Zürn (1916-1970) made a series of psychologically intense line drawings that combine Surrealist automatism with the mania of Outsider Art and a certain residue of contemporary experiments in psychedelic drugs. Erotic and trancelike, the works depict fantastic chimeras, bizarre creatures with double faces that represent multiplications of herself, either repeated across the page or set in intricate dream landscapes of mystic animals and otherworldly plant forms.
Zürn's life reads a bit like a Freudian case study. She grew up in a well-to-do family in Weimar Berlin, surrounded by exotic objects collected by her father, a cavalry officer stationed in Africa, who was also an avid traveler and a writer. Zürn was herself equipped with a vivid imagination and, inspired perhaps by Oedipal yearnings, developed a rich interior fantasy life that is evidenced in her later drawings.
As a young woman, Zürn found employment as an editor at the German national film company, and supposedly was oblivious to the horrors of Nazism until 1942, when by chance she heard an underground radio report about the concentration camps and their horrors -- a revelation that unmoored her psychologically. She was married during the war, had a two children and then divorced, with her husband obtaining custody of their offspring. By 1949, Zürn was on her own, earning a marginal existence as a journalist.
Her life changed in 1953, when she met the Paris-based, German Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer. Their paths intersected at the opening of an exhibition of his work at the Maison de France on the Kufurstendamm in Berlin, and it was "mad love" from the start. Zürn immigrated to Paris to live with Bellmer, becoming his collaborator and muse. Bellmer discusses their unusual relationship in his revealing book Petit trait de l'inconscient physique ou anatomie de l'image, published in 1957.
In the late 50s Bellmer turned from using dolls as models to real women. The poet Nora Mitrani opened her legs for him while he obsessively photographed her genitals, and Zürn submitted her naked torso to a tight binding that transformed her body into a kind of "human-rolled-roast." When a work from the latter series, a photograph of Zürn bound on a bed, appeared on the cover of Le Surrealisme, mme in 1958, the mock-cannibalistic caption advised, "Keep in a cool place." The artist explained these sadomasochistic images as "altered landscapes of flesh."
Zürn became a member of the Paris Surrealist circle, which included Breton, Man Ray and, most significantly, Henri Michaux. A poet and a painter, Michaux had been taking mescaline as part of his personal research into human consciousness. In 1957, Zürn's participation in these experiments led to the first of what would become a series of mental crises, some of which she documented in her writings. By Zürn's own account, her fateful encounter with Michaux triggered the beginning of the mental illness that plagued the last 13 years of her life.
She was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and underwent intermittent hospitalization in Berlin, Paris and La Rochelle. Many of the drawings on view at Ubu were made during these institutionalizations. Additionally, Bellmer may have been threatened by Zürn's romantic feelings for Michaux, with his jealousy further aggravating her instability.
Despite these difficulties, Zürn continued to participate with the Paris Surrealists, exhibiting at the Galerie Le Soleil dans la Tte and taking part in the 1959 International Surrealist Exhibition devoted to "eros" at Gallery Daniel Cordier. But she was equally known for her writings, which include Hexentexte, a 1954 book of anagrams, and two powerful psychological narratives, Sombre Spring (1969) and Jasmine Man, which was published posthumously in 1971 with a frontispiece by Bellmer.
With lines as provocative as, "Who knows if tonight the skeleton will not climb along the ivy up to her window and crawl into her room?" Somber Spring is an autobiographical novel that "reads more like an exorcism than a memoir," according to the cover notes. Chronicling a young woman's simultaneous introduction to both sex and mental illness, the book touches on Zürn's several obsessions: the idealized, exotic father; the contemptible, impure mother; and a troubled girl's "masochistic fantasies and onanistic rituals."
In the 1960s, Zürn experimented with the Surrealist "automatic" drawing technique and delved into the depths of hidden meanings that she found in cryptic anagrams and coincidental correspondences. Her increasingly frequent portrayal of aggressive creatures and uninhabitable places testifies to an ongoing mental illness, however, one that ultimately led to her suicide. In a letter in 1964 to Gaston Ferdiere -- the French psychiatrist who was Antonin Artaud's as well as Zürn's doctor -- Bellmer confesses the strange way in which the malaise of his companion was transferred to his own body and contributed to his addiction to alcohol.
All of her works on view at Ubu Gallery were made during this intensely productive period, marked by Zürn's deteriorating mental health and the unraveling of her relationship with Bellmer. Her 1970 suicide (which in retrospect was foretold in Jasmine Man) occurred while she was on a five-day leave from a mental institution. Unwilling to deal with her deteriorating mental illness and despairing over her relationship with Bellmer, who was partially paralyzed and bed-ridden following a stroke, Zürn lept to her death from the window of Bellmer's Paris apartment on Oct. 19, 1970 (see Sue Taylor's biography, Hans Bellmer, The Anatomy of Anxiety, published by MIT Press in 2000).
After a long illness, Hans Bellmer died of bladder cancer on Feb. 24, 1975, and was buried next to Zürn in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Their common marble tomb is marked with a plaque inscribed with the words Bellmer wrote for Zürn's funeral wreath, five years before: "My love will follow you into Eternity."