Unica Zürn (6 July 1916 in Berlin-Grunewald – 19 October 1970 in Paris) was a German author and painter. She is remembered for her works of anagram poetry, exhibitions of automatic drawing, and her photographic collaborations with Hans Bellmer.
Together with Hans Bellmer, Unica Zürn frequented surrealist circles and befriended people such as Man Ray, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Henri Michaux and Max Ernst. From 1957 onwards she suffered from depression and was treated at various clinics in France. One of her doctors was Gaston Ferdière, a friend of the surrealists, who was also psychiatrist to Antonin Artaud. Her illness inspired much of her writing, above all Der Mann im Jasmin, written between 1963 and 1965.
She killed herself in 1970 by leaping from the window of the apartment she shared with Bellmer.
During the 1960s, when she was well into middle age, Zürn 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.
Chateau d'Espagne, 1970
One day at Wittenau the head doctor had called her to a room in which a group of students and psychologists from other clinics was assembled, and asked her to comment on her drawings as he showed them to the others. The drawing Recontre avec Monsieur M (ma morte) prompted a discussion, and she was asked: ‘Why did you cover the entire surface of the paper right to the edges? On the others you’ve left the space around the motif white.’And she had answered: “Simply because I couldn’t stop working on this drawing, or didn’t want to, for I experienced endless pleasure while working on it. I wanted the drawing to continue beyond the edge of the paper – on to infinity…”
Unica Zürn, The Man of Jasmine, trans. Malcolm Green (London: Atlas, 1994).
The superb, fantastic drawings Zürn produced, often during her hospitalizations, have recognizable affinities with Hans Bellmer’s linear finesse as well as Henri Michaux’s calligraphic spontaneity. More specifically, Zürn adopted Bellmer’s use of the “cephalopod,” a variable, amorphously shaped humanoid form. But she gave the techniques she adapted from others a crispness and bite all her own, particularly in her rendering of eyes, veins beneath flesh and colors suggestive of lividity and bruising. While Zürn produced some paintings in tempera and oil during the early 1950s, her preferred mediums were colored inks, pencil and gouache on paper. Many works were produced in notebooks given to her by Michaux when Zürn was at Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris. Between hospitalizations, she made a quantity of large-scale drawings; while they are always startling, one can’t really say they “develop”—rather, they elaborate a fixed set of obsessions.
While “outsider art” usually connotes untrained naiveté and beguiling clumsiness, Zürn’s virtuosity is that of an artist willing her madness to manifest itself on paper, rather than a mad person exuding symptoms in the form of pictorial expression. Her pictures are radically skewed and shattered self-portraits that mirror the splitting of her personality. They duplicate her face and body, or parts of them, amid or inside avian predators, felines, vegetal accumulations; these Unicas sport claws, razor teeth, multiple mouths, extra limbs, several breasts, antennae. It’s often as if Zürn has internalized as self-image the profuse, mutant doll parts of Bellmer’s paintings and sculptures, replacing herself with the freakish assemblages of her lover’s imagination—as if she has become the doll and, in retribution, invested Bellmer’s reinvention of her with an autonomy and visionary power he withheld from it.