Her work is strange and twisted. She played out a drama of the chemical sound board in her brain and she was an artist of many mediums including sexuality. Unica Zürn is largely unknown and inaccessible to many. She struggled with hallucinations, debilitating depression, and long disassociative states which inspired her drawings and writing.
There is a thin line between art and sex indeed. Her writings fearlessly descend into the grotesque in an attempt to scrape the images lining the inside of her skull to the page. An except from her novel Dark Spring:
Each time, she finds herself tormented by her terrible fear of the rattling skeleton of a huge gorilla, which she believes inhabits the house at night. The sole purpose of his existence is to strangle her to death. In passing, she looks, as she does every night, at the large Rubens painting depicting “The Rape of the Sabine Women.” These two naked, rotund women remind her of her mother and fill her with loathing. But she adores the two dark, handsome robbers, who lift the women onto their rearing horses. She implores them to protect her from the gorilla. She idolizes a whole series of fictional heroes who return her gaze from the old, dark paintings that hang throughout the house. One of them reminds her of Douglas Fairbanks, whom she adored as a pirate and as the “Thief of Baghdad” in the movie theater at school. She is sorry she must be a girl. She wants to be a man, in his prime, with a black beard and flaming black eyes. But she is only a little girl whose body is bathed in sweat from fear of discovering the terrible gorilla in her room, under her bed. She is tortured by fears of the invisible.
Who knows whether or not the skeleton will crawl up the twines of ivy that grow on the wall below her window, and then slip into her room. His mass of hard and pointed bones will simply crush her inside her bed. Her fear turns into a catastrophe when she accidentally bumps into the sabers, which fall off the wall with a clatter in the dark. She runs to her room as fast as she can and slams the door shut behind her. She turns the key and bolts the door. Once again, she has come out of this alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow night?
Dark Spring is a coming of age story that explores everything from gender confusion, the construction of reality, masturbation, and a struggle with strong masochistic desires that afford pleasure with their acute pain and humiliation in contrast to the persistent and broad exterior pain of her daily life. The Man Of Jasmine, one of her earlier works, is a story all about madness in one of the most astounding records of psychosis in literature. She bears witness to the horrors of inpatient mental health hospitals and is the subject of a release plot organized by Dadaist poets. She vacillates between ecstatic visions and the depths of desolation. Reality is questioned, tested, and endured. It is utterly unlike any other piece of writing I have ever encountered.
Her longtime relationship to Hans Bellmer cannot be ignored. They were defacto married and very much a part of the German avante-garde scene. Bellmer raised eyebrows with his life size dolls in the mid-1930s. He built them all by hand posed them sensually with erotic accessories. His work in the theme of dolls took on a level of obsession. In these exhibits, he is an older man angry at younger women for the sexual inaccessibility. He takes control, he brings them to life, and animates them to act out some form of his will.
He published these pictures and essays anonymously but was found out by the Nazi government in Germany in 1938 and labeled “degenerate.” He fled to France where he actively worked with the French resistance and helped create fake passports. He lived in Paris until his death.
When Bellmer met Unica Zürn in 1954 he said, “Here is the doll,” and she was. Bellmer depicted her in many different drawings all invoking the theme of the doll. He bent and contorted her body and adorned it with the iconography of girlness. In a series of photographs that shocked many, he bound her body in string to force the folds of her flesh to pop out like bizarre meat.
When Unica was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia she saw the patterns of Bellmer’s work all around her and speaking in the 3rd person commented:
She saw this monster at [the hospital of] St. Anne: a mentally ill woman, in an erotic seizure, surrendering herself to her imaginary partner….As if Bellmer were a prophet, the sick woman was horrible to see. All was in upheaval: her legs and back in the shape of an arc, and the terrible tongue; scenes of madness, of torture, and ecstasy: [these] are depicted by him with the sensitivity of a musician, the precision of an engineer, the rawness of a surgeon. (Unica Zürn, “Remarques d’un observateur,” in Gesamtausgabevol. 5 [Berlin, 1989], p. 163. )
Zürn was also fascinated by anagrams and the arrangement of words. She and Bellmer saw the body itself as an anagram. Zürn wrote a book of anagramatic poems and slips them into her novels constantly. She plays with them in a cat and mouse game with language. In his visual art, Bellmer subjected Zürn’s image to rapes, eviscerations, mutilations, and strange transformations making her an anagram as well. Bellmer wrote, “ It is clear that we know very little of the birth and anatomy of the “image.” Man seems to know his language even less well than he knows his own body: the sentence too resembles a body which seems to invite us to decompose it, so that an infinite chain of anagrams may re-compose the truth it contains.”
In their art and collaboration, I can hear echoes of BDSM theory especially when I study his haunting doll portraits and look closely at his writing.
“The game belongs to the category of experimental poetry. If we recall its essentially provocative method, the toy presents itself as a provocative object.
The best game sustains its exaltation less in the predetermined images of an outcome [result] than in the idea of the perpetuity of its unknown continuations. The best toy will therefore be the one that ignores the pedestal of an a priori functioning, the one which, rich in applications and accidental probabilities like the poorest of rag dolls, confront the exterior to fervently provoke, here and there, these answers to any expectations: unexpected images of the You.” (“NOTES ON THE BALL JOINT “by Hans Bellmer; Translated from the French by Guy Bennett).
When you root through the problems of translation and the style of his writing it sounds very much like a description of sexual dominance and submission. Bellmer always called his sadomasochistic images, “landscapes of altered flesh,” which is a fantastic phrase for any erotic sadist to tuck into their back pocket for times of awkward questions. It’s hard to really parse through and address questions of ethics in their relationship although perhaps it is not my place to ask. Both Zürn and Bellmer remain very much a living part of their work letting the questions overwhelm them both. Bellmer often remarked that the pain and malaise of his partner was assumed into his own body and has often been cited as an individual who may have exasperated his beloved’s mental health struggles with his artistic depictions of her.
Zürn shared mad love with Bellmer but she was also the companion of many other surrealist artists and most prominently with Henri Michaux. It’s been alleged that their use of mescaline to inspire their art and writing was responsible for Zürn’s psychotic breaks. There was certainly a climate of conflict between the two men and their muse.
In 1970 during a 5 day leave from her inpatient mental health care, Zürn lept from the window of Bellmer’s apartment overwhelmed by her own struggles and that of her partner who was paralyzed in bed from a partial stroke. In 1975, Bellmer passed on from bladder cancer. Their mutual marble tomb in Paris reads, “My love will follow you into Eternity.”