Sunday, June 07, 2009

Unica Zürn's Drawings

I am so glad that VM asked me to see the drawings of Unica Zürn at the Drawing Center. The exhibition brings together for the first time 50 ink and watercolor works on paper spanning from the early 1950s to her suicide in 1970. Zürn was introduced in the 1950s to the practice of automatic drawing by her partner Hans Bellmer. The drawings that came out of that are strangely compelling.

They are mostly of animals, but animals combined into one finely detailed mass. From that scaly, feathery mass protrude beaks, webbed limbs, snail-like whorls and finny tails. Most noticeable are the eyes looking out at the viewer from unexpected places. And one eye usually serves as the starting point for the accumulation of lines and details, as the artist described it in The Man of Jasmine (1967):

“All her life obsessed with faces, she draws faces. After an initial moment when the pen “swims” hesitantly on the white paper, she discovers the place assigned to the first eye. It is only when she is being watched from the depths of the paper that she begins to get her bearings and, effortlessly, one motif is added to another.”

Using only lines and no shading, the drawings convey the volumes of sponges. JF, who met us at the Center, described the generation of those sponges as a kind of foaming into being. The creatures are clearly sexual, but they are not erotic; many are repulsive. They look like doodles that bright bored children draw in the classroom, full of imagination and obsession, but they haunt the viewer. It’s hard to tell what the eyes say. They look shy, defiant, observant, curious, alert, withdrawn: they stare. Art that emerges from being looked at, from being desired perhaps.

From the Center’s press release:

Unica Zürn was born in Berlin-Grünewald in 1916, and lived and worked in Berlin and Paris. . . . Zürn produced numerous expressionistic short stories . . . before moving to Paris with German surrealist artist, Hans Bellmer. During the following decade and a half, Zürn produced paintings and drawings while living in Paris, becoming acquainted and exhibiting with many artists in the Surrealist circle, including André Breton, Max Ernst, Man Ray, and Marcel Duchamp. From 1953 to 1964, Zürn composed nearly 125 anagram poems, many of which provided the central framework for her autobiographical novella, Dark Spring (1969), and more avant-garde texts such as Im Hinterhalt (1963) and Die Trompeten von Jericho (1968). In the early sixties, she began suffering a series of mental crisis leading to intermittent hospitalization . . . . on the morning of Octobr 19, Zürn leapt to her death from the balcony of the apartment the couple shared on the rue de la Plaine—as she had described in the last pages of Dark Spring.

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