Truly, deeply mad — or merely performing? 



Surreal life and work leave many questions unanswered

“Dark Spring” is the title of Unica Zürn’s first major North American exhibition of her drawing work. In addition to presenting ink and watercolor works on paper by the late — and largely unknown — German artist and writer (1916-1970), the gallery has also hosted talks and a panel to introduce the life and work of Zürn.

The title of the exhibition is drawn from the name of an autobiographical novel Zürn published a year before her tragic suicide. That novel has been translated into English by Caroline Rupprecht, Professor of Comparative Literature at Queens College.

Upon encountering the menacing yet playful forms entrapped within the sinewy curves that dominate Unica Zürn’s canvass, one is immediately captivated by the visual overload. On the one hand, there is the mystery evoked by the nightmarish figures depicted: chimeras, serpents, and the plethora of disembodied unpaired eyes that inhabit most of her latter works. On the other hand, there are the repetitive and fastidious hypnotic patterns of undulated motifs filling in those primitivistic forms — drawn with a density that seemed to suggest these patterns were of equal importance to the larger representational figures. In fact, the absence of a gravitational center is one of the defining features of most of Zürn’s drawings and paintings.

Zürn’s art was concerned with freeing itself from rational control and tapping in to the unconscious. She achieved this through automatic drawing, a technique that was popular with artists like André Mason and others of the Surrealist movement. Zürn’s use of automatic drawing, however, was quite personal and unique. In an essay on Zürn, exhibition curator João Ribas highlights the stark contrast between Masson’s approach to automatic drawing and Zürn’s.

While Masson sought to access the repressed unconscious by plunging into his work, Zürn’s approach suggests an almost anthropomorphic relationship to her work. Ribas elucidates Zürn’s process with the artist’s own words: “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.”

Born in Berlin, Germany in 1916, Nora Berta Unika Ruth Zürn was the daughter of military officer with unfulfilled writing ambitions and an emotionally distant mother. Zürn’s unrequited yearning for maternal affection, her adoration of her frequently absent father and their dysfunctional marriage made for an unhappy childhood.

Zürn spent her young adult years in her native city working for the German national film production company as an editor and an archivist before embarking upon a writing career. She managed to attain some modest success in this arena, publishing 120 short stories in Berlin newspapers. In 1942, she married into bourgeois wealth to a man that sympathized with the Nazi party and had two children by him. Deeply incompatible, Zürn ended her marriage in 1949 — ceding custody of her children to her ex-husband. It was a decision she would regret for the rest of her life. After her divorce, Zürn remained in Berlin and led the life of the Bohemian artist.

During this period, she became acquainted with influential painters and was encouraged to paint. In 1953, Zürn met the Surrealist photographer and painter Hans Bellmer — dramatically changing her life and her art. They fell in love and Zürn moved with him to Paris. Although their relationship was stormy and was said to have sadomasochistic overtones, it was a fruitful period for Zürn’s art.

Ribas reports that between 1956 and 1964, Zürn had four exhibitions of her drawings and was included in the Exposition Internationale du Surréalisme in Paris in 1960. As prolific as this period was for Zürn, it was also characterized by a series of stays in asylums ( the first of which occurred in 1960). There, she struggled with the demons of her German identity and postwar guilt.

In Paris, she was diagnosed with several mental disorders. The drawing tests administered to Zürn precluded an understanding of her artistic expression and served to brand her a schizophrenic. According to Rupprecht, Zürn was most likely to have been bipolar.

The topic of her illness occupied a prominent role in the various panel presentations hosted by the Drawing Center. In a presentation by Mary Ann Caws, the motif of the eyes was seen as suggestive of the condition of a paranoid-schizophrenic (a thesis ably supported by drawing on Zürn’s late writings). Just how deeply Zürn was afflicted by her mental disorder is a question of potentially ceaseless discussion. As in certain Romantic currents, Surrealists hailed madness to be one of the hallmarks of genius.

While there is a general consensus that Zürn’s mental disorder was real, Ribas argues that there is also an element of “performed” madness that needs to be borne in mind with Zürn. “The goal of the Surrealist automatist technique, to which Zürn aligned herself, is a kind of ‘performed’ or ‘encountered’ madness, so courted because it is deemed antithetical to the social order.” Bellmar contended that she exaggerated her illness so she could write about it. Ribes argues that she embraced the poetic force of madness.

While a certain degree of abandonment to her suffering is undoubtedly the case with Zürn, the inability to bridge her longings for unity within herself and with those she loved shaped many aspects of this troubled artist’s life and work. The abandonment she suffered from Bellmer, when he informed her that his own illness would no longer allow him to take care of her, led her to her take her life by hurling herself from the sixth floor balcony of Bellmer’s Paris apartment (in a manner hauntingly similar to what she had described for her autobiographical third person protagonist in “Dark Spring”).

The exhibition is not only an arrangement of drawings and paintings that are worth seeing for their intense powerful imagery, energetic artistic allure, intriguing technique and the emotional gravitas that they evoke; it is but a tribute to an artist who deserves her due.