In 2006 the Halle Saint-Pierre of Paris exhibited over 100 drawings and watercolors by Unica Zürn, reviving her vast collection of work as an overlooked extension of Art Brut. Zürn was known, initially, as the wife of Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer and spent much of her life reeling from tragedies that tore at the core of her own identity. Born in Berlin, Germany on July 6, 1916 after the start of World War I, Zürn became the embodiment of Berlin Modern, the Weimer society of the Post World War I era, that flourished and crumbled, attracting artists and writers from different countries while the larger populace was torn asunder by the economic fall-out generated by war reparations.
In 1929 when Zürn was thirteen years old, her family’s house, situated in Berlin-Grunewald, was auctioned off with all of its furnishings intact, signifying the loss of her family’s middle class status. Not very long after, she and members of her family became involved with the National Socialist Party. One year after the birth of her first child in 1943, Zürn’s house was bombed. Her second child was born in 1945. As other members of her family died either at war or internment camps, Zürn divorced her husband and fled her family for Paris after meeting Hans Bellmer in 1953. From that point, Zürn began creating a series of poetic anagrams that gradually evolved into elaborately drawn and painted imagery, characterized by marks of distortion. For Zürn, art became the ultimate means of expression, which revealed the war she waged in her life.
Zurn’s art was last exhibited in New York at the Ubu Gallery in 2005. Totemic yet mystical in appearance, her work posed a challenge for writers to sum up since it does not exist within the scope of fine art as we know it, but in the realm of Art Brut, where imagery automatically flows from the mind while entirely independent of both trends and movements. As seen in two untitled works from 1961, Zürn mapped a series of falcon-like forms that each bear an infinite number of eyes. Set up as a dense pattern, the eyes and faces quickly disappear into larger unknown forms. In the catalogue from 2006, Barbara Safarova wrote, “The ‘I’ appears as an effect of signs, insecure in its continual metamorphosis: it can not be fixed.”
The face, in general, became a sight of memory and experience when the artist recollected, for example, the brother who raped her as a child, her grim reaction to the experience of abortion, the memory of her father, and other close colleagues who unexpectedly faded out of her life. When passing strangers in the street, Zürn would imagine these known faces. But eventually no matter how many drawings she created, a sense of satisfaction was not there leading Zürn to tear up some of her art. Barbara Safarova and Terezie Zemankova both suggest: “Some creators show us in their works that perceiving our body as a unified whole, distinct from the rest of the world, is an illusion.” Zürn’s consistent thickly braided lines continually opened up new forms that distorted rather than constructed, while lacking any overt context.
From 1960 to 1970, Unica Zürn was at her most prolific while visiting several hospitals for long periods of time. In her narrative titled, “Man of Jasmine,” (1971) Zürn described her process thus: “Hesitant at first, the pen ‘swims’ above the white surface, and locates the spot where the first eye is to be drawn. It is only when something gazes back at her from the paper that she starts to orientate herself, finding her motifs flowing effortlessly forth.” Wolfgang Knapp has described her art as the product of a psychic state that maintained an aesthetic frame of mind. By the late 60s, Zürn applied heavy black lines as contour and captured beings that bore a resemblance to Hindu iconography.
On October 18th, 1970 Zürn took a temporary leave from the psychiatric clinic at the Chateau de la Chesnaie and returned to see Bellmer at their apartment in Paris, located at 4 Rue de la Plaine. The next day, the artist threw herself over the balcony and died. Whether chased by visions, voices or her own memories, Zürn had lived a broken life. In mid-April the Drawing Center will host, “Dark Spring,” a selection of 50 drawings and watercolors. Titled after the book that captured her life in the third person, the drawings in this exhibition will reflect the sporadic nature of the artist’s mind as well as the various figurations that it took while wandering along the surface of a page.