Debilitating Effects: Unica Zürn’s ‘The House of Illnesses’

The German artist’s notebook, written in 1958, is an intriguing study of a delicate balance of body and mind, which parts of you belong to you and which you might surrender to others

Written in 1958, during a bout of jaundice, The House of Illnesses (published here as a facsimile of her original notebook) records German artist and writer Unica Zürn’s early awareness of a mental instability that two-and-a-half years later would lead to her being committed to a psychiatric hospital.

Her life was transformed by an encounter with Hans Bellmer in 1953, after which she followed him from Berlin to Paris. Bellmer encouraged her experiments with automatic drawing and anagram poetry, and a series of international exhibitions followed. Zürn was also Bellmer’s ‘living doll’ (Bellmer is best known for works involving pubescent female dolls), the model in a series of photographs documenting the transformations wrought upon her body when it was bound in rope. And it’s hard not to see echoes of this alienation and objectification as Zürn describes the House of Illnesses, in spidery text and intricate drawings, as a dwelling whose spaces are named for human organs, some of which are ‘safe’ to enter, some of which are ‘forbidden’. She’s creating the notebook, she realises, ‘to remain ill for a while.’ Throughout, there’s a tension between who is controlling her state of illness, herself or her doctor, her body or her mind, and a focus on the debilitating effects of love. All marked by an abiding fear of returning to the healthy world outside. ‘Neglecting my responsibilities’, she continues, ‘tastes like sweet cream.’

While The House of Illnesses is written in the style of a dark fairytale, it is the product of someone who is abundantly self-aware. An intriguing study of a delicate balance of body and mind, which parts of you belong to you and which you might surrender to others. ‘I need a companion to give me advice,’ Zürn complains. ‘Good advice or bad advice – he just has to say: “now you must do this and then you must do that,” and I’ll have the courage to carry on.’ Before concluding that ‘a person must believe in at least one thing in their life if they do not wish to go mad’.

The House of Illnesses by Unica Zürn, translated by Malcom Green, Atlas Press (hardcover)

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