Annotated Bibliography: Surrealism, Unica Zurn, and Feminist Psychoanalysis

By: Christina Quintana

These sources pertain to my research for a project in my Modernist Singularities course. I am interested, generally, in the role of female artists in the Surrealist movement, but will pay special attention to German artist/writer Unica Zürn. Because Zürn suffered from schizophrenia and frequently discussed her mental illness in her work, I am also exploring some feminist psychoanalytic theory in order to better address the intersection of her creativity and her schizophrenia (and the ways in which this experience was uniquely gendered).

Alexander, Sally. “Feminist History and Psychoanalysis.” History Workshop 32.1 (1991): 128-133.

Alexander begins by noting the reluctance on the part of feminists to incorporate and utilize psychoanalytic techniques, due mainly to the overt misogyny of prominent psychoanalytic figures such as Freud and Lacan. However, Alexander argues that the goals of feminism and psychoanalysis are the same—to uncover a repressed, subjective history through language and symbolism—and that bringing the two theories together can only benefit feminists. Alexander then provides an outline of the overlap of feminism and psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century: both movements gained recognition at the turn of the century, addressed the question of femininity, and urged others to consider the female as a political subject. She concludes that a “psychoanalytic notion of sexual difference” (132) is crucial for understanding historical works and events.

Caws, Mary Ann. “Singing in Another Key: Surrealism through a Feminist Eye.” Diacritics 14.2 (1984): 60-70.

Arguing that the “most haunting nightmare” (63) of Surrealism is that of irrelevance, Caws seeks to keep Surrealist criticism relevant by locating its intersection with feminist theory. She finds such an overlap in the character of Melusine, the mermaid of Andre Breton’s Arcane 17. Melusine, Caws argues, represents the liminality (and, therefore, the freedom) that Surrealists so adored: neither human nor fish, but also neither wholly female or male, Melusine is able to freely inhabit both categories. Yet Caws notes that Melusine, in addition to representing the achievement of Surrealist ideals, also characterizes the contradictory, liminal status of women in society. Turning to Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, Caws draws a parallel between Melusine’s androgynous/hybrid physicality and Woolf’s narrator’s positioning between private and public life (particularly as she stands on a bridge and contemplates the institutions denied to her). Both characters express their liminality in discursive ways: Melusine through song, and Woolf through her quasi-fictional prose.

Diez, Noemi Martinez. “Fragmentos de la vida y obra de Unica Zürn.” Arteterapia 2.1 (2007): 203-213.

Diez takes a fairly straightforward autobiographical look at Unica Zurn’s life and work, seeking out the connections between her mental illness and her art. Beginning with her childhood in Berlin, Diez chronicles Zurn’s troubled home life, artistic experiments with painting and anagrams, relationships with Hans Bellmer and Henri Michaux, and her lifelong struggle with mental illness. Ocassionally using Jungian theory to support her claims, Diez argues that the fragmentation of Zurn’s drawings, along with her love of anagrams, reflect her fragmented sense of self.

Export, Valie. “The Real and Its Double: The Body.” Discourse 11.1 (Fall-Winter 1988-89): 3-27.

In this article, Export addresses the issue of the female body through a Freudian lens. She argues that, within a patriarchal society, women are made to acknowledge, feel, and be their body more acutely than their male counterparts, and this emphasis on embodiment often results in a sense of anxiety or disgust over the body. Referencing passages from Unica Zürn’s autobiographical novel Dark Spring, Export stresses the “crisis of female adolescence” (6) in which the unsexed young girl undergoes puberty and becomes painfully aware of her body. Paradoxically, Export argues, while the female body is more present than the male body, it is also defined by lack: her physical characteristics are the negation of man’s, the “emptiness and absence of the penis” (10). From here, Export explains that the problem of the female body is that of a double bind: woman both is and is not her body; it defines her being and yet it is nonexistent. Such a configuring of embodiment naturally results in a conflicted sense of self, Export claims, and impedes women’s development of their subjectivity, which results in what she calls the “enigma woman” (14). Export concludes by highlighting the work of several female multi-genre artists, including Laurie Anderson, Miriam Cahn, Eva Kmentova, and Helen Almeida, whose work addresses the limitations and paradoxical nature of the female body.

Markus, Ruth. “Surrealism’s Praying Mantis and Castrating Woman.” Woman’s Art Journal 21.1 (2000): 33-39.

In this article, Markus analyzes the symbolism of the praying mantis in Surrealist art. Noting that the insect was an obsession of Salvador Dali, Andre Breton, Paul Eluard, and Andre Masson (among many other Surrealists), Markus argues that the praying mantis—because of the female’s distinguishing habit of devouring the male post-coitus—represented a commingling of eroticism and death and thus corresponded to some Surrealist sentiments. More injuriously, however, the praying mantis also represented the castrating woman, the devouring mother, and even the vagina dentata. Looking at work by Dali, Giacometti, and Ernst, Markus claims that the imagery of the praying mantis and/or vagina dentata represents a deep ambivalence or fear towards the female body and the female archetype.

