Unica Zürn at Musée D’art Et D’histoire De L’hôpital Sainte-Anne

Hans Bellmer, “Preparatory study for Portrait of Unica with Eye-Sex” (1961), pencil on paper, 22 x 16.7 cm, collection of David and Marcel Fleiss; Galerie 1900-2000, Paris, used with permission

Unica Zürn 

Arts and History Museum of Sainte-Anne (MAHHSA) (1, rue Cabanis 75014 Paris) 

through May, 31, 2020

Curated by Anne-Marie Dubois

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, April 2020

Unica Zürn, born in Berlin-Grunewald in 1916, was a German writer who as a young woman worked at the Nazi-propaganda production house Universum-Film Aktiengesellschaft and volunteered for the women workers section of the Nazi party. Later, she would meet in Berlin her partner, the perverse, anti-Nazi doll aficionado and draftsman extraordinaire Hans Bellmer. Drawn to Bellmer’s sadomasochistic sexual peccadillos and the spontaneous Surrealist practices of mark making initiated by André Masson’s automatic drawings, Zürn moved to Paris with Bellmer in 1954 and joined in with both the Georges Bataille and André Breton wings of the Surrealists. Not all would be rosy.

Her current — but locked-down — Art and History Museum of Sainte-Anne Hospital (MAHHSA) exhibition, that opens with Bellmer’s drawing of Zürn “Preparatory study for Portrait of Unica with Eye-Sex” (1961), brings together nearly 70 quizzical drawings, engravings, anagram poems, and other documents. All this work displays her astonishing automatic drawing skills while touching upon her severe mental breakdowns and attempted treatments, including psychotherapy conducted right here at Sainte-Anne Hospital. Indeed, following a suicidal psychic breakdown in which she destroyed many of her drawings, Zürn was interned at Sainte-Anne’s from late September, 1961 to late March, 1963. Five of her art-therapy drawings in their collection, including the fishy “Untitled” (1961), are joined with drawings from various institutional and private collectors, including Antoine de Galbert. Most of the works, that repeatedly allude to a mythic Nazi-father figure, were made during the 1960s — an intensely productive period for Zürn, but one sadly marred by the unraveling of her relationship with Bellmer and her deteriorating brushes with tormenting nihilism, partially documented in her recently published notebook The House of Illnesses. 

Page 15 in Zürn’s notebook The House of Illnesses (1958), published by Atlas Press in 2019, photo by the author

Suffering from dissociative states and severe depression, Zürn’s initial mental collapse was likely initiated by multiple mescaline-induced hallucinatory trips she shared with her (as of 1957) lover Henri Michaux that overwhelmed her with unresolved negative past events. Zürn accounts this frightful period of her life in her book The Man of Jasmine, but had also abandoned in Berlin the two children she had had with Erich Laupenmühlen, a much older, wealthy ex-husband back in the 1940s. Though, given the already bugged-out, wildly free meticulousness of her pre-trip “Untitled” (1955) drawing — perhaps a collection of dried-up dryads — I’m not convinced that mescaline can explain the perplexed intricacies of her ensuing devastating drawings. 

“Untitled” (1955), Ink and white gouache on paper 19.26 x 25.19”, Private collection, Paris ©Dominique Baliko

All of Zürn’s densely obsessive automatic drawings steam with infinite brews of hallucinatory visualizations that demand the engagement of excited imaginations. They are marvelous examples of magnetic psychopathological-based art with melancholic underbellies. All are labyrinthine in detail and morbidly engrossing in that they invigorate cataclysmic questions of agency and desire. As such, they deftly evoke dark apparitions of a particular seditious Surrealist world at a particular time: one rampant with male-dominated misogyny and romantic wide-eyed hypnotic obsession that led Zürn to suicide on October 19th, 1970. That day she hurled herself from the sixth-floor apartment she shared with Bellmer, and there’s nothing glamorous to say about that.

For the cover of Le Surréalisme, même (#4), from 1958, Zürn was photographed by Bellmer tied-up like a kinky pot roast. Likewise, Zürn’s penetrating drawing “The Spirit of the Bottle” (1960) uses a critical semi-abstract visual vocabulary that opens imaginative possibility that can be as distastefully erotic as they are equivocal. In “Untitled” (circa 1965), shriveling seems enacted here in a spectrum of sadness.  

Le Surréalisme, même (#4) (1958) cover by Hans Bellmer, tinted photograph of bound Unica Zürn

Unica Zürn, “The Spirit of the Bottle” (1960), Sheet from Oracle and Spectacle, Book V (unpublished manuscript), Ink & India ink on paper 12 7/8 x 9 7/8 inches (32.9 x 25.2 cm), collection of Ubu Gallery, New York, used with permission

 “Untitled” (circa 1965), Chinese Ink and watercolor on paper 19.68 x 25.59." Private collection, Paris ©Dominique Baliko. 

“Untitled” (1966), Chinese Ink on paper 12.20 x 9.84”, Private collection, Paris ©Dominique Baliko

Silky simplistic skimpiness has seldom been more powerfully evoked than in “Untitled” (circa 1966) with its meandering, interdependent eyes. Zürn seems to be trying to draw behind the visual surface of the human-animal-vegetable world by engaging with affective imagination and speculative participation. Her “Untitled” (1967) pastel gouache creates subjective feelings of melty filminess, suggesting the sexual sensitivity of a turned-on stingray. 

Given this exhibition’s poignant psychiatric hospital context, it cannot but help to highlight Zürn’s lethal calamitous conundrums. But the intense power of her infinitely changeable drawings make her seem still very much alive. WM

Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist whose computer-robotic assisted paintings and computer software animations are shown regularly in galleries and museums throughout the world. In 2011 his book Immersion Into Noise was published by the University of Michigan Library's Scholarly Publishing Office in conjunction with the Open Humanities Press. He exhibited in Noise, a show based on his book, as part of the Venice Biennale 55, and is artistic director of the Minóy Punctum Book/CD project.

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