Unica Zürn – After meeting Henri Michaux she began to experience shattering episodes of mental upsets that culminated in her self-destruction
Unica Zürn, The Trumpets of Jericho, Trans. by Christina Svendsen, Wakefield Press, 2015.
“The simplest Surrealist Act,” wrote André Breton in his Second Surrealist Manifesto, “consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd.”
“An ordinary person is not permitted to buy pistols or potassium cyanide—that is the major problem,” Unica Zürn, a later Surrealist, would write in The Trumpets of Jericho. Zürn was born in 1916, a few years before Breton published his first manifesto in 1924 and though attention has begun to be paid to Zürn’s art, little is written about her writing. Trumpets is one of her last books to be translated into English, perhaps partly because of its challenging content.
The simplest Surrealist act for a woman might be an outrage against motherhood. The Trumpets of Jericho opens with truly dark visions of a murderous struggle between a mother and her unborn child. Zürn, separated from her own children after divorce, endured a self-induced abortion, and suffered increasingly from mental illness during the 1960s, finally committing suicide in 1970. Madness was considered an essential part of creativity by Surrealist men – notably Bataille and Artaud – and Surrealist techniques of free association, and automatic writing (some Surrealists claimed to compose poems while asleep), were inspired by the movement’s links to psychoanalysis. The mad woman is a more specifically problematic Surrealist figure. Like Breton’s Nadja she is often portrayed as having direct access to the unconscious, without the control to become a true artist.
Zürn has no wish in Trumpets, to “speak the reasonable unimaginative language of all people”. After all, the biblical trumpets of the Jericho created chaos, caused the city’s walls to fall and resulted in the slaughter of its inhabitants. “Baked back-nonsense,” is how Zürn describes writing. “Seven eyes sink silk, frog, ink, foam. A tired goose defoliates itself”: her scenes unfold like paintings, but not like Zürn’s paintings. Totem animals (ravens, rats, eagles, children, flowers) populate this book, as they do the paintings of her contemporaries Leonora Carrington or Remedios Varo.
The variety of images in Zürn’s writing is astounding, but her drawings are strict black lines: abstract amorphous beings like teratomas with human or animal characteristics. Zürn’s drawings were billed as “automatic” work from the depths of the unconscious and, like her writing, the series of seemingly unrelated scenes and fantasies in Trumpets above all convey movement. The book plays with the contrast between chance and pattern.
An unfixed location, which might be a fairy-tale castle or might be a seedy Paris hotel, is given structure by dips into autobiography (“It’s 1960 & we’re in Palavas-les-flots”). Surrealism, with its roots in psychoanalysis, is the story of the “I”. Sometimes concerned with the creative possibilities of childhood and its fragmentary visual memory patterns, Zürn’s wandering “I” becomes, by turn, a pair of voices, or a number of unidentified speakers, reflecting Zürn’s active membership of a Surrealist circle that included Hans Bellmer, with whom she collaborated on photographic works. Sometimes the “I” is a voice directed to the reader asking for what? Confirmation? Complicity?
“I promise you, I’m as bored as you are while I’m writing,” Zürn tells her reader. “Let’s do something else.” But she doesn’t, her umbilical cord is language, the black line on the page, like the lines in her drawings. More formally controlled than has sometimes been estimated, her writing contains anagrammatic constraints (not all making it through into Christina Svendsen’s translation, as the translator explains in her introduction), as though Zürn were a madwoman in public, an artist in secret.
The book ends in an orgy of comically fantastical birth by the woman, and her father who, after gestating her Athene-like in his head, wants to “glue her into his stamp album”. Why? “‘So we can take this story out of the world ... So she will neither escape nor multiply,’ says the doctor”. For doctors and fathers are, unsurprisingly, in league. All this pain and horror and defeat can’t eclipse the playfulness of Zürn’s creations. “Mischief was made and there was laughter at work.” And what was born from all this was a story, after all. - Joanna Walsh According to the Bible story, the walls of the city of Jericho fell after the Israelite army blew their trumpets. In Unica Zurn’s The Trumpets of Jericho, words take the place of the blare of the trumpets, and penetrate the fortress that is the body. Specifically, it is the female body in the midst of childbirth that disintegrates, losing its boundaries and merging with language. As Christina Svendsen, translator of this edition, explains in an introduction to the text, Zurn “dramatises the frontiers of the body”, and does so in a way that may even alienate her readers—especially her male ones. The female body here is not a soothing balm for beleaguered male souls, or a source of potent erotic energy. In its maternal possibilities and trappings, it is rendered potentially hostile and ugly. This is not the female form of the traditional Muse, providing a channel to the creative powers of the unconscious for the male artist. Instead, the female body, as Zurn writes it, prescribes its own logic and language upon the universe. In particular it is the pregnant woman, always overdetermined in her corporeality, who is able to exist metaphorically and symbolically.
Zurn, a writer and artist born in Germany in 1916, was deeply influenced by French surrealism. Though she predated French feminist theorists like Helen Cixous and Luce Irigaray who would, in the 1970s, delineate a form of writing known as ecriture feminine against the kind of writing produced by the stable, rational Enlightenment masculine subject, The Trumpets of Jericho is a textbook example of “writing the body”. Unlike the easily-consumed forms of “women’s writing” that saturate the publishing market today, much of which seems designed to discipline female creativity and imagination in capitalist-friendly ways, Zurn’s female body is a thing of both horror and absurdity. The sketchy autobiographical information available in English on Zurn indicates that her relationship with German surrealist artist Hans Bellmer may have been the catalyst for many of her writings, including the notion that their relationship led to physical complications for Zurn, including abortions and miscarriages. The bodily burdens of a heterosexual relationship, whether it’s a troubled or fulfilling one, or indeed a combination of both, are often borne by the female body; in Jericho, Zurn writes: “All births should be forbidden from today onwards. All births should be punished by the death penalty.” It might be helpful, then, to consider the kind of experiences Zurn had to endure as a woman in order to write those lines.