Marshall, Jennifer Cizik. “The Semiotics of Schizophrenia: Unica Zürn’s Artistry and Illness.” Modern Language Studies 30.2 (2000): 21-31.

Marshall begins her article by pointing out that the majority of art and literary scholars who write on Unica Zurn are reluctant to include discussions of her mental illness; Marshall argues that this is due to an erroneous belief that incorporating Zurn’s schizophrenia into a reading of her work would undermine her talent and substitute her “mental creativity” for a “biological anomaly” (22). Marshall insists, however, that imposing a psychobiographical structure onto Zurn’s work would not undercut it but instead provide a unique perspective into the mind of an artist shaped by mental illness. Using the DSM as her guide, Marshall analyzes Zurn’s autobiographical work “The Man in Jasmine: Impressions from a Mental Illness” for the determining signs of schizophrenia. Although she notes many parallels between Zurn’s writing and typical symptoms of schizophrenia (such as fragmented sense of self, bizarre delusions, and occasional hallucinations), Marshall ultimately argues that Zurn appears to suffer from bipolar disorder. She concludes by stating that, regardless of her diagnosis, Zurn turned to her writing and art as a way to alleviate her profound mental distress.

Nicki, Andrea. “The Abused Mind: Feminist Theory, Psychiatric Disability, and Trauma.” Hypatia 16.4 (2001): 80-104.

Andrea Nicki refutes the popular notion that mental illness is wholly an issue of biochemistry and genetics; although she does not deny that such physical factors play a role in the development of mental illness, she argues that difficulties in social adaptation also contribute significantly. For this reason, she insists upon analyzing mental illness within the bounds of culture and society, since cultural and social factors heavily influence the development and experience of psychiatric disability, particularly within certain disadvantaged groups such as women and minorities. Nicki outlines how external, non-biological factors or events such as trauma, sexist and racist norms, marginalization, traditional notions of “normalcy” and “insanity,” social injustice, the Cartesian mind-body dualism, and mainstream moral values all contribute to mental illness. She proposes a feminist theory of psychiatric disability that addresses the oppression of the (mental ill) mind by society, and works to undo the stigmatization and emotional distress of those who suffer from mental illness.

Orenstein, Gloria Feman. “Art History and the Case for the Women of Surrealism.” The Journal of General Education 27.1 (1975): 31-54

In her article, Orenstein seeks to recover the lost or elided history of women artists in the Surrealist movement. Orenstein notes that the norm in the art world has usually been that of the white, upper-class male, and that female artists are traditionally portrayed as mere “human-interest” stories, rather than as serious artists worthy of rigorous criticism and analysis. She explains that within the Surrealist movement, the ideal woman was represented by the figure of the Femme-Enfant, the Woman-Child. This figure emphasizes women’s fragility, innocence, purity, and position as Object, while simultaneously deemphasizing or excluding the subjectivity and art works of mature women. Seeking to defy the myth of the Woman-Child, Orenstein then briefly covers the lives and works of several Surrealist women artists, including Leonora Carrington, Meret Oppenheim, Remedios Varo, Dorothea Tanning, Marie Wilson, Unica Zurn, and Jane Graverol. Orenstein concludes by urging female artists, art critics, and scholars to document the forgotten or ignored lives of women artists.

Rey, Carlos. “Causalidad Psíquica en un Caso de Locura: A propósito de Unica Zürn.” Revista de la Asociación Española de Neuropsiquiatría 30.107 (2010): 437-445.

Rey charts Unica Zurn’s personal and artistic development from childhood to her death in 1970, providing overviews of some of the more important moments in Zurn’s life (such as her initial meeting with Hans Bellmer and her admittance into a mental institution). Rey focuses on Zurn’s literary work, notably Dark Spring and The Man of Jasmine, in an attempt to account for the causation of her mental illness. He concludes that it was her difficult and traumatic upbringing, more than any other factor, that contributed to both her insanity and her creative work.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. “A Double Margin: Reflections on Women Writers and the Avant Garde in France.” Yale French Studies 75.1 (1988): 148-172.

Suleiman analyzes the popular trope of the “margin” as it relates to both women and the avant-garde movement: in conceiving of culture as a “place” that can be mapped or printed on a page, both women and the avant-garde movement exist away from the center, on the edge or in the margins of mainstream society. Suleiman notes that an important distinction between the two is that the avant-garde willingly chooses to exist in the margins (in order to better critique or attack societal norms), whereas women have been forced into a marginal position and can suffer negative consequences if she attempts to move towards the center. In this way, female avant-garde artists are “doubly intolerable” or “doubly marginalized” (152), defying not one but two categorizations. Looking in particular at the lives and works of Simone Breton and Mick Soupault (wives of Surrealist artists Andre Breton and Philippe Soupault), Suleiman argues that this “double margin” can provide the female subject with a kind of centrality in her own eyes; by identifying herself and her work with the subversive power associated with the margin, Suleiman claims, the female avant-garde artist can self-affirm and –legitimize her work and life.