Creating Art from a Dangerous Place

Hilaire has had short stories and poetry published in several anthologies and various magazines, including Brittle Star, Wet Ink, Under the Radar and Smoke: A London Peculiar. Triptych Poets: Issue One (Blemish Books, Australia, 2010) features a selection of her poems. Her novel Hearts on Ice was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2000. She is currently working on a poetry collection with Joolz Sparkes, London Undercurrents, unearthing the voices of women who have lived and worked in the capital over many centuries. She blogs at:

Perhaps it is inevitable that I have to start at the end. To tell the death of Unica Zürn, the German surrealist artist and writer, at the beginning. She committed suicide, aged 54, in 1970. She leapt from the window of the sixth floor apartment in Paris that she shared with Hans Bellmer, her companion of 16 years. A suicide apparently foretold in her novel Dark Spring (1969), which ends with a young girl jumping to her death from her bedroom window.

Unica Zürn. A danger to herself. A danger to those in love with the idea of the tortured artist; the inevitability of tragic relationships. Her suicide was one of the first things I knew about Unica Zürn, and I admit it was one of the factors that piqued my interest in her. It was there in the article I came across, flicking through a listings magazine when I was living in West Berlin in 1986. Selbstmord — the German word for suicide. I was not suicidal, but I was desperately unhappy at this time, deliberately isolating myself in a walled city, in the depths of winter, in a new language.

I was struck, too, by the accompanying photograph of Zürn, sitting holding a mirror in her lap, so that she was both reflected and distorted by the mirror. She reminded me of Sylvia Plath, a similar distance in her gaze which could be mistaken for haughtiness. I wonder now how much this was my own projection, associating the two women by their tragic ends. And then there was her wonderfully evocative name. Unica Zürn, the surname with its half echo of the German word for anger, Zorn.

But the greatest pull for me was the drawing by Zürn reproduced in the magazine – a strange, scratched vision of pod-like creatures waving tentacles, an unblinking eye staring from the centre of the picture. Fascinated, I sought out the exhibition of her drawings. These were exquisite yet anguished drawings; intertwined and overlapping faces, lips, eyes, hands with fingers that tapered into plant-like forms, and disembodied shapes suggestive of both male and female genitalia. Here was a world where the borders between attraction and repulsion, aesthetic beauty and mental distress, were blurred and permeable.

Also on display were Zürn’s sketchbooks and a series of disturbing and compelling letters. Some sentences began in French and ended in German – a confusion of language and persona that I could readily relate to.

In those pre-Internet days it was difficult to find much information about Zürn. From the magazine article I gleaned a basic outline of her life. Gradually, as I tracked down the few available editions of her work, I learnt more about this intriguing and troubled woman. Zürn was born in Berlin in 1916. She adored her mostly absent father and recalled her childhood as a wonderful lost time, a period she drew on repeatedly in her later writings.

Aged six, a vision appeared to her one day of a paralysed man with beautiful blue eyes, sitting in a garden surrounded by jasmine. This man becomes her image of love, she wrote years later, in her semi-autobiographical novel The Man of Jasmine (1977). In the vision, which remained powerfully vivid to Zürn, she marries the Man of Jasmine in secret:

His silent presence teaches her two lessons which she never forgets:



These are dangerous lessons for a young girl to learn. During the Nazi era, Zürn worked for the German film monopoly UFA. According to Malcolm Green[1], she remained ‘unaware of the true nature of the Nazi ideology’, until she heard a pirate radio broadcast detailing the horrors of the concentration camps.

The major events in the first part of Zürn’s adult life were an unhappy marriage to an older man, the birth of two children, and a divorce in 1949, which saw Zürn lose custody of both children. She then scraped a living writing short stories, until in 1953 she met Hans Bellmer, at an exhibition of his drawings in a gallery in Berlin.

Bellmer was 14 years older than Zürn and already an established artist, perhaps best known for a series of hand-tinted erotic photographs he had taken in the 1930s. The photos featured an almost life size doll Bellmer had made of a prepubescent girl, her body often manipulated into anatomically impossible positions. Gary Indiana, in an article about Zürn, says of Bellmer: ‘upon meeting Zürn he declared, ominously enough, “Here is the doll.”’ [2] For Zürn, the meeting with Bellmer felt pre-ordained. She related the circumstances in The Man of Jasmine:

1953, in Berlin, she sees the same French film three times in order to get drunk on the sight of a particular face which has not the slightest similarity to that of The Man of Jasmine.

She identifies so strongly with this masculine face that suddenly she is told ‘you resemble him.’

A few days later she meets a man and recognises his face as the one in the film which she herself has come to resemble.

In effect, she saw Bellmer as her male Doppelgänger. Throughout her life, Zürn was governed by (or allowed herself to be governed by) such omens, signs and visions.

When Bellmer returned to Paris the following year, Zürn went with him. They shared a tiny apartment and lived precariously. The move to Paris was an important turning point in Zürn’s creative life. She met many of the key artists in the surrealist circle, and Paris intensified her nostalgia for her lost Berlin childhood, which was now not only in the past but also physically at a distance.

Encouraged by Bellmer, Zürn began to write anagram poems and took readily to Surrealist techniques such as automatic drawing. The absence of active agency in these methods seems to have freed Zürn creatively. She also allowed Bellmer to tie her naked body with string and photograph her trussed torso. One of these photos adorned the cover of the fourth issue of Surréalisme Même in 1958. Transgressive or passive? Both are dangerous modes in which to live one’s life.

In 1957, there was another fateful, psychically damaging, meeting. Introduced to the artist Henri Michaux, she suddenly found herself face to face with the physical embodiment of her vision, the Man of Jasmine. Michaux, while not paralysed, had the same blue eyes. This encounter seems to have triggered her first serious mental collapse. Gary Indiana asserts that Zürn took mescaline with Michaux[3], another potentially destabilising factor.

From this point on, Zürn experienced episodes that have been labelled as psychotic and schizophrenic though, as with many people suffering mental distress, the diagnosis is rarely definitive. In The Man of Jasmine, she refers to one of her states as megalomania. There were periods of depression, from which she found some relief in the obsessive composition of anagram poems, and several extended spells of hospitalisation.

Throughout this time, Zürn continued to write and draw, and produced her most powerful work. Dark Spring is a disturbing exploration of a young girl’s sexual awakening. The House of Illnesses (1977) is a beautifully illustrated account of her 1958 stay in Ermenonville hospital, told with child-like charm and a kind of wonder at the strange events and manifestations that she witnessed. The Man of Jasmine, written in the third person, proceeds with the internal logic of the narrator’s hallucinations. The reader journeys with her, experiencing her miracles and terrors, never once doubting the truth of these, whilst understanding, as the narrator for fleeting moments also understands, that these events take place outside commonly perceived reality.

The relationship between Zürn and Bellmer was initially, it seems, strong and mutually supportive, but became more difficult as her mental health and his physical health declined. Zürn was increasingly isolated, reluctant to leave the apartment on her own. There were enforced separations, when Zürn was incarcerated in hospital, as well as failed attempts to live apart. In the Crécy Notebook (1970), she characterised their relationship as comrades in misery[4].

But rather than focus on her self-willed death, or the co-dependent dynamics of her relationship with Bellmer, I believe it is ultimately Zürn’s searingly honest drawings and writings that define her as a dangerous woman. She wrote from a dangerous place — from the depths of her mental illness — and she wrote with cool detachment and even humour. She created exquisite, entrancing drawings that speak to us still. Unica Zürn. Unique. Dangerous in her own way.

[1] Introduction to his translation of The Man of Jasmine, Atlas Press, 1994

[2] Gary Indiana, A Stone for Unica Zürn. Art in America, June 16, 2009

[3] Gary Indiana, ibid

[4] Quoted in Malcolm Green’s Introduction to The Man of Jasmine, ibid