Gary Indiana: A Stone for Unica Zürn
Unica Zürn has long been a semi-mythical figure. Little known and in many ways unknowable, she is inevitably associated with the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, whom she met at a Berlin show of his work in 1953. Obsessed throughout his career with realistic female dolls whose body parts could be endlessly manipulated, penetrated, removed, multiplied, decorated and otherwise reconfigured to posit flesh and bone as the material of a recombinative fetishism, Bellmer had worked and lived with other women before Zürn. (He’d also been married, and had fathered twin daughters.) But upon meeting Zürn he declared, ominously enough, “Here is the doll.”
From that moment on, their fates were intertwined—or, one could say, Unica Zürn’s fate was sealed. She was 37, Bellmer 51, when she moved to Paris to share Bellmer’s two rooms in the Hotel de l’Espérance, 88 rue Mouffetard. There the pair embarked on their own special variation on the Surrealist amour fou. They have been described as companions in misery who inspired each other. No doubt this is true. Zürn’s life before meeting Bellmer was troubled, to say the least. Born in 1916, she grew up in Grünewald, the daughter of an adored but mostly absent father, a cavalry officer posted to Africa, and his third wife, whom she detested. During the Nazi period, Zürn worked as a dramaturge at UFA, the German film company, married a much older man in 1942, bore two children and lost custody of them in a divorce seven years later; she then made a meager living writing short stories for newspapers and radio plays.
She also painted and made drawings in the late ’40s and early ’50s, independently lighting upon the Surrealist technique of decalcomania. Malcolm Green, in his introduction to the English version of Zürn’s novel The Man of Jasmine (Gallimard, Paris, 1971; English translation Atlas Press, London, 1977), describes this period of Zürn’s life as “happy.” She reestablished contact with former UFA colleagues, had what may have been an amiable social life, and enjoyed the work she did as a writer and artist.
One has to wonder, though only to wonder, how much of Zürn’s life transpired above the threshold of the dissociative states and debilitating depressions that later entrapped her. The writings for which she is best known reflect an excruciating mental state, relieved solely by fantasies and hallucinations; reality, in her description, is unbearably harsh and punitive, a realm of grotesquerie in which, she writes in Dark Spring (Merlin, Hamburg, 1969; English translation Exact Change, Cambridge, Mass.,2000), she is “mocked, derided and humiliated.” And while the narrator of that autobiographical novel avers that “pain and suffering bring her pleasure,” Zürn’s inner torment led many times to long spells in mental hospitals, and finally to suicide by throwing herself from Bellmer’s sixth-floor window in 1970, when she was 54.
Hans Bellmer’s photographs of Unica Zürn
Dark Spring is an autobiographical coming-of-age novel that reads more like an exorcism than a memoir. In it author Unica Zürn traces the roots to 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. Zurn committed suicide in 1970 — an act foretold in this, her last completed work.
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. One again, she has come out of this alive. Who knows what will happen tomorrow night?
Unica Zürn, a filmic portrait
Benoît Lepecq Lamenti, unica zürn / Hans Bellmer
Unica ZÜRN – Une Vie, une Œuvre : 1916-1970 (France Culture, 2007)
5 anagrammatic poems
AND IF THEY HAVE NOT DIED
I am yours, otherwise it escapes and
wipes us into death. Sing, burn
Sun, don’t die, sing, turn and
born, to turn and into Nothing is
never. The gone creates sense – or
not died have they and when
and when dead – they are not.
for H.B.Berlin 1956
DANS L’ATTELAGE D’UN AUTRE AGE
(Line from a poem by Henri Michaux)
Eyes, days, door, the old country.
Eagle eyes, a thousand days old.
WILL I MEET YOU SOMETIME?
After three ways in the rain image
when waking your counterimage: he,
the magician. Angels weave you in
the dragonbody. Rings in the way,
long in the rain I become yours.
I spread the white nothing
alas, white is nothing. Remorse
of white smoke stabs silk
of lenity. Sweetness is like
the white. Shout: Don’t do it!
She is me! Become sweet night!
WE LOVE DEATH
Red Thread’s body,
Turn bread in sorrow,
Not in question, ax is
Life. We, your death,
you weave your Lot
in soil. Game messenger
we love death
‘Zurn had been a writer before she met the Surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer in Berlin in 1953 and moved with him, that same year, to Paris, where she became part of a circle that included Man Ray, Andre Breton, Max Ernst, and others, and was introduced to “automatic drawing.” This technique was originally designed to bypass the “rational” through a passive, “nondirected” engagement of the unconscious. Successive Surrealists made the method their own developing more active approaches corresponding with a variety of quasi-ideological strategies. Zurn, for instance, adapted a technique by which natural imperfections of paper are joined together to initiate the compositional field, instead introducing her own originary marks in the form of small sketched eyes, the basic motif of many of her later works.
‘Zurn was attracted to constraints, whether in the procedural rules of the anagram poems or in the conceptual decision undergirding the drawings never to allow figuration to arrive at coherent representation. Although her compositional strategies changed considerably over the years, Zurn’s hand remained remarkably consistent. 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. Zurn’s work shadows Surrealism’s last days. In its procedural simplicity and fragile materiality, it is also a curious outlier to emerging trends in art of the time.’ — Bartholomew Ryan, Artforum
UnicaZürn, the band
Unica Zürn @ A Journey Round My Skull
Fantasies Embodied @ Tomorrow Museum
Unica Zürn et son MistAKE
Glass Trees ‘Songs for Unica’
Video: A MOVIE FOR UNICA ZÜRN
Video: Something Lives Inside the Machine
Unica Zürn Memory Page
‘Dark Spring’ Page @ Facebook
p.s. Hey. Here’s how the blog’s immediate future will work. Tomorrow I fly back to Paris. I will arrive there Monday morning in a sleep-deprived haze whereupon I will quickly launch Monday’s post, sans p.s., at the more familiar Paris launch time. Then, on Tuesday, I’ll be back here, and, other than the interference of my guaranteed jet lag, everything will return to normal. ** David Ehrenstein, Ha! Oh, I saw your question on FB. The title PGL came from a short lived 90s LA rock band who took the name from a late 60s psychedelic rock song of the same name. Our use of the title has nothing to do with the band or song, obviously. We just thought of a new way to use its inference. ** Dominik, Hi! Ah, the dentist thing. I’m not a huge fan of dentistry, but I think your thinking makes total sense. I still have my wisdom teeth, and they grew in a bit weird, but I’ve never had any problem from them. So that sounds like a plan. Great, I’ll be happy to know what the moods gave you once their effect is an articulateable thing. Things are good here, busier than I’d figured, but that always seems to end up being the case. One last day here today and then back to Paris with the dreaded flight/jet lag combo in between. Cool, talk to you at our usual and more aligned time very soon. All the love back to you! ** _Black_Acrylic, I agree. I thought his profile text was borderline experimental short story-cum-poem-like. Oh, okay, about the font. Yes, Sotos-like, I can totally see that now. Cool. Have a great weekend, Ben. ** Okay. I’m bringing back my post devoted to the great Unica Zürn for this weekend’s duration. I hope it does something fruitful for you. The blog will see you on Monday, and I’ll be back in tow to catch up with you on Tuesday.