Schadenfreude, that wry nod of one’s head while contemplating the wretched lives of others, comes to us from Old Europe’s eldritch heart: Germany. Spend enough time with Unica Zürn’s drawings, and her 1970 suicide leap—from the squalid Paris apartment she shared with decrepit surrealist Hans Bellmer and his sadomasochistic dolls—begins to seem her most promising option.
Throughout her 1920s Berlin childhood, Zürn’s adventuring father brought home exotic souvenirs from his military wanderings. Visions of the mysterious Orient suffuse her work: No. 28 in this show of 71 untitled ink drawings (mostly from the 1960s) deploys squashed yin-yang symbols as the beret, mustache, and rump of a bulbous jellyfish boulevardier. In other images, splashