October 19, 1970 – This day German-French artist, writer and poet Unica Zürn (54) killed herself by jumping from her 6th-story apartment at 4 Rue de la Plaine in Paris. Her death looked like taken from the story in her own book Dunkler Frühling (“Dark Spring”) that had been published the year before.
Here is not one portrait, but three. For viewed in sequence, they reflect a life that was a journey into ever more sadness and mental suffering:
In 1949 (when she was 33) Zürn had separated from her first husband and lost the custody of her children. She began to move in German artistic circles and in 1953 she met surrealist artist Hans Bellmer (1902-1975). She went to live with him in Paris.
Although sometimes they had difficulties and tried to separate, in fact they remained a couple until shortly before Unica’s death.
Bellmer’s work had strong sexual elements with explicit sadist and fetishist elements. He used Unica as a model; some think she must have been masochist to lend herself to it. There certainly were masochist fantasies in Unica’s own writings.
Notorious is a series of photos Bellmer took in 1958 of her nude body bound with thin, flesh-distorting string. These photo’s leave a shocking impression of degrading the nude female body (Unica’s head is not shown) in a deeply humiliating way. I find them disturbing enough to not show them here. If you insist on seeing some, Google Image Search will help you out.
On the other hand, Bellmer also kept stimulating Unica to write and to make drawings. Expositions of Unica’s surrealist doodle-drawings soon became a success. Here is an example:
She also became famous for her anagram poems, where every line is composed from the same series of characters. Here is one of them:
Wir lieben den Tod
Rot winde den Leib,
Brot wende in Leid,
Ende Not, Beil wird
Leben. Wir, dein Tod,
weben dein Lot dir
in Erde. Wildboten,
wir lieben den Tod
– In my own rough translation,
of course no longer an anagram:
We love death
Red threading the body,
bread change into sorrow,
end of distress, ax becomes
life. We, your death,
weave your lead-line
in soil. Wild messenger,
we love death
Some think that the sadomasochistic element in the personal and artistic relationship of Hans Bellmer and Unica Zürn may have contributed to her mental disintegration. I don’t think we can be entirely sure about that.
Anyway, Zürn became depressed in 1959 after Bellmer persuaded her to have an abortion. It was the first of several times they separated for a while.
Soon after, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Her ensuing journey reads like a slow slide down into hell.
The Karl Bonhoeffer psychiatric clinic: Zürn’s first one.
● October 1959-February 1960: stay in the Karl Bonhoeffer Nervenklinik, a psychiatric clinic in Berlin-Wittenau;
● September 1960-Augustus 1962: stay in the Sainte Anne psychiatric clinic in Paris;
● July 1964-November 1964: stay in the Lafond asylum in La Rochelle; she also became a patient of the famous Paris psychiatrist Gaston Ferdière (1907-1990);
● June 1966-September 1966: first stay in the Maison Blanche psychiatric hospital in Neuilly-sur-Marne;
● December 1969-January 1970: second stay in the Maison Blanche;
● April 1970-July 1970: third stay in the Maison Blanche;
● July 1970-October 1970: stay in a beautiful old country house that had been converted into a psychiatric clinic: the La Chesnaie clinic in Chailles.
The La Chesnaie psychiatric clinic: Zürn’s last stop.
In this last place Zürn’s condition seemed to improve. But when in October she got permission to go home for a few days, it gave her the opportunity to kill herself.
Amazingly, during all these years she kept writing and making drawings. She really remained very productive until the last.
In the interval between 1964-1966 (when she was largely out of clinics) she began writing The Man of Jasmine: Impressions from a Mental Illness.
This would become a lucid and touching description of her psychotic hallucinations, depressions and anxiety attacks – the “Man of Jasmine” was derived from a fantasy figure from her childhood dreams. The book would be published in 1977, seven years after her death.
And here is one of Unica’s last doodles, from a 1970 notebook:
When in 1975 Hans Bellmer died, five years after Unica, he was buried next to her at the Paris Père-Lachaise cemetery. Their shared stone has an inscription originally written by Bellmer for Unica’s funeral wreath: “my love will follow you into Eternity”.
Unica Zürn’s person and her work have inspired many others, not just in surrealist art and poetry. For example, her anagram poems are quite popular with musicians who put them to music: several examples are mentioned on Unica’s German Wikipedia page.
But I always like something that’s a little, well, different. And so, out of pure contrariness, I present you with the song Hello Kitty by Homme Jasmin. This is French for the “Man of Jasmine”, the title of Unica’s book: and it also is the Zürn-inspired pseudonym of a Japanese singer-songwriter. She lives in Marseilles, France.
ジャスミン男 fuses modern rock and antique baroque music, accompanied by everything from electronics to age-old instruments such as clavichords. She covers a wide range of moods; Hello Kitty is one of her more quiet songs.
If you like this one, you can listen to many more songs at her Homme Jasmin Soundcloud page.
Homme Jasmin – Hello Kitty
- There is a wealth of Unica Zürn stuff online, but not yet her own books. At least the two most important of them have been translated and printed in English.
They can be easily found at Amazon: Dark Spring, translated by Caroline Rupprecht, and The Man of Jasmine: Impressions from a Mental Illness, translated by Malcolm Green.
- Zürn’s ingenious and often striking anagram poems ought to be read in the original German for the full effect. Hans Werner Lang at the University of Flensburg has several of them online: Unica Zürn Anagramme.
Although much is lost in any translation, some well-translated examples can be found at Jerome Rothenberg’s Poems and Poetics blog: Unica Zürn: Nine Anagrammatic Poems, translated by Pierre Joris.
- There are many, many sites that display their own selection of most beautiful drawings by Unica Zürn. Let me mention just one that I like, posted at the Strange Flowers blog by James Conway: Unica Zürn | drawings.
- If you can read German and want to read more about Unica Zürn, here are two suggestions:
– Amazon has a brief biography (print version only) Die Einzige: Begegnung mit Unica Zürn. This book was written by Ruth Henry (1925-2007) who as an art journalist in Paris in the 1950s-1960s knew Unica Zürn personally.
– The interdisciplinary gender studies journal Freiburger Zeitschrift für GeslechterStudien offers a more academic analysis online in PDF format: “Der Körper hat es dann auszubaden” – zum Verhältnis von Körper, Sprache und (Re)Produktivität bei Unica Zürn, written in 1997 by Rita Morrien.
Basically she concludes that Zürn had an “autoagressive”, self-harming tendency that expressed itself both physically and in her language.
- For a little more about the sex-obsessed artwork of Hans Bellmer, see this essay (PDF file) for the Art Institute of Chicago: Hans Bellmer in The Art Institute of Chicago: The Wandering Libido and the Hysterical Body, written in 2001 by Sue Taylor.
In the wider context of Bellmer’s work she also discusses some pen-and-ink portraits (no, not those nasty photos) that Bellmer made of Unica Zürn.