Unica Zürn with Bellmer doll, 1954. Photo © Leonore Mau, Hamburg.

Unica Zürn has long been a semi-mythical figure. Little known and in many ways unknowable, she is inevitably associated with the Surrealist artist Hans Bellmer, whom she met at a Berlin show of his work in 1953. Obsessed throughout his career with realistic female dolls whose body parts could be endlessly manipulated, penetrated, removed, multiplied, decorated and otherwise reconfigured to posit flesh and bone as the material of a recombinative fetishism, Bellmer had worked and lived with other women before Zürn. (He’d also been married, and had fathered twin daughters.) But upon meeting Zürn he declared, ominously enough, “Here is the doll.”

From that moment on, their fates were intertwined—or, one could say, Unica Zürn’s fate was sealed. She was 37, Bellmer 51, when she moved to Paris to share Bellmer’s two rooms in the Hotel de l’Espérance, 88 rue Mouffetard. There the pair embarked on their own special variation on the Surrealist amour fou. They have been described as companions in misery who inspired each other. No doubt this is true. Zürn’s life before meeting Bellmer was troubled, to say the least. Born in 1916, she grew up in Grünewald, the daughter of an adored but mostly absent father, a cavalry officer posted to Africa, and his third wife, whom she detested. During the Nazi period, Zürn worked as a dramaturge at UFA, the German film company, married a much older man in 1942, bore two children and lost custody of them in a divorce seven years later; she then made a meager living writing short stories for newspapers and radio plays.

She also painted and made drawings in the late ’40s and early ’50s, independently lighting upon the Surrealist technique of decalcomania. Malcolm Green, in his introduction to the English version of Zürn’s novel The Man of Jasmine (Gallimard, Paris, 1971; English translation Atlas Press, London, 1977), describes this period of Zürn’s life as “happy.” She reestablished contact with former UFA colleagues, had what may have been an amiable social life, and enjoyed the work she did as a writer and artist.

One has to wonder, though only to wonder, how much of Zürn’s life transpired above the threshold of the dissociative states and debilitating depressions that later entrapped her. The writings for which she is best known reflect an excruciating mental state, relieved solely by fantasies and hallucinations; reality, in her description, is unbearably harsh and punitive, a realm of grotesquerie in which, she writes in Dark Spring (Merlin, Hamburg, 1969; English translation Exact Change, Cambridge, Mass.,2000), she is “mocked, derided and humiliated.” And while the narrator of that autobiographical novel avers that “pain and suffering bring her pleasure,” Zürn’s inner torment led many times to long spells in mental hospitals, and finally to suicide by throwing herself from Bellmer’s sixth-floor window in 1970, when she was 54.

Like Artaud, Zürn possessed penetrating insight into the nuances of madness without finding any way to escape them. If Bellmer’s idée fixe, amplified by alcoholism, was the female doll, Zürn was focused on what she called “the man of jasmine,” a dream lover and/or father figure incarnated in the poet and artist Henri Michaux, whom she met through Bellmer in 1957, and with whom she took mescaline several times.

Zürn’s drug experiences with Michaux, apparently, precipitated the schizophrenic episodes that recurred throughout her final years. So she, at least, believed, though being trussed with cordage like a slab of meat for a famous series of Bellmer’s photographs may not have contributed much to her psychic equilibrium. As muse for Bellmer’s technically impeccable paintings and drawings as well as his photographs, Zürn underwent innumerable imaginary rapes, eviscerations, mutilations and monstrous transmogrifications, becoming an emblematic pornogram. Willing to be such, she certainly was; in that long ago time, few women could secure even a marginal place in the Paris art world, much less the Surrealist group, except under the auspices of a male artist. And, yes, Bellmer seemed to instinctively comprehend Zürn’s masochistic psychology in each of its twists and turns.

While prolonged contact with the Paris Surrealists might have spurred an effulgence of creative productivity in Zürn, it undoubtedly contained a corresponding toxicity. Given their representation of women as passive receptacles of “mad love,” the elegant reification of female insanity in the writings of Breton and the canonization of de Sade as the movement’s preeminent patron saint, it seems unlikely that a woman with Zürn’s fragile emotional structure could keep her sanity intact very long within the Surrealists’ circle, mescaline or no mescaline.

This is not to deny that Bellmer encouraged her work, nor that the Surrealists were receptive to her art and included it in many exhibitions. The superb, fantastic drawings Zürn produced, often during her hospitalizations, have recognizable affinities with Bellmer’s linear finesse as well as Michaux’s calligraphic spontaneity. More specifically, Zürn adopted Bellmer’s use of the “cephalopod,” a variable, amorphously shaped humanoid form. But she gave the techniques she adapted from others a crispness and bite all her own, particularly in her rendering of eyes, veins beneath flesh and colors suggestive of lividity and bruising. While Zürn produced some paintings in tempera and oil during the early 1950s, her preferred mediums were colored inks, pencil and gouache on paper. Many works were produced in notebooks given to her by Michaux when Zürn was at Sainte-Anne Hospital in Paris. Between hospitalizations, she made a quantity of large-scale drawings; while they are always startling, one can’t really say they “develop”—rather, they elaborate a fixed set of obsessions.

The liberatory, lubricious energies the Surrealists discovered in plumbing the irrational extracted a harsh toll from many individuals—René Crevel and Artaud come instantly to mind; it seems worth noting, also, that Bellmer and Zürn lived together in conditions of extreme poverty, in claustrophobic quarters, and that Zürn seldom ventured outside unless she was in Bellmer’s company. Her dependence upon Bellmer reflected an unassuagable loneliness—an isolation that his companionship did little to ameliorate.

