Many are familiar with Hans Bellmer‘s haunting and iconic photographs of his dolls, especially the dramatic (and arguably misogynistic) stagings of the doll’s ball-jointed second iteration. Less familiar are Bellmer’s collaborations with his partner Unica Zürn, a German artist and writer who became involved with the Surrealist milieu in the 1950s. Bellmer had already been contemplating the contorted female figure by the time he met Zürn in 1953, but after the two became partners, Zürn became his model, allowing him to photograph the “mutilation” of her body through bondage into “altered landscapes of flesh,” or perhaps l’informe. I can’t find words to describe it, but there is something so compelling and creepy about the way his photographs of Zürn completely de-humanize her form while those of the dismembered doll’s corpus elicit almost an emotional reading, whether through empathy or fear.
Unica Zürn too produced an incredible body of work over the course of her life. After a stint with psychedelics, Zürn’s mental health began declining in the 1960s, and she began a long period of intermittent visits to clinical facilities, ultimately jumping to her death in 1970. She had experimented with the Surrealist practice of automatic drawing up to that point, creating figures with undulating, layered lines and crisp, flat patterning, but there seems, to me, to be a palpable change in her forms following the commencement of her breakdown. Some of her lines seem to thicken, while others trail into white space. Smooth curves become jagged; the marks on the page become reminiscent of nightmares and compulsions. The proliferation of bizarre, intricate, and hypnotizing drawings she produced during her years of mental instability seem to offer a glimpse into her psyche, serving as an ironic reminder of the ways her emotional collapse paralleled her success in unconscious expression.
[I only came across Zürn’s life and work recently, and I don’t think this post even begins to scratch the surface of the complexity of her work or her relationship with Hans Bellmer, whose work I am very fond of as well. For more information, definitely check out Ubu Gallery’s 2012 show “Bound,” from which I used images, as well as The Brooklyn Rail‘s review of the show. Both are absolutely fascinating.]