The Trumpets of Jericho, when read alongside her other writings, demonstrates in fascinating detail how Zurn harnessed the principles of surrealism and the facts of her experience as a woman to produce what Svendsen refers to as “outsider art”. Zurn was treated throughout the 1960s for depressive and schizhophrenic episodes, before leaping out of a window to her death in 1970. Her novel Dark Spring is a foreshadowing of what was to come—the young girl narrator commits suicide in the same way at the book’s end. Dark Spring is unremittingly bleak, demonstrating just how much a young girl knows, and how much she absorbs from her immediate surroundings. It also details the girl’s rape by her older brother (a fact which, too, appears to be autobiographical), but also the girl’s identification and infatuation with a distant and absent father. There are signs that the girl is repulsed by much of what she sees as the feminine body as symbolised by the figure of the mother; the maternal and the feminine combine to create an image that is at once suffocating and alienating. In Jericho, Zurn creates singular images of animals breaching the physical fortress of a castle, or tower, that the female character is in. As the ravens swarm in, the narrator says of the baby she is birthing, “Out of pride and a sense of justice, I cannot allow this hateful creature to smother me. I’d rather smother it first.”
Maternal hate and repulsion for the being that emerges from the body is not allowed, of course; even in fiction and in art, one must work to make allowances for the badness of the woman expressing these thoughts before one can proceed to evaluate the work. Zurn demonstrates how the visceral disgust a woman might feel for her own child has everything to do with the history of women’s bodies and how it has been put to use by a capitalist-militarist society with patriarchal social norms: “The sweet days of youthful peace are over, when I was still slim and hurried with big steps from one lover to another, impatient for the biggest adventure, the adventure that didn’t want to appear. Who was it, anyway, who fathered this hateful child in the sixteenth year of my life. I’ve forgotten.” A few sentences are enough to capture the biological condition of the female body in a society where freedom is for those who have been designated owners; whether of property, or of other bodies.
But while much has been made about Zurn’s life and experiences—her madness, her relationship with Bellmer, the sexual abuse and maternal neglect she endured as a child—very little information is available about Zurn’s ideological confrontation with Nazism, which Svendsen alludes to briefly in her introduction, describing it as “deep psychic distress and projected guilt at the atrocities of the Nazis as revealed in the postwar period, an undistanced suffering that caused one of her breakdowns”. This seems, to me, a particularly crucial piece of information that somehow or another is subsumed under the more glamorous (and potentially more erotic and, even, marketable) factors of female madness and sexual abuse. It seems valuable, in this context, to examine the formation of the bourgeois German female subjectivity under a fascist regime—one that, as Klaus Theweleit explores in fascinating detail through close-reading of the writings of the Freikorps in Male Fantasies—and how it was erased. As Theweleit writes, “Real men lack nothing when women are lacking”, and European feminism and women’s writing, particularly by bourgeois women, would benefit from an understanding of how bourgeois Western patriarchy gained in strength via the project of fascism. As Steven Shaviro explains in his brief overview,
Theweleit uncovered a configuration in which militarism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism were driven by a fear of dissolving boundaries, a reactive need to affirm the body’s hardness and invulnerability, a phobic resistance to the “oceanic,” and to flows and flexibilities of all sorts: these latter being associated with the maternal, the sexual, the feminine, etc. Theweleit both grounded this configuration very closely in the particularities of time, place, culture, and social class; and suggested how the pathology he uncovered had larger resonances throughout the history of misogynistic Western culture.
Liberal-humanist readings of literature that draw meaning from autobiographical factors but consider the political too crude may miss some of the deeper resonances of the kinds of work that are taken for granted as mere products of an artistic movement, or of gendered violence and sexual difference. But the resonances are there. A biographical sketch on artnet indicates that despite working for a German film company, Universum Film AG, Zurn was unaware of the full scale of Nazi atrocities until 1942, which caused a psychic break. “How is it that I think about death so much, violent death?” the narrator wonders in Jericho. Similarly, one wonders how bourgeois artists living in the heart of fascist violence were oblivious to it until it came to light later. One immediate answer is that to be unknowing of Nazism is to have been one of the social classes who were protected from its violence. In this sense, then, the brutal fantasies and images in Jericho, and also the games of sadism the young girl narrator engages in in Dark Spring, don’t necessarily have to be interpreted as a universal feminine condition, but a specifically Western-European one under a brutal fascist regime. In Jericho, Zurn writes that “Moloch is waiting to tear you to pieces with his 333 teeth and his sharp claws … The Moloch smolders with bloodlust.” It would be futile to take these images in the most literal sense, but it is useful to consider these images of sublimated violence in the context of Zurn’s supposed lack of knowledge of Nazi violence. There is much to ponder in Zurn’s writings about the psychic costs of this “innocence” and which class of women can, up to a point, afford this innocence.
In Dark Spring, Zurn writes of the young girl and her friend: “Their monotonous, sheltered family lives have bored them for a long time; now anything goes to keep up the excitement. Life is unbearable without tragedy.” What seems clear is that real life is too much to bear because of unspoken tragedy; Dark Spring is rife with Freudian overtones of a girl’s love for her father, her rape by her brother, and her neglect by her mother. There are thoughts of suicide and death and bestiality. It would seem that various personal, social, and political factors create the subjectivity of the tormented bourgeois young girl. The stultifying bourgeois sphere of repressed emotions and concealed violence is a horrifying environment in which to grow up because there is no sense of accountability or responsibility among the adults who run the world. This is a class of people from former colonising European nations, now bringing the fascist project back home, who don’t want for physical comforts and financial safety and who don’t need to explain or talk about the crimes of their people. As such, the young girl and her friend create their own language: “They invent a howling theatrical language through which it becomes possible to express the grief of the whole world, a language understood by no one but both of them.”
The narrator in Jericho, meanwhile, writes, “You were a poet as a child, but you forgot your early poems long ago and there was no one to write them down back then. Now you speak in the reasonable, unimaginative language of all people.” The protagonist’s old friend Ruth who appears in these pages is also part of Zurn’s full name—Nora Berta Unica Ruth—and thus Jericho can be seen as a conversation with her past selves. The images are vivid, and the language is neither disciplined nor tamed. Svendsen notes some of the challenges of rendering the translation of German anagrams into English, while hoping to repeat “the estrangement of Zurn’s anagrammatic practice on linguistic meaning”. The ruptures in the language preclude easy comprehension, or even any form of comprehension, for the reader. It is as alienating as childbirth or madness. In this way, Zurn challenges the inherent misogyny of the concept of the Muse and female madness that tainted some versions of Surrealism by not merely writing automatically. Instead, she constructs it with painstaking imagination (as Zurn’s writing demonstrates, even the act of imagining can be painful and traumatic, and is very rarely “fun”, even if it can be funny) that has thematic resonances with her other writings.
The Trumpets of Jericho is a challenging text that places the reader where Zurn wants them to be—both inside and outside of the female psyche. In doing so, it creates a surreal landscape and a language that is startlingly new, demanding that the reader be willing to risk being an outsider—even if for a little while—if she wants to participate in Zurn’s imaginative world. - Subashini Navaratnam
Zürn’s mental collapse was initiated when she encountered in the real world her childhood fantasy figure “the man of jasmine”: he was the writer Henri Michaux, and her meeting him plunged her into a world of hallucination in which visions of her desires, anxieties and events from her unresolved past overwhelmed her present life. Her return to “reality” was constantly interrupted by alternate visionary and depressive periods. Zürn’s compelling narrative also reveals her uneasy relationship with words and language, which she attempted to resolve by the compulsive writing of anagrams. Anagrams allowed her to dissect the language of everyday, to personalise it, and to make it reveal hidden at its core astonishing messages, threats and evocations. They formed the basis of her interpretation of the split between her inner & outer lives and underpin the texts included in this selection
The Man of Jasmine is certainly one of the greatest descriptions of mental collapse, but it is much more. Zürn’s familiarity with Surrealist conceptions of the psyche, and her extraordinary self-possession during the most alarming experiences are allied to vivid descriptive powers which make this a literary as well as a psychological masterpiece."
Unica Zürn, Dark Spring, Trans. by Caroline Rupprecht, Exact Change, 2008."Dark Spring is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel that reads more like an exorcism than a memoir. In it author Unica Zurn traces the roots of her obsessions: The exotic father she idealized, the "impure" mother she detested, the masochistic fantasies and onanistic rituals which she said described "the erotic life of a little girl based on my own childhood." Dark Spring is the story of a young girl's simultaneous introduction to sexuality and mental illness, revealing a different aspect of the "mad love" so romanticized by the (predominantly male) Surrealists. Unica Zurn (1916-1970) emigrated in 1953 from her native Berlin to Paris in order to live with the artist Hans Bellmer. There she exhibited drawings as a member of the Surrealist group and collaborated with Bellmer on a series of notorious photographs of her nude torso bound with string. In 1957, a fateful encounter with the poet and painter Henri Michaux led to the first of what would become a series of mental crises, some of which she documented in her writings. She committed suicide in 1970--an act foretold in this, her last completed work."
"Preadolescent sexuality merges with depressive fantasy - to devastating (if ineffably morbid) effect in this once-notorious novel by a German writer and artist (1916–70) who, like this novel's young protagonist, took her own life shortly after its (1967) publication. She's a nameless suburban girl who's provoked, by her slovenly mother's indifference, her beloved father's long absences from home, and her own claustrophobic self-absorption, into masturbatory daydreams and tentative baby steps toward adult sexual expression. The story's (expertly caught) tone and rhythm are indeed hypnotic (though one nowhere senses the complexity attributed to it by translator Rupprecht's labored introduction), and Zürn caps it with a marvelously bleak, brisk final scene. Unusual and memorable fiction." - Kirkus Reviews
"One of the things that always troubled me about the fascination with madness and the intertwined eroticism and death that always pervaded the Romantic and Surrealistic sensibilities was that they were almost always expressed by people who seemed to be celebrating those things without having known their cost in personal suffering. I’m not trying to apply some kind of politically-correct standard to the appreciation of such works, just pointing out that while some were idolizing the dark underbelly of the human psyche, others were helpless to it, and found nothing remotely romantic about the experience.
Unica Zürn seems to have been one of the victims. From 1953 until her death in 1970 she was close to one of the most important Surrealists, Hans Bellmer, living with him in Paris and posing for some of his notoriously disturbing pictures. She came to become dependent on him, and not long after he was hospitalized for a stroke and broke off their relationship (he believed he could no longer care for her in his condition), she threw herself out of the window of the sixth-story apartment they shared. She had been suffering from her own decline for some time: not long after meeting fellow artist Henri Michaux in 1957, she began to experience one shattering episode of mental upset after another that culminated in her self-destruction.
Michaux himself played a central part in these breakdowns: there was something about him which reminded her of a childhood fantasy that she had entertained, and his presence fueled the writing of two works: The Man of Jasmine, most explicitly about the Michaux-image, and Dark Spring. The latter has been described as a kind of erotic autobiography: a portrait of the artist as a young girl, and also a young corpse. Zürn killed herself not long after writing it, and in a manner so strongly redolent of the death of the girl within it that it became hard to see the story as little more than a kind of fictionalized suicide note. And yet at the same time it is more than that: it can be read entirely outside of the context of her life, and it has a stark power that stays with you even when removed from that context.
What makes it work, oddly enough, is that it is a remarkably short and compact story — barely 115 pages of large type — but the details that make up the story are so sharp and well-chosen that there scarcely seems to be anything more to add. It presents us with the life, and death, of a young girl — barely pubescent but with an erotic haze suffusing everything in her life, including her obsessive devotion to her father. Her mother is insufferable; her brother subjects her to various sexual torments and eventually rapes her; gradually, she recedes inwards and finds greater satisfaction in fantasy worlds than in her daily life. The fantasies themselves reek of depravity and torment — but at least a kind of depravity and torment that are of her own creation.
When she finally does turn her erotic obsessions back outwards, they fixate on a handsome young man — an adult, where she is still really only a child to the rest of the world — whom she encounters at a public swimming pool. There is nothing outwardly sinister about him, but again, he is an adult, and she is not, and from that comes a wall that she finds impossible to surmount. And from that rebuff her thoughts turn inwards once again, to find what consummation she can in fantasies of enacting her death for real. The last scene in the book has been widely compared to Zürn’s own suicide, although she seemed less to be “rehearsing” anything than admitting she was helpless in the face of what was, in her mind, a foregone conclusion about her life.
If the book is so relentlessly bleak and ends on such a phenomenally closed-ended and nihilistic note, why read it at all? For one, the compactness of the story alone makes it into quite an achievement: it’s a little exhilarating to see Zürn pack so much about her character into so few words, to make one sentence do the work of a paragraph, and to evoke this girl so sharply without needing more space than she does. The other reason is more general than that: we might want to read such things for the same reasons that people are compelled to write them — because places like this do exist within us, and if someone can not only talk about them but do justice to them, then the results are aesthetically exhilarating even if they imply ghastly things. That was after all a large component of what the Surrealist mission was: to dive into the unconscious, rescue the things that might normally be thrown away by the waking mind, and make them into the substance of their art. What makes Dark Spring so hard to put out of mind is that it shows Zürn diving into her dreamworld and coming up with nothing less than her own cenotaph." - Serdar
Unica Zürn, The House of Illnesses, Trans. by Malcolm Green. Atlas Press, 1993.
"A remarkable illustrated text produced during one of the author’s stays in a mental institution.
After a childhood which she describes as “wonderful,” a 7 year marriage and the birth of her two children, a carreer at the Ufa film studios in her home town Berlin when she also began to write and paint, Unica Zürn’s life changed abruptly following a series of chance meetings with the painter Hans Bellmer in 1953. She left at once for Paris with Bellmer, who had already established himself in Surrealist circles there. He encouraged her to make automatic drawings and to write the anagram poems which later brought her much acclaim. Although the two lived together in growing isolation from their outside surroundings, Bellmer introduced Zürn to many of his contemporaries: Brauner, Arp, Man Ray, Ernst, Waldberg, and above all Henri Michaux. This meeting precipitated the mental illness that was to hound the last thirteen years of her life, Zürn believed him to be the incarnation of a childhood fantasy figure, which she described lated in The Man of Jasmine: “A few days later she experiences the first miracle in her life: in a room in Paris she finds herself standing before the Man of Jasmine. The shock of this encounter is so great that she is unable to overcome it. From this day on she begins, very very slowly, to lose her reason.”
The House of Illnesses was written shortly after this meeting, during a bout of fever induced by jaundice. It was originally included in the book The Man of Jasmine but without the illustrations which accompany it here. With its sometimes wistful, sometimes humourous and ultimately hopeful mood, this text contrasts strongly with many of the other texts in that book, which bear harrowing testimony to her mental crises and her dizzying descent into her own self and a world of hallucinated images."
"The last "notes" of German author and painter Unica Zurn, written in 1970 some months before her suicide, confront the "family curse." Already in childhood she seemed to know that she too would end her life like her mad uncle Fallada and her adored stepmother Orla Holm. Writing, in "The Whiteness with the Red Spot" (1958*), "This life has not become my life," she formulated a motif of both her drawing and writing. Her autobiographical texts are never written in the first person, but always in the third. Like a camera, she takes a picture of her actions, writes about herself as though about some nameless, enigmatic, other woman. Always loyal to the inner difference between "I" and "she," Zurn never attempted to smooth over her strange, singular distance regarding herself and her life. "Impressions From a Mental Illness," an account of her illness and sojourns in psychiatric hospitals published in 1967, is recorded in the tone of a distanced witness. At the same time, she claimed not to have written one sentence that did not correspond to her life. In the end, in 1970, she wrote: "How poor has her life become" (5:19). At this point, after the separation from Hans Bellmer, her companion since 1953, and after she decided to separate from a life that had become resolutely aimless, she nevertheless seemed to catch a glimpse of the possibility of a final breakthrough. Faced with a self-imposed deadline of several months, she succeeded in producing a narrative that broke with her former concept and proceeded to follow another order, one born of poverty. She goes back to untold coordinates in a language that documents her ever-beckoning erasure. The last notes, which leave off with her voluntary death, before extension and interweaving could take over, reveal memory to be a seldom functioning machine that, faced with a deadline, wants to tell the untold in the form of intransitive images. These images seek to cross over into oblivion or toward the prospect of yet being experienced in the future.
Zurn's body of work opens up the interior of a perceptual system of madness. The texts are located at an intersection, a point of transfer. Madness becomes the supplier of literature, literature transports madness. Both drawings and texts show the "image processes" (Zurn) or hallucinations haunting her. "I'm haunted as though I were the only home for something unknown" (4/1:36). It is not she who writes or draws, as images "stream in" or "arise" (4/1:53). A dictation she feels compelled to take down circumvents "sublimated elaboration" (Kristeva). For Zurn, some thing or other--what Lacan calls extimacy ("extimite," a foreign body, composed of what is intimate)--seems to take charge in the missing place of authorship and sublimation. She is remote-controlled and the rote observer of a delirium that runs on ahead like a movie. She writes down what can be caught. The notes resist, as pure record, the inaccessibility of madness.
There can be no doubt, however, that madness has a method. Even the smallest task becomes cryptography.
'She asks the daughter to get the box with the money
and to count the money; she herself is not able. One
looks at her in amazement. In the meantime the nurse
comes back and she goes into the kitchen and looks at
the enormous, fat leeks rising up from a casserole
dish that's too small, in which there is only a little
water. This meal will never be ready and she feels herself
incapable of cutting the vegetable into pieces. This problem
grows so monstrous and is so unsolvable that she, overwhelmed
by vertigo, goes back to the bedroom, starts to stagger and falls
to the ground.' (5:93)
In other words, changes of dimension foreground inconspicuous things. The world of things spreads out. Proportions distort themselves in a surreal way. The transformation of material reality serves to close the narrator off from her surroundings.
The texts preceding her last notes move along the edge of a psychotic discourse, and can be described, following Kristeva's Pouvoirs de l'horreurs (1980), as speech based on foreclosure, the virulence of which dislocates the opposition between consciousness and the unconscious. "The unconscious contents remain locked out here but in a bizarre manner: not radical enough to allow a solid differentiation between subject and object and not with sufficient selectivity for the unfolding of a position of defense, refusal, but also sublimating elaboration. The contents, which are normally unconscious for the neurotic, become explicit now."
Madness constantly deciphers itself within a realm of unintelligibility. Although Zurn's writing and drawing border conceptually on automatic writing and drawing, she nevertheless also developed a certain competence for selection. Cutouts of inner images are edited from a continuum we will never get to know. A natural metonymy is replaced with an artificial montage. With the montage, there appears attribution of meanings. But no pure, immediate mimesis results, but rather a simulation and translation of inner "image processes." Zurn's alleged female "non-authorship"--the conversation of another agency through her, the dictation of her illness--is also a rhetorical trick that is supposed to withhold from the reader the difference between madness and literature. Madness is neither told from the perspective of rationalism nor does it speak with its own voice. As the manuscripts show, there are decisions made in advance, revisions, deletions, several versions, as well as a general orientation toward the program of surrealism. Regarding the best pages, one gets the impression of an unfolding signifying chain, a mad externalization of memory, without any obstacle getting in the way.
