The Passion Of Unica Zurn


Writer Unica Zurn’s Impressions of Mental Illness.

Unica Zurn was the partner of the great artist Hans Bellmer for the last sixteen years of her life. Her body was used in a series of photographs Bellmer took of her bound with string, exploring folds of flesh, reproduced in a book of his photos published by Filipacchi/Centre Georges Pompidou in 1983. He met Zurn at the opening night of his exhibition in Berlin. He often drew and painted her, with her expressionless face, reminiscent of his famous dolls. “They made a strange couple,” Peter Webb notes in his extraordinary study on Bellmer, “both always wore black, and Unica usually walked rather stiffly, a few paces behind Bellmer, his head balding but with long hair at the back so that one could picture them as Dr Coppelius and his doll Olympia.”

But Unica had a history of mental disturbances, and often made life hell for Bellmer, though he too was not easy to live with by all accounts. She went into mental hospitals a number of times. Finally, unable to live with Bellmer, and unable to live without him, she jumped from their flat to her death. He died four years later, and they are buried together in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

The House of Illnesses, a slim volume that was later included in The Man of Jasmine, subtitled Impressions of a mental illness, was written shortly after her meeting with Bellmer, during a bout of fever induced by jaundice, and shows a more hopeful nature than the mental derangements and hallucinations of her later writings. It is accompanied by her surreal, automatic illustrations.

At one point in the book, she is almost willing herself to remain ill “for longer than is correct” because “I know why I am making this book.” She could make it grow and grow fatter if she wanted. “And I shall remain ill just as long as I keep slipping in fresh pages which then have to be filled.”


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