The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues
MAY 2012 Issue


A more appropriate title for this show could be Ties That Bind—either by destiny or, to be more vulgar, by rope. Such ties are revealed in this edgy exhibition of more than 50 works dedicated to the 15 years of collaborative effort between Hans Bellmer and Unica Zürn, who, in turn, were inspired by the erotica of their surrealist artist and poet friends. It was a circle that included Georges Bataille, Louis Aragon, André Masson, Paul Eluard, René Magritte, Jean Cocteau, and the ghost of Marquis de Sade.

Hans Bellmer, “Tenir au frais (‘Keep Cool’),” maquette for the cover of Le Surréalisme, même #4, pp. 126–127, 1958. Collage of vintage gelatin silver prints & gouache on masonite. 9 1/4 x 9 5/8”. Ubu Gallery, New York & Galerie Berinson, Berlin. © ADAGP, Paris
On View
Ubu Gallery
March 9 – May 19, 2012
New York

Their love affair began innocently enough at an opening featuring Bellmer’s surreal, life-size female dolls at Maison de France in Berlin (1953), attended by Zürn. Here, it was love at first sight, and Zürn wound up abandoning her writing career at UFA (the German state movie studio), to move to Paris with Bellmer in 1954. The couple became co-conspirators in overt sadomasochistic eroticism involving a third-party “surrealist doll,” documenting the actions by way of photographs, drawings, and writing.

First came Bellmer’s bondage drawings—what he called “altered landscapes” of the human body—with ropes cutting deeply into female flesh. These fantasies dated back to 1946, but it wasn’t until 1954 – 58, when Zürn took on the role of the willingly submissive model, that Bellmer made a series of uncanny photographs reproducing the earlier drawings, such as “Unica” (1958).

Introduced to the surrealist circle, Zürn entered into an affair with Henri Michaux, and they experimented with psychedelics together. The drug use precipitated her mental crisis and, beginning in 1962, resulted in a series of internments in psychiatric-care facilities located in Paris, La Rochelle, and Berlin, as is documented in her novel The Man of Jasmin and Other Texts: Impressions from a Mental Illness. The story is reflected in her artistic work on display at Ubu Gallery, which depicts aggressive otherworldly creatures, chimeras, and giant floating jellyfish with human eyes, all set in bleak surroundings, and testifying to the profound malaise that ultimately led to her suicide. These works are not evidence of a wounded spirit or an aficionado of “outsider’s art/art brut,” however, but rather, are testimony of an artist’s exploration in the realm of nightmares, repressed desire, and subconscious revelations.

Zürn’s familiarity with surrealist conceptions of the psyche and her extraordinary self-possession are allied here with the artist’s vivid descriptive powers, resulting in the psychological and artistic masterpieces on display. Some of the drawings bear marks of having been destroyed, only to be rescued by Michaux (who constantly supplied her with drawing paper and India inks). In addition to several of these pieces and some small paintings, on display is a rare copy of the magazine Le Surréalisme, même from 1958, edited by Breton, with its cover photograph of Zürn’s unrecognizably grotesque and bound naked body accompanied by the necrophilia-tinged caption, “Tenir au Frais” (“Keep Cool”). 

Unica Zürn, Orakel und Spektakle (Oracle and Spectacle), 1960; unpublished manuscript. Illustrated manuscript. Ink, India ink, & pencil on paper. 12 7/8 x 9 7/8”. Reproduced in: Unica Zürn (Berlin: Brinkmann & Bose, 2009) p. 41-67. Ubu Gallery, New York & Galerie Berinson, Berlin. © Verlag Brinkmann & Rose, Berlin.

Binding and bondage are recurring themes of Bellmer and Zürn’s partnership, resulting in a tableau of straps, ropes, lace, and corsets, with allusions to anal penetration. Bellmer’s drawings are defined by a precise line, carved as if by a scalpel, and devise a world in which submission to a dark eroticism is marked by infinite metamorphoses of the human anatomy. His artworks on paper feature multiple sexual organs and orifices, but they are not repugnant or grotesque, merely explicit and dream-like.

His writings about his own art were simultaneously philosophical and poetic: “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 constitute new, multifaceted objects, resembling polyplanes made of mirrors … As if the illogical was relaxation, as if laughter was permitted while thinking, as if error was a way and chance, a proof of eternity.”

Unfortunately, Zürn’s mental illness darkened the last decade of Bellmer’s life, and in 1964 he noted in a letter to a friend that her condition had “transferred to his own body.”

Bellmer’s deliberate flirtations with “delirium” and Zürn’s performed, encountered, or staged madness were the couple’s way of courting a different kind of mental illness, one that was ruled by imagination and resided outside of the confines of social order.

In a theoretical essay titled “Small Treatise of Physical Unconscious on the Anatomy of the Image” (1957) Bellmer wrote,

A man in love with a woman and himself ... is in a peculiar hermaphroditic interconnection between the male and female principles in which the female structure predominates. What is always vital is that the image of a woman must  have been ‘lived’ (experienced) by the man in his own body before it can be ‘seen’  by the man.

Take that as a Rosetta stone for understanding this unusual couple, and their unusual art.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2012

All Issues