In contrast to Zurn's best-known texts from the 1950s and '60s (The Witches' Texts, the "Anagrams," and The Man of Jasmine), the last notes perform a realization of separation. Zurn seems in the end to break with the surrealist concept of a blending of boundaries between madness and reality. The prospect of their amalgamation has been withdrawn. The posthumously published leftovers bear the marks of a violent erasure that will not be ignored. Whatever is able to grab us as hallucination, promise, fiction, has vanished. With the separation from Bellmer, her "other" or "symptom," and with the decision at the same time to end her life, the (Lacanian) real as the nothing of the other becomes manifest, one of whose signs is the separation of tenses and times. Present, past, and future, which were once used interchangeably in the world of hallucination, are assigned different places. It is this process of separating out that distinguishes the last notes from all preceding texts. Now the emptiness can be represented, not sublimated. The former delusion of signification, which functioned to screen this emptiness, leaves off. What is registered now is what was missing before: the empty reality that is no longer modulated by any fiction or alienation. But in Zurn's late, nearly dispassionate narrative style, which departs both from the art of interpretation and from madness, there remains a kind of consolation.
They smoke - the smoke becomes thicker and thicker around them. The surroundings disappear, only their two pale, tired faces are still visible. Suddenly they are the only two remaining in this world of pain. Nobody is there - the house, the world - everything is emptied out, gone are the living and the dead. An endless solitude and probably an eternal night without a morning to follow. They are silent and smoke. It is deathly still in the house, in the world. What sadness life - what solitude - death. (5:229)
She has left the space of madness and accepted instead the place of the dead.
In the process she comes up with divisions that she had previously rejected. She cuts her life into pieces--her time in Paris, her time in Berlin, her encounter with Bellmer - and attempts to maintain a simple verbal construction of life and time. She resists the dictation of madness, the hallucinations and paralysis, and permits herself access to individual memories, which, once again but from a different standpoint, refer back to the origins of her system of madness.
The last fragments return to particular situations in her life that signified an original break. A few untold memory-images detach themselves from the emptiness that encloses the memories. With the deadline, tightening condensation sets in. "At the end of one's life"--as Benjamin writes in "The Storyteller" (1936)--"a sequence of pictures is set into motion, unfolding views of oneself, in which one has, without knowing it, encountered oneself." Benjamin conceived the emergence of memory-images as a form of "self-encounter." "To the highest degree, it bears the stamp of the critical, dangerous moment" (Gesammelte Schriften, II:449).
Without question, the memory of the sight of a five-month-old "embryo" is this image of horror. In the early 1960s, after a series of failed attempts to abort the far too developed fetus, a physician in Berlin gives her "a box of quinine."
'At the climax of pain, she goes to the
toilet and gives birth at this sad place to
a big embryo. No blood flows. She holds
with horror and at the same time with
admiration this unfinished being in her
hand that looks like a very old, nearly
Aztecan object. Horrible picture how
this solemn and strange-looking being
sinks into the darkness of stinking,
subterranean canals.' (5:89)
What is nearly impossible for her to narrate - the unnamable violence against bodies--comes to be told in one of the last possible moments. The dynamics of the writing process is, in the end, a "retouching" of irreversible separations, here in sight of the "incomplete," "solemn and foreign-looking being." In the end she seems to cease merely receiving dictation and works with her own suffering, grants it discourse. No longer in an autoerotic or self-enclosed way as during the phases of recording hallucinations, her discourse reaches another type of image, another psychic layer. It seizes a moment of crisis and emphasizes the separating line as a leftover set aside for writing.
For Zurn, there is one motif that always returns. It refers back to the origin of her system of delusion in her most fundamental operation: the splitting apart of face and body. In the context of her individual mythology, she dates or mystifies the "beginning" of her system of madness back to the fixation on the "solemn and foreign-looking," yet beautiful face of a man. She calls this apparition the "man of jasmine." The first time she sees him, in a "vision," she is six years old, and she will go on encountering him again and again, now in a movie (Jean-Louis Barrault in the 1945 film Les enfants du paradis), now in reality: it is the face of Bellmer, the face she follows to Paris. As she remarks, she has grown ever more like this face herself. In "Dark Spring" (1967), Zurn relates how she, as a twelve-year-old girl, eats the photograph of a young man to keep the grownups from discovering it. "She puts the photograph in her mouth, chews it up carefully and swallows it" (4.2:199). She incorporates the man as her imaginary double image. Bellmer followed this curve: "She carries the picture of Hans in her eyes, ears, hair, and in her body and in her soul: he was omnipresent to her - she was under his spell - wherever she walked" (5:126).
In Paris, she meets the mystery man also in the incarnation of Henri Michaux: "Later she experiences the first miracle of her life: in a room in Paris, she faced the man of jasmine. The shock of this meeting was so powerful that she could not recover from it. From that day on, she begins ever so slowly to lose her mind" (4.1). It is a face associated with something inscrutable, an image with a staying power that can't be exhausted. As Benjamin once put it, "For everyone there exists an image over which the whole world disappears... for how many does it arise out of an old box of toys?" (Gesammelte Schriften, III:132). The evocation of many images gives way to their condensation in one inscrutable image that replaces all the others and lets them go. The mystery of the face in Zurn's poetic system--twice identified as a "Chinese face" (4.2:188) -signals the narrator's preferred mode of love: adoration, love at a distance, that of the bodiless kind. The man of jasmine is paralyzed; he sits in a wheelchair. His image always arises in a specific constellation that repeats itself in a nearly somnambulist manner. The mask of the esoteric love is a screen image, a screen memory, which points to something behind it or invisibly connected to it. "Object" and "abject" are inextricably entwined. On the first page of The Man of Jasmine, the narrator, immediately before mentioning the "vision," recounts a dream involving a well-known surrealist motif: the dreaming woman walks through a mirror on the wall. She passes through and finally stands in front of a table. On the table is a small white card. "As she picks up the card to read the name on it, she wakes up" (4.1:137). The dreamer knows that there is a name written on the card, but this name, this attribute, stays inaccessible to her. The decipherment fails. Shortly afterwards, we read:
'Filled this morning with an inexplicable loneliness, she enters her
mother's room in order to get into her bed and return, if possible,
to the place where she came from--so as to see nothing more.
Suddenly, a mountain of lukewarm flesh, enclosing this woman's
impure spirit, rolls over on the horrified child, and she flees
forever from the mother, the woman, the spider! She is deeply
The next sentence:
'Then her vision appears to her for the first time: the man of jasmine! Never-ending consolation! Sighing with relief, she sits down opposite him and studies him. He is paralyzed. What luck! He never leaves his seat in the garden where the jasmine blooms even in wintertime.'
The violation of boundaries identified with the mother immediately precedes the first appearance of the hallucination. From this point onward, the "screen" with the face of the other will always be called up whenever an unbinding of affects breaks through the protective layers. The visual sense protects against the memory of the body and the affects it holds in store. The "face" occupies the threshold between image space and body space, and splits them apart. The screen solution is activated whenever there is a repetition of the sense of being overwhelmed. Although the two scenes always follow one another, the gap between them and their necessary connection is suspended, disassociated. There is no passage to the zero degree of meaning. Through the symbol of the face, the text gains a figure, a facade--and hides a radical moment of loss, the eclipse of signification.
One of Zurn's psychiatrists, Rabain, who worked at St. Anne in Paris, remarks likewise: "Violent breaking into a body, which is under attack by a bizarre object, invested with intolerable emotions - an obscene and dangerous object like the mother tongue." The transgression, traced by the protagonist to her sixth year, destroys and contaminates the body's frontiers - at the level of incest - and becomes the catalyst for biography, work, and the system of delusion. One will never know if this scene is the "origin" of schizophrenia or already part of the system of madness (as an inner image). Traumatization is often missing its origin in time. One finds oneself constantly before or after the beginning. What happens, or is said to, can also always be a consequence, and again a consequence of consequences, until the chain loses itself in the horizon of the "too early." Even if the violation, as reported in the text, took place "in the sixth year," it is already mediatized in passing through the memory. And so the question remains: how could this event take on such importance, such doggedness?
For her, there remains the saving clause of a distant father, who travels a great deal. The adoration of an inscrutable face remains in her imagination, like the body bound to a wheelchair, unchangeably situated in the same place, in white jasmine. A delegate of the father without a body, someone whose face counts for her - who cannot leave her, dependent as he is, like herself, on assistance--becomes the model of love she holds up to the diffuse body of the mother, a model that won't permit the regression. This image is always called forth whenever a return to the merger with the mother's body, which has never completely broken away, takes place. The advantage of this inner splitting is that another solution doesn't have to take place: the slow, step-by-step separation from the mother. The connection as well as the break with her couldn't be integrated; the mother survives, internalized, as an overpowering, contaminated being, as the one who dictates. The logic of this traumatic "break-in" determines the quality of Zurn's psychiatric institutionalizations. In the hospitals she is surrounded by the polymorphous-perverse female bodies she always described in her texts about her hospital stays, and which she drew (with Chinese ink) as overlapping, interchangeable bodies. The hospitals connect her atmospherically with the unconscious image of the mother. The corridors are lined with the openings of a memory-less memory. In one of the last letters to Herta Hausmann (May 1970), she writes from Chesnailles: "Weather fine - [in French] as for me, the melancholy resulting from that dismal sojourn in the belly of Helene Helly-Zurn, my mother, still remains ..." (5:263). She spends her last ten years divided between two places or scenes, the contour-less, regressive place of the mother (Wittenau, St. Anne, Maison Blanche, Chesnailles) and Bellmer's Parisian apartment, home to one of the many bearers of the "Chinese face."
The singular image of this face would seem to be without history. That would be its protective function. But the texts show that the timelessness of the face is marked from the beginning by withdrawal. It is the discrete sign of the destruction and of the wish for destruction that has inscribed itself in Zurn's body. Overwhelming, excessive, overlapping, never graspable by the one thus seized, the body is disturbed or destroyed at its borders, which never seem functional or protective. To the very end, Unica Zurn's memoirs (for which she contrived the neologism "Memorien") represent a solitary attempt to re-inscribe her own bodily contours with repetition, narration, and drawing--but the countervailing forces were so much stronger." - Rike Felka
Two Halves: Unica Zürn
It Is Almost That: A Collection of Image+Text Work by Women Artists & Writers includes twenty-six works that do not fit neatly in any category and thus, because they are unwieldy, uncontainable, and inimitable are often relegated to the margins, or known by one world but not another. One of my ambitions in editing this book (read the complete editor’s afterword here) was to make space for those artists and writers who have been under-recognized or slotted into a category that doesn’t allow for a full reading of their work. While the collection provides generous excerpts or the entirety of certain works, the Siglio blog gives me an opportunity to create a different kind a space—a hub of information so that readers can follow the many tentacles of such artist’s and writer’s lives and works, but also a space for them to continue to speak for themselves.
The first in this series was “Hand, Machine & Mind: Molly Springfield’s Translation“ in which we posted a complete work that is only available in the It Is Almost That limited edition and which converses with the work she included in the collection. This second one, for Unica Zürn (whose House of Illnesses is excerpted in It Is Almost That), is different in that we aimed to gather disparate information and create a kind of collection so that readers new to her work might become better acquainted with it and those who know it might find something unexpected. And when I say “we” what I really mean is Siglio intern Jasmine Francis who created and shaped this entry to be an excellent alternative (in both content and spirit) to the traditional Wikipedia page.
—Lisa Pearson, publisher, Siglio
UNICA ZÜRN: From my earliest childhood, the first woman’s eyes I encountered conveyed the same uncontrollable anguish spiders cause me…This is why I very soon divided myself into two halves. (1)
A LITTLE ABOUT UNICA ZÜRN
Unica Zürn was born in 1916 in Berlin-Grunewald as Nora Berta Unica Ruth. Her mother was Helene Pauline Heerdt, and her father was Ralph Zürn, a writer and editor and cavalry officer who was stationed in Africa; he often brought Zürn exotic, ephemeral gifts he had collected in his travels. Her parents divorced in 1930. During her childhood, Zürn often dreamed of a male fantasy figure she dubbed “the man of Jasmine.” She left school at the age of fifteen, and in 1933, after a stint at business school, she worked at the studios of Universum Film AG in Berline as a shorthand typist. From 1936 to 1942, she wrote for commercials.
In 1942, Zürn married Erich Laupenmühlen and had two children with him, Katrin (born in 1943), and Christian (born in 1945). After divorcing her husband and losing custody of her children, she developed a relationship with the painter Alexander Camaro, who introduced her to painting. Around this time (1949-1955), she wrote short stories, reports for journals in Berlin, serials for newspapers, radio plays, and skits for a cabaret called “The Bathtub.” She separated from Camaro in 1953, the same year that she met Hans Bellmer in Berlin during an exhibition at the Galerie Springer.
Bellmer, a German Surrealist, encouraged her to pursue “automatic” drawings and to work on her anagrams (poems resulting from the rearrangement of the letters of a word or phrase in order to produce a new word or phrase, using all the original letters only once). Zürn also experimented with oil painting, but quickly abandoned the pursuit. Her drawings and anagrams were presented under the title Hexentexte by the Springer Berlin Gallery in 1953. In the same year, she had her first solo exhibition of automatic drawings in the Galerie Le Soleil dans la Tete in Paris (where she also had another exhibition in 1956). In attendance were well-known artists, writers and philosophers such as Breton, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Joyce Mansour, Victor Brauner, and Gaston Bachelard.
I was allowed to accompany Bellmer during all the portrait sittings: Man Ray, Gaston Bachelard, Henri Michaux, Matta, Wilfredo Lam, Hans Arp, Victor Brauner, Max Ernst…There are those who must be adored and others who adore. I have always belonged among the latter. Being full, constantly full of wonder, admiration and adoration. Remaining in the background, watching, looking—that is the passive manner in which I lead my life. (2)
In 1954, Zürn moved to Paris with Bellmer and met Man Ray, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, and Max Ernst. In 1958, she participated in a series of photographs with Bellmer, who tied her up with ropes so tight that they cut into her naked body. The photos were called “Unica Tied Up,” and Bellmer’s 1959 exhibit Doll (La Poupee) that included these photos were a success. In 1959, Zürn’s own work was included in the large surrealist exhibition at the Galerie Cordey in Paris.
In 1957, Zürn met Henri Michaux, identifying him with “the man of Jasmine” from her dreams and took the drug mescaline with him. Zürn’s mental health began to deteriorate that same year. After stays at multiple clinics prompted by a nervous breakdown and schizoprenic crisis, the administration of psychoneural drugs, and two suicide attempts, she returned home in a wheelchair, where she destroyed many of her works. Later that year, she was then taken to the Sainte-Anne clinic in La Rochelle (and remained there for three years). Henri Michaux brought her drawing materials so she could continue to work. After this, she was interned in various other psychiatric clinics, including “La Fond” in La Rochelle (1966) and Maison Blance at Neuilly-sur-Marne (1969 and 1970). One of her doctors was Gaston Ferdiere, who was considered a friend of the surrealists.
Her illness provided inspiration for much of her writing, including The Man of Jasmine, which was written between 1963 and 1965 and a sketchbook of drawings, created from 1963-1964, entitled “Oracles and Spectacles” (one of her unpublished works). She published Dark Spring in 1969, while The Man of Jasmine was published posthumously in 1971. An expanded section from The Man of Jasmine, entitled The House of Illnesses, was published in 1986.
On April 7, 1970, Bellmer, now paralyzed from a stroke in 1969, informed Zurn that he could no longer be responsible for her. On October 18, 1970, she was discharged from La Chesnaie de Chailles, an asylum. The following day, she committed suicide by jumping from a sixth-story window in the apartment she shared with Bellmer. Bellmer, who died in 1975, was buried next to Zürn at his request at the Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Their grave is marked with the words Bellmer had written for Zürn’s funeral wreath, five years prior: “My love will follow you into Eternity.” (3)
ZÜRN, THE ARTIST
In a letter to Gaston Ferdiere, the doctor who Zürn shared with Hans Bellmer (and Antonin Artaud), Bellmer writes:
During a relaxed after-dinner conversation at my mother’s house, Unica was doodling distractedly (the way one does while on the telephone). With my clearly experienced eye I immediately recognized her remarkable gift for automatic drawing. I pointed it out to her: after two or three days, she was making, with intense delight, drawings of which each one was of good quality. (1)
More of Zürn’s early work can be found here.
On May, 1956, Zürn has her first solo exhibition in Paris at the Gallery “Le Soleil dans la Tête.” She sold four paintings:
So my show is over […] The drawings were sold, like something like this: the first was like a rabbit, with breasts on the chest, with bones and a ghost in the stomach (ink China black). The second was, as said Hans, a sort of “buffalo-bug” […] The third was a “sole traveler” attached to a repulsive octopus […] The fourth was […] kind of a big bell, from which emerged other insects. (2)
Zürn writes in an excerpt from her novel The Man of Jasmine:
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…” (3)
.The pen ‘floats’ tentatively above the white paper, until she discovers the spot for the first eye. Only once she is ‘being looked at’ from the paper does she start to find her bearings and effortlessly add one motif to the next. (4)
HANS BELLMER: The female body…is like an endless sentence that invites us to rearrange it, so that its real meaning becomes clear through a series of endless anagrams. (1)
UNICA ZÜRN: If woman is to put into form the ‘ule’ [Greek: matter] that she is, she must not cut herself off from it nor leave it to maternity, but succeed in creating with that primary material that she is […] Otherwise, she risks using or reusing what man has already put into forms, especially about her, risks remaking what has already been made, and losing herself in that labyrinth. (2)
In 1958 Bellmer took photographs of Zürn after wrapping her nude body with twine. It was printed in Le Minotaure and titled “Keep in a cool place.” (3)
A portrait of Hans Bellmer by Zürn, 1965
I always need a companion to tell me what to do…They just have to say “now you do this, now you do that.” (4)
ZÜRN, THE WRITER
Hexentexte (The Witches’ Texts) (1954)
“ANAGRAMS are words and sentences resulting from the rearrangement of the letters in a given word or sentence… 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. At close inspection the anagram is seen to arise from a violent and paradoxical dilemma…What is at stake here is a totally new unity of form, meaning and feeling: language-images that cannot simply be thought up or written up. They enter suddenly and for real into their interconnections, radiating multiple meanings, meandering loops lassoing neighboring sense and sound.” —Hans Bellmer, Afterword to Hexentexte.
It is a very beautiful day. The woman looks around and thinks: “there cannot ever have been a spring more beautiful than this. I did not know until now that clouds could be like this. I did not know that the sky is the sea and that clouds are the souls of happy ships, sunk long ago. I did not know that the wind could be tender, like hands as they caress – what did I know – until now? (1)She wants to look beautiful after she is dead. she wants people to admire her. Never has there been a more beautiful dead child. (2)She steps onto the windowsill, holds herself fast to the cord of the shutter, and examines her shadowlike reflection in the mirror one last time. She finds herself lovely. A trace of regret mingles with her determination. ‘It’s over,’ she says quietly, and falls dead already, even before her feet leave the windowsill. (3)
An assessment: “Preadolescent sexuality merges with depressive fantasy—to devastating (if ineffably morbid) effect in this once-notorious novel by a German writer and artist (1916–70) who, like this novel’s young protagonist, took her own life shortly after its (1967) publication. She’s a nameless suburban girl who’s provoked, by her slovenly mother’s indifference, her beloved father’s long absences from home, and her own claustrophobic self-absorption, into masturbatory daydreams and tentative baby steps toward adult sexual expression. The story’s (expertly caught) tone and rhythm are indeed hypnotic . . . and Zürn caps it with a marvelously bleak, brisk final scene. Unusual and memorable fiction.” (4)
Someone travelled inside me, crossing from one side to the other. I have become his home. Outside, in the black landscape with the bellowing cow, someone is maintaining that they exist. From his gaze the circle closes around me. Traversed by him inwardly, encircled by him from without — that is my new situation. And I like it. (1)
From the introduction: Zürn’s texts suck one into her world; it is as difficult to break loose as it was for the writer herself. This despite, or perhaps, because of her use of the 3rd person (Zürn’s original manuscript of The Man of Jasmine even attributes the book to “the wife of Hans Bellmer”). Her agency is removed in these texts, like that of the central character, almost as if she has become a medium to her own self. But sometimes she hits back. The Whiteness with the Red Spot, in which she writes in the first person, is a damning condemnation of her contingency, her “training,” the illusions of hope and happiness she had projected onto the other, the man, and in the short texts The House of Illness and in the short Les Jeux a Deux she employs a subversive, laconic humour. Her anagrams even reveal overt aggression…And if her main texts seem strangely subdued by comparison, it should not be forgotten that they were written under a strong inner compulsion, against the advice of others…which jeopardised her ‘normal state.’ (2)
Since yesterday I know why I am making this book: in order to remain ill for longer than is correct. I can slip in a fresh page every day…My better half, which is clever and wise, wants me to remain ill for sometime, for it knows that one can gain from an illness such as mine. My worse half wants me to return to my few duties, yes, feels that it is time for me to show some consideration for my surroundings, which, incidentally, are not large…Perhaps I should now quickly smuggle another couple of empty pages into this book? Forgetting one’s duties has for me the taste of sweet cream. (1)
A description: Written and drawn during a bout of fever induced by jaundice, The House of Illnesses (Der Haus der Krankenheiten) traverses a kind of mirror world in which happiness is torment, traps are set to improve one’s health, and mortal enemies attack their enemies with virulent love. The narrator’s ailment was caused by her mortal enemy, a sharpshooter whose bullets removed the hearts of her eyes. Her stay in the House of Illnesses is supervised by Dr. Mortimer—adversary, stooge, the embodiment of her “personal death, and ultimately the figure that releases her. Zürn writes at the end of the work that she began the book on the twelfth day of her own illness, Wednesday, April 30, 1958, and she finished it ten days later. (2)
Pierre Joris translated a few of Zürn’s Anagrams, which can be found on his website:
IN THE DUST OF THIS LIFE
Pale sieves a tired
Ax in the tree’s bosom.
In the foliage’s broom there is
in the lovenest of the building.
Sweetly fogs in its ice-bath
the Ibis’s blood. Masses
in the dust of this life.
Ax in the tree’s bosom.
In the foliage’s broom there is
in the lovenest of the building.
Sweetly fogs in its ice-bath
the Ibis’s blood. Masses
in the dust of this life.
ONCE UPON A TIME A SMALL
Once upon a time a small
warm iron was alone. No
Noise, no wine let in.
Lightly at the sea ran, while no
Ice was, thrush-pink in a
See-egg. All wink: tear
like all seeds. Sink in,
watergerm, no, alone –
in a pillow. All warmth
once upon a time’s a mall.
warm iron was alone. No
Noise, no wine let in.
Lightly at the sea ran, while no
Ice was, thrush-pink in a
See-egg. All wink: tear
like all seeds. Sink in,
watergerm, no, alone –
in a pillow. All warmth
once upon a time’s a mall.
More of Zürn’s anagrams can be found in this excerpt from Anagrams, taken from the complete edition, volume 1 (1988).
ON UNICA ZÜRN
“Zürn’s life reads a bit like a Freudian case study…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.”—Valery Oisteanu, artnet
“The muffled scream that issues from Zürn’s drawings is surely the cri de coeur of a woman denied: deprived the love of her monstrously distant mother and the companionship of her absentee father, separated from her two children and refused possession of her own body by its transformation into a pot roast, among other things, by Bellmer. Her revenge is assimilation of the deformities these deprivations caused—her adamant presentation of herself as the twisted and manipulated creature that others have imagined. …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”—Gary Indiana, Art in America
“Zürn’s body of work opens up the interior of a perceptual system of madness. The texts are located at an intersection, a point of transfer. Madness becomes the supplier of literature, literature transports madness. Both drawings and texts show the “image processes” (Zürn) or hallucinations haunting her. “I’m haunted as though I were the only home for something unknown” (4/1:36). It is not she who writes or draws, as images “stream in” or “arise” (4/1:53). A dictation she feels compelled to take down circumvents “sublimated elaboration” (Kristeva). For Zürn, some thing or other–what Lacan calls extimacy (“extimite,” a foreign body, composed of what is intimate)–seems to take charge in the missing place of authorship and sublimation. She is remote-controlled and the rote observer of a delirium that runs on ahead like a movie. She writes down what can be caught. The notes resist, as pure record, the inaccessibility of madness.” —Rike Felka, The Memorien of Unica Zürn
“For Zürn her body is an imaginary construct, capable of reconfiguration, like the anagrams she loves. This view is in keeping with Bellmer’s contorted dolls, who with their surrealistically flexible body parts represent distorted corporeal anagrams.” —Katharine Conley, Automatic Woman: The Representation of Woman in Surrealism
“She drew phantasmagoric creatures, chimerical beasts with transparent organs and multiple appendages, plantlike abstractions, oneiric forms, amoebic shapes whose fractal membranes are filled in with multiple recurring motifs: spirals, scales, eyes, dots, beaks, claws, conical tails, leaflike indents. Some early and late drawings are sketches, loose, spare, and barely formed, containing multiple, differentiated, quasi-representational figures; others, often on larger paper, have a more “finished” quality, offering a clear inside to the entity, and an outside expanse of unmarked paper. Another batch, the most depressing, crowd out the picture planes with clusters of Munch-like heads, eyes, and mouths, set against cloyingly patterned backgrounds. These images were produced during one of the frequent institutional internments that followed Zürn’s being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1960.” —Bartholemew Ryan, Artforum
“In the art of Unica Zürn, the known is rederranged, the red-eared angel is crushed into a thousand eyes, as if in Tantrik diffraction, cranial shapes break into heads in telescopic profiles, with eye lozenge clusters of hanging pods. Abyss weevils percolate with seed energies.” (from “Unica Zürn” in Reciprocal Distillations 2007)
Blog entry by Jasmine Francis. - sigliopress.com/two-halves-unica-zurn/