The Drawing Center, April 17 – July 23, 2009
This is the first museum presentation in America of the drawings and paintings of Unica Zürn (1916-1970), who is known in the English-speaking world as the author of two books, translated as The Man of Jasmine & Other Texts (1994) and Dark Spring (2000). That the mainstream art world has taken far longer to deal with Zürn’s accomplishment is understandable; it needs to find a way to present the work in an appropriate and culturally established physical space, whereas, in publishing a book, a small press doesn’t need or necessarily even want institutional approval. The frame most commonly applied to Zürn’s art is psychoanalytical, with the salient questions being whether or not her life can be separated from her art, and how to explain what many regard as her “masochism,” particularly in regard to her collaborations with her partner, Hans Bellmer.
As Renée Riese Herbert points out in Magnifying Mirrors: Women, Surrealism, and Partnership (1994), the “years spent as Bellmer’s companion coincide almost exactly with the most productive period of her life.” It is during this period that she moved from Berlin to Paris, met and fell in love with Henri Michaux, drew and painted, wrote anagrammatic poems as well as two books of autobiographical fiction. It is also during this period that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia and suffered the first of a number of breakdowns. In Compulsive Beauty (1993), writing about Bellmer and others, Hal Foster suggests “the surrealist image is patterned upon the symptom as an enigmatic signifier of a psychosexual trauma.” If we accept this view, the Surrealists, as exemplified by Zürn, Bellmer, Magritte (think of Le Viol, 1934), and others, are wounded creatures reacting to childhood trauma, which amounts to an easy explication of the relationship between the artist’s childhood and project (who among us hasn’t been traumatized?), as well as a diminishment of its impact.
Admirably curated by Joåo Ribas, and accompanied by a catalog with very different and insightful essays by Ribas and Mary Ann Caws, the exhibition consists of more than fifty drawings in ink and watercolor on paper, a handful of paintings, as well as letters, anagrammatic poems, and the infamous cover of Le Surréalisme, Méme (1958), which makes clear that Surrealism had not, in a postwar world, lost any of its power to provoke and disturb, despite judgments to the contrary by numerous theorists and critics. If the few paintings scattered through the exhibition are any indication of what she did in that medium, it is evident that we need to see a much larger selection.
Zürn’s drawings are of phantasmagorical creatures, whose bodies are made of varying, repeated patterns that suggest scales, feathers, and armor, something that is not skin. Inversely, one can also see the linear marks as cuts, scars, and tattoos. Many of the creatures have multiple heads and numerous eyes—a motif that has often been read as indicative of her schizophrenia. In some cases the bodies are heads within heads, and rows of eyes, like those you see in a Byzantine angel. Made of different parts, each sectioned off from the other, and often undulating and stretched out, with protrusions of all kinds, the figures resemble jellyfish-like creatures, transparent bodies full of exposed organs. The eyes stare at us, but we also see through these bodies. And when she leaves open spaces, we are being invited to fill them. Zürn has rendered intimacy and remoteness inseparable, which is why her work in different mediums is so disturbing.
Zürn was a religious ecstatic. During these states, whether she was collaborating with Bellmer or incarcerated in an institution, as she was on a number of occasions, the artist mentally left her body (it becomes an outer shell) to go inward where she ultimately found release. The drawings conflate receptivity and isolation. In their hypnotic concentration, the patterned lines and shapes go from mesmerizing to unsettling. Our experience of them is not purely aesthetic, which is exactly what the Surrealists wanted. If you have any doubt about this, consider the photograph of Zürn that appeared on the abovementioned cover of Le Surréalisme, Méme. Headless and limbless, her body is seen from the back, with the vertebrae just barely visible. Tightly tied with thin string, causing her flesh to bunch up into mounds and folds, Zürn has become a piece of trussed meat ready for the oven—an association that she, as a German overcome at times with feelings of guilt, was no doubt fully aware. In linking her “masochism” to her childhood, observers sidestep Zürn’s attempt to absorb the Holocaust without seeking redemption. As a religious ecstatic or an inverse Sufi, where complete stillness rather than dancing was the only release, eroticism and death had become one. And yet, at the end of Dark Spring, after the nameless young girl jumps to her death, Zürn writes: “The first one to find her is the dog. He sticks his head between her legs and begins licking her. When she does not move, he begins whimpering quietly and lies down beside her on the grass.” Placing her corpse (or corpus) before us, her work resists all attempts to anesthetize it, render it neutral. In her eyes and those of her creatures, viewers and theorists who try to force her work into tidy paradigms are nothing more than animalistic necrophiliacs.