Unica Zürn

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Unica Zürn

Unica Zürn (6 July 1916 – 19 October 1970) was a German author and painter. Zürn is remembered for her works of anagram poetry, exhibitions of automatic drawing, and her photographic collaborations with Hans Bellmer. An exhibition of Bellmer and Zürn's work was shown at the Ubu Gallery in New York in the spring of 2012.[1]


Born in Berlin-Grunewald as Nora Berta Unica Ruth, her childhood was tainted by her family that suffered from a history of mental health issues. [2] Her father, Ralph Zurn, and her mother, Helene Pauline Heerdt, divorced in 1930.[3] The only single male figure who remained part of her life was her brother who she claimed used to inflict acts of sexual violence upon her as a young girl.[2] In 1942 she married a wealthy man named Erich Laupenmuhlen.[3] In 1943 she had her first child, Katrin, and in 1945 she had her second child, Christian.[4] In 1953, she and Erich divorced, forcing her to lose custody of her children. She could not afford a lawyer and provide the means to take care of them. In 1953 she met surrealist painter Hans Bellmer in Berlin at an exhibition at the Galerie Springer. She moved with him to Paris, becoming his partner and model.[5] The relationship lead to some physical complications for Zürn. She suffered from a surgical procedure gone wrong for a genital tear from childbirth and relations with Bellmer. Additionally, she had to endure multiple back-alley abortions during the affair.[2]

Zürn began writing after World War II, writing short stories and radio plays. Bellmer recognized Zürn’s skill and motivated her to pursue “automatic” drawings and anagrams. These were exhibited by the Springer Berlin Gallery in 1953 under the title “Hexentexte”. She had her first solo exhibition in the same year in the Galerie Le Soleil dans la Tete in Paris. She had a second show, in 1956, at the same gallery. Her viewers included writers, artists, and philosophers. Recognizable names such as André Breton, Man Ray, Hans Arp, Joyce Mansour, Victor Brauner, and Gaston Bachelard attended her exhibitions.[3]

Together with Hans Bellmer, Unica Zürn frequented surrealist circles and befriended people such as Man Ray, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Henri Michaux, Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst. Zürn made her way into the Surrealist movement amongst other successful women as Leonora Carrington, Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, Eileen Agar, Ithell Colquhoun, Toyen, Leonor Fini and Valentine Hugo.[6] Bellmer incorporated Unica into his piece titled, “Unica Tied Up,” which was exhibited in his 1959 exhibit “Doll”. That same year, Zürn was involved in an exhibition at the Galerie Cordey in Paris that included many other surrealist artists.[7]

In 1960 she experienced her first hallucinatory crisis. From this point on she suffered from long periods of depression and spent most of her time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. After two suicide attempts, she returned home in a wheelchair and destroyed most of her drawings and writings. The years 1960-1962 were spent in Jacques Lacan’s Psychiatric clinic of St. Anne. It wasn't until recently that researchers claimed she most likely suffered from schizophrenia.[2] One of her doctors was Gaston Ferdière, a friend of the surrealists, who was also psychiatrist to Antonin Artaud. Regardless of her battle with mental illness she continued to draw, write, and formulate anagrams. Her illness inspired much of her writing, above all Der Mann im Jasmin, written between 1963 and 1965.

She committed suicide in Paris, France in 1970, at the age of 54, by leaping from the window of the apartment she shared with Bellmer.

Zürn produced mostly drawings and anagrams. She dabbled in oil paint but it did not stick to it for very long. Zurn portrayed a violent aggression towards the female body in her stories.[7] The stories consist mostly of internalized dialogue that allows the reader to experience her past. Her stories include persons and families that closely resemble her own. Zürn expressed her victimization as a form of escape from reality. One story, Dark Spring, is about a young girl with a family life that closely represents Unica’s who eventually jumps out of her bedroom window to end her childhood suffering. This is a mirroring image of what Zürn does later in her life after trying to cope with her psychiatric disabilities. Her autobiographical texts such as Sombre Printemps and L'Homme Jasmin, have acquired almost a cult status in Paris.[2][6]


  • Hexentexte [The Witches' Texts] (1954)
  • Dunkler Frühling [Dark Spring] (1970)[8]
  • Der Mann im Jasmin [The Man of Jasmine] (1977)
  • Das Haus der Krankheiten, Brinkmann & Bose und Lilith, 1986
    • L'Homme-jasmin: impressions d'une malade mentale, Translator Ruth Henry, Robert Valançay, Gallimard, 1971, ISBN 978-2-07-028042-1
Works in English


  1. ^ Oisteanu, Valery (May 2012). "Bound: Hans Bellmer and Unica Zurn". The Brooklyn Rail. 
  2. ^ a b c d e Marshall, Jennifer Cizik (2000). "The Semiotics of Schizophrenia: Unica Zürn's Artistry and Illness". Modern Language Studies 30 (2): 21–31. doi:10.2307/3195377. ISSN 0047-7729. JSTOR 3195377. Retrieved 2015-12-21. 
  3. ^ a b c Francis, Jasmine. "Two Halves: Unica Zurn". Sigliopress.com. Siglio. 
  4. ^ "Unica Zurn". abcd-artbrut.net. Retrieved March 3, 2015. 
  5. ^ Andrew Brink (2007). Desire and avoidance in art: Pablo Picasso, Hans Bellmer, Balthus and Joseph Cornell. Peter Lang. ISBN 978-0-8204-9721-1. 
  6. ^ a b Suleiman, Susan (1988). "A Double Margin: Reflections on Women Writers and the Avant Garde in France". Yale University Press. Yale French Studies, No. 75, The Politics of Tradition: Placing Women in French Literature (1988): 148–172. Retrieved March 4, 2015. 
  7. ^ a b Export, Valie; Eifler, Margret; Sager, Kurt (1988). "The Real and Its Double: The Body". Wayne State University Press 11 (1 BODY // MASQUERADE): 3–7. Retrieved 5 March 2015. 
  8. ^ Exhibition catalog of Unica Zurn, Dark Spring, Drawing Center, New York, 2009


External links[edit]