German author and artist Unica Zürn is remembered today for her photographic collaborations with Hans Bellmer especially after the exhibition of both artists in the spring of 2012 at the Ubu Gallery in New York. But among her work we can also find an important work of automatic drawing and anagram poetry.
Raised in Berlin with an older brother, Zürn had a contentious relationship with her mother, while she idolised her absent father. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager, and she abandoned the school shortly after.
Working to the Nazis
During the Third Reich, she began to work at the Universum Film Agency (UFA), the German Film Agency, where she started as a steno-typist and then being promoted to dramaturge. During the period in which UFA produced all the Nazi propaganda films, she worked in a department creating animating commercials for products such as shoes and cigarettes.
Since she was not directly involved in the production of Nazi propaganda films and did not join the NSDAP (the Nazi party), she did not openly disagree with Nazi politics until after the war was over. Despite the fact that it was the national film company, she supposedly remained ignorant of the cruelties being perpetrated by the Nazis, or at least to their extent, until she chanced upon an underground radio report that described the concentration camps in 1942.
From Berlin to Paris
In 1942, she married Erich Laupenmühlen, with whom she had two children. Five years later they divorced, and she lost the custody of the children, because she could not afford a lawyer, nor did she have the means to provide for them. And for the next few years she subsisted by writing short stories for newspapers and radio plays. By this time, she became romantically involved with the painter Alexander Camaro. And while writing, she spent time in Die Badewanne, a cabaret and jazz club that was a gathering place for artists in Berlin.
Shortly after the end of her relationship with Camaro, she met the artist Hans Bellmer in Berlin. A while after this she moved with him to Paris, becoming his model and partner. One of the most famous series of photographs that he took of her is Unica tied up in which she bound tightly with rope. One of the photographs was exhibited in 1959’s exhibition called Doll, according to some critics, sometimes he seemed to conflate her with the dolls of his obsession. His intention was to transform the body into a landscape, altering the contours and creating additional “breasts” of flesh along the stomach. The fetishization of the female form/body is well documented among the surrealists and Bellmer is known for comparing the fragmentation of a sentence with the fragmentation of the female body in his photographs.
In Paris, Zürn began to experiment with automatic drawings and anagrams, these early works were collected in Hexentexte (1954). From 1956 to 1964 she had four solo exhibitions of her drawings, and her work was included in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme. They frequented the city’s surrealist and other artistic circles, becoming acquainted with André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Joyce Mansour, and others.
Illness and death
In 1957, she was introduced to Henri Michaux (who she identified as “Jasmine Man”, a fantasy figure of her childhood), she fell deeply in love with him, and joined him in several of his experiments with mescaline. These drugs experiences may have precipitated her first mental crisis. Three years later, she experienced a psychotic episode, she was eventually hospitalised, and after this she would be in and out of psychiatric hospitals because she would suffer from dissociative states and severe depression for the rest of her life. It was said that she may have suffered from bipolar disorder, however nowadays it is believed that she was schizophrenic.
Despite her battle with mental illness, she continued to work. Her psychological difficulties inspired much of her writing, especially Der Mann im Jasmin, in English, The man in Jasmine (1971). In October 1970, with 54 years old, Zürn committed suicide by leaping from the window of the apartment she had shared with Bellmer in Paris. She was buried at Père Lachaise cemetery.
Writings and Artwork
Her writings and artworks that made her famous were produced during the 1950s and 60s. Her relocation to Paris allowed her to write openly about domestic violence, abortion, and sexual abuse. In her stories, we can appreciate a violent aggression towards the female body, that often consist of an internal dialogue.
Her published texts include Hexentexte, in English is called The witches’ texts (1954), a book of anagram poetry accompanied by drawings. Dunkler Frühling, Dark Spring, (1967) which is semi-autobiographical; and Der Mann im Jasmin, The man in Jasmine, (1971) the last two have acquired a cult following in Paris.
Zürn’s visual works consist of oil paintings, watercolours, sketches, ink drawings and postcards. She primarily worked in ink, pencil, and gouache; however, she also made few paintings in the early 1950s. Her works are populated by imaginary plants, amorphous humanoid forms. Eyes are omnipresent. Her drawings often present repetitive marks. the violence and deformation are two distinctive qualities present in the process of creation and in the final product of her visual work. She treated the drawings as a process of creation dependent on a destruction or deconstruction of form that transforms an image.
Unlike her writings, her visual artworks have not been widely circulated outside of private collections, auctions, gallery storage rooms and national archives. In 1953, it was her first exhibition of her automatic drawings at the Galerie Le soleil dans la tête in Paris, among the visitors it was André Breton, Man Ray, Hans Arp and Victor Brauner. Despite the success of the exhibition, Zürn did not promote her visual work actively.
Untitled (1965) is one of her largest works. It features human heads repeated and overlapping on the centre of the page. the page is 65x50cm, filled with overlapping circular lines that create a multitude of shifting portraits. Each face transforms and is morphed into another portrait in various sizes and expressions. And all of them together create a monstrous entity with a distorting face. The layering of faces makes it impossible to count the number of portraits present in this work, the viewer can find an infinite number of combinations eyes, noses, lips that keep creating new portraits.
The method she used to drawing, the manual layering of lines over and over, is very similar to her process of anagram writing in which letters and words are removed in order to create new words and meanings. Several of her compositions in drawing share this multifaceted quality and develop a visual language of destruction and transformation.
- Unica claimed that her older brother have sexually abused her when she was a little girl.
- Her mature texts, when they are not explicitly autobiographical, they resemble her life experiences.
- She is one of the women artists associated to the Surrealism movement.