The literature about Zürn—for example, translator Caroline Rupprecht’s preface to Dark Spring, Renée Riese Hubert’s Magnifying Mirrors: Women, Surrealism and Partnership (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1994), and Agnès de la Baumelle and Laure de Buzon-Vallet’s chronology in Hans Bellmer (Hatje Cantz, Ostfildern, 2006)—suggests that Bellmer did his best to support her, emotionally, artistically and financially, but both, at various times, attempted to end their relationship, which lasted 17 years. Their symbiosis was at once creatively productive and terribly burdensome. They devoted themselves to art that pressed beyond any safe psychic boundaries, Bellmer undoubtedly with greater detachment, Zürn with a fierce identification with the fantasy world she created.

Much more could be (and has been) written about their relationship, which involved interventions by such figures as the psychiatrist Gaston Ferdière, who had treated Artaud. A close reading of Zürn’s texts, including Hexentexte (Galerie Springer, Berlin, 1954), a book of anagrams, reveals a brilliant poetic mind, a preoccupation with death and a yearning for childhood, a time when, despite its difficulties for her, miracles and wonders could present them- selves without lethal consequences—benign events not realized in her fiction and anagrammatic poetry.

Zürn’s drawings—49 of which have been assembled at the Drawing Center in New York, along with three paintings—exemplify the obsessional, skillful weirdness of one variety of “outsider art,” a mode characterized by fastidious excess and disciplined compulsion. Sometimes whimsical and “light,” Zürn’s drawings depict persons, animals and other subjects in states of metamorphosis or fusion; dense coagulations of forms; and sentience as multitudes of eyes that stare at the viewer like those of fantastic organisms peering through transparent yet impenetrable barriers. Her pictures do not politely invite us into her private world, but rather pull us into it with desperate insistence, demanding our recognition of an intolerable state of consciousness. Even Zürn’s most playful works convey a disturbance in which seduction and horror battle for predominance.

The Drawing Center show, curated by João Ribas, is the most extensive gathering of her drawings in New York to date, though her work has also been shown here at Ubu Gallery (in 2005); Zürn had four drawing exhibitions in Paris between 1956 and 1964, and has been included in many surveys of Surrealist art. At the Drawing Center, several vitrines containing photographs, publications and letters provide a sense of Zürn and Bellmer’s shared milieu. The total effect of the exhibition is one of freakish aggressivity mixed with a daft, teasing elegance.

While “outsider art” usually connotes untrained naiveté and beguiling clumsiness, Zürn’s virtuosity is that of an artist willing her madness to manifest itself on paper, rather than a mad person exuding symptoms in the form of pictorial expression. Her pictures are radically skewed and shattered self-portraits that mirror the splitting of her personality. They duplicate her face and body, or parts of them, amid or inside avian predators, felines, vegetal accumulations; these Unicas sport claws, razor teeth, multiple mouths, extra limbs, several breasts, antennae. It’s often as if Zürn has internalized as self-image the profuse, mutant doll parts of Bellmer’s paintings and sculptures, replacing herself with the freakish assemblages of her lover’s imagination—as if she has become the doll and, in retribution, invested Bellmer’s reinvention of her with an autonomy and visionary power he withheld from it.

The muffled scream that issues from Zürn’s drawings is surely the cri de coeur of a woman denied: deprived the love of her monstrously distant mother and the companionship of her absentee father, separated from her two children and refused possession of her own body by its transformation into a pot roast, among other things, by Bellmer. Her revenge is assimilation of the deformities these deprivations caused—her adamant presentation of herself as the twisted and manipulated creature that others have imagined.

Of course this amazing, ungovernable being had to be hospitalized, medicated, isolated for her own good. One has only to read Zürn’s account, in The Man of Jasmine, of what those hospitalizations were like to understand that “for her own good” and “outworn her usefulness” probably amounted to the same thing. She could not go back, in the end, to any “happier” time, and she could not go forward. Her final crisis occurred at the end of 1969, when Bellmer, who had had a stroke, could no longer look after her. She returned to the asylum for a month; discharged, she was offered, Malcolm Green writes, “the option to leave Bellmer and return to Germany or be placed in a mental hospital as a preventative measure.” She chose the hospital, for a final four months of institutionalization. Upon release, she could find no one with whom to stay. Bellmer allowed her to return for a few days, until she could sort things out; according to Green, “they spent the first evening in quiet conversation, and in the early morning she committed suicide.” It was a death foretold in the suicide of the 12-year-old girl in Dark Spring, in the defenestration of her father’s first wife, Orla Holm, in the suicide of her uncle Falada, with whom she describes identifying in The Man of Jasmine.

Zürn left us an unnervingly precise record of her time on earth in her writings, drawings and paintings, and in the work of other artists and writers. Rainer Werner Fassbinder dedicated his 1978 film Despair “to Antonin Artaud, Vincent Van Gogh, and Unica Zürn,” and rightly so. Despair, though based on Nabokov’s novel, was in Fassbinder’s eyes about the recognition that, after a certain moment in life, the future will only offer more of what has already been, or the options of madness, misery, suicide. For many sensitive souls, the possibilities of self-reinvention are exhausted long before any sort of natural death. Unica Zürn was one of these.

[Currently On View “Unica Zürn: Dark Spring” at the Drawing Center, New York, through July 23.]

Gary Indiana’s seventh novel, The Shanghai Gesture, was published in April by Two Dollar Radio.