Untitled 1963 Ink on paper Signed and dated “Il de Re, 63.” on recto
Unica Zürn (1916-1970) is a tragic and fascinating figure from the post-war late surrealist milieu. Surrealism's interest in tribal art and in the family psychodrama must have had very personal associations for her, as she had grown up surrounded by the exotic impedimenta acquired by her absent father, who was a cavalry officer stationed in Africa. Some sense of her personal tragedy may be gleaned from the first page of this article, though you'd need to have access to JSTOR to read the whole thing. It seems clear, that, despite everything, her relationship with the artist Hans Bellmer was creatively stimulating for her. Ultimately, unhappily, while on 5-day release from one of the institutions in which she was receiving treatment for mental illness, she committed suicide by jumping from the 6th-floor balcony of the Paris appartment she shared with him.
Untitled c. 1960 Ink on paper
Another aspect of Zürn's creative work that interests me is her writing, specifically her interest in anagrams. An early book, Hexentexte, consists of anagrammatic poems, and the later autobiographical books The Man of Jasmine and Dark Spring both include anagrammatic texts interspersed among the prose narratives. According to the Oulipo Compendium, she may be considered the inventor of the anagrammatical poem as a modern literary form - although she was never a member of the Oulipo itself. If you can read French, this post at the blog of French publishing house Cynthia 3000 offers a very good introduction to this side of her work, and includes three anagrammatical poems in German, with French "translations". Here's one:
DIE SELTSAMEN ABENTEUER DES HERRN K.
Es ist kalt. Raben reden um den See. Reh
und Amsel trinken Tee. Rabe, Seher des
Unheils am Abend. Erste Sterne. Rede, K. !
Die ernste Unke Starb sehr elend am
Hik. Nebenan redete der Esel’s-Traum. Es
blutete die Nase des armen Herrn K. See,
dunkler See der Raben. Atmen heisst
Leben, heisst rankendes Traeumen der
seltsamen Abenteuer. Die des Herrn K. ?
The first image here is taken from the exhibition at the Ubu Gallery in New York, who also make availble the full exhibition catalogue, which contains many more images, for download as a .pdf. The second is from an exhibition just coming to an end at the Halle Saint Pierre in Paris.
Incidentally, the phrase "entoptic effusions" comes from a review of the Ubu Gallery show by Elizabeth Schambelan, published in Artforum in May 2005 (which you can also obtain as a .pdf from the Ubu Gallery page). Schambelan says Zürn's
preposterously obsessive mark-making seemed to signal an intention not merely to document the workings of the subconscious ... but to register its entoptic effusions in real time - a subtle shift towards a conception of drawing "as a verb"
I thought at first she must have meant "entropic", but the word "entoptic" actually refers to visual effects whose source is within the eye itself, such as the well-known muscae volitantes or the less well-known blue field entoptic phenomenon. Some people even think that these phenomena lie at the origins of art itself, as the basis for images in Palæolithic art, while others (1), (2) aren't so sure. Entoptic or not, Zürn's skittery biomorphic imagery certainly hints at things we might fear to see out of the corners of our eyes.
See also The Chimeras of Unica Zürn at artnet.com, another review of the Ubu show.