There are actions which are neglected and which never cease to call to us.

Nora Berta Unica Ruth Zürn (1916-1970)  was born and raised in Berlin-Grunewald, Germany. 

In art historical accounts, Zürn is often considered to be a poet first and foremost, and an artist second. However, recent exhibitions – such as Bound: Hans Bellmer & Unica Zürn at the Ubu Gallery, New York (2012) and Fantastic Women: Surreal Worlds from Meret Oppen­heim to Frida Kahlo at the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frank­furt (2020) have not only highlighted the importance of her enigmatic, multilayered and spiritually-charged drawings, but also the significance of her artistic output within Surrealist circles.

Zürn’s early life is punctuated by sadness and violence; her longing for an absent father (who was a cavalry officer stationed in Africa), a difficult relationship with her mother, and surviving sexual abuse at the hands of her older brother Horst. Such experiences are often alluded to in her written work, which allows the literature to take on a biographical quality. At the age of 17, Zürn wrote her first story, and after leaving school she went on to accept a role with Universum Film AG, (Germany’s national film company). Despite being employed there for around a decade, Zürn claimed to have been completely unaware of the organisation’s link to the Nazi Party. In 1942 Zürn married and had two children (Katrin in 1943 and Christian in 1945). The marriage lasted only seven years, and Zürn lost custody of both Katrin and Christian when she was unable to afford a lawyer or prove that she was financially stable enough to provide for a family.

In the years following this ordeal, Zürn set her attention on more creative endeavors; writing short stories and radio plays. She spent much time with the Surrealists at Die Badewanne, a jazz club that had become a meeting place for artists in Berlin. In 1953, Zürn’s life would change forever when she was introduced to the Surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer. Soon the two artists were inseparable, moving to Paris together where Zürn would become Bellmer’s muse, and appear in many of his photographic works. In turn he would encourage her to create the automatic drawings and anagrams that would later characterise much of her oeuvre. The years between 1950-1960 have been considered to be Zürn’s most significant artistic period, nurturing her obsession with fate, chance and the powers of automatism. This, when intertwined with her fascination of letters, allows Zürn’s poems to take on a magical quality that could be compared to the prophetic elements of grammatomancy.

During her first few years in Paris, Zürn was met with artistic success – she created Hexentexte in 1954, (a book of anagram poetry accompanied by drawings), and between 1956 and 1964 she would have her work recognised in four separate, solo exhibitions. Bellmer’s established reputation amongst the Surrealist’s meant Zürn would be introduced to famous artists such as André Breton, Max Ernst and Man Ray. In 1957 Zürn met the poet and painter Henri Michaux, with whom she fell madly in love, in part due to the fact that he reminded her of an imaginary character from her childhood that she referred to as the “Man of Jasmine.” This hallucinatory figure would become the subject of her posthumously published biographical work Der Mann im Jasmin (1971). A year after meeting Michaux, and during a case of jaundice, Zürn wrote The House of Illnesses (1958), various passages from which give the reader some idea of the state of her mental health, and the progressing, consuming obsession she had formed with Michaux as the Man of Jasmine;  

What an effort it is to keep black magic at bay and not believe in it! He has received neither a hair, nor scarcely a handshake or a kiss from me, yet still he manages to mould and squeeze me, to force his way through me and finally eat me up.

By 1960, Zürn’s mental health had significantly deteriorated; she had begun to hallucinate Michaux’s presence before her and was subsequently hospitalised. The exact characterisation of Zürn’s mental illness has been much debated, though it is now generally accepted that she was suffering from schizophrenia. For the next decade, Zürn would frequently be committed to various psychiatric facilities, but despite her illness she continued to produce incredible work including The Trumpets of Jericho (1968) and Dark Spring (1967).

Dark Spring is perhaps one of Zürn’s more widely circulated works of literature, and alludes to biographical details from the artist’s own life by describing the sexual and emotional abuse of a young girl. The book also foreshadow’s Zürn’s own suicide, as readers witness the protagonist of Dark Spring throw herself from a window to her death. The act or compulsion to  cast oneself from a window appears to haunt Zürn throughout her life. For example, Zürn’s obsession with her father’s first wife, Orla Holm. Holm was also a writer, and for some time Zürn believed that she had thrown herself to her death from the window of a Dresden asylum. This account of Holm’s death was later proved to be false, but the theory was encouraged by Holm’s 1907 publication, Dein Buch, which provides the reader with violent imagery such as: “I threw [the flowers] into the courtyard and thought about how nice it would be to follow them – to fall down there too –  to lie there – dying – with crushed limbs. This thought […] gave me great pleasure.” In Bellmer’s accounts of this fascination with Holm, he claimed that Zürn carried a photo of her amongst her possessions. Similarly, as if by some horrific coincidence that would mirror Zürn’s own tragic death, the words Bellmer chose to accompany his famous work Die Puppe, speak of wishing ‘to conserve the tragic and precise trace of a falling naked body, from the window to the sidewalk, a strange object.”

Zürn never fully recovered from the psychotic episodes she experienced  during the early 1960s. In 1969, Bellmer suffered a debilitating stroke, and on the advice of his doctors told Zürn that he could no longer look after her. Only a few months after this exchange, on October 17th 1970, Zürn threw herself from a window of the apartment that the artists shared. When Bellmer died in 1975, he was buried besides Zürn in Père-Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, under the words “My love will follow you into Eternity.”


©The Heroine Collective 2020 – Present, All Rights Reserved. Every effort is made to ensure our articles are as accurate as they can possibly can be, but if you notice a factual error, please do be in touch. We only use images we believe are either in the public domain or images we believe we are able to use for illustrative, editorial and non-commercial purposes. If you believe one of our images is being used incorrectly, please be in touch. References include Unica Zürn: Art, Writing and Post-War Surrealism by Esra Plumer // A Stone for Unica Zürn by Gary Indiana //  Aware Women Artists.

Victoria (Tor) Scott

Written by Victoria (Tor) Scott

Tor is a Collections & Research Assistant at the National Galleries of Scotland. Her interests involve material culture, curiosities, and in particular a focus on superstitious objects and charms found in England and Scotland over the last 600 years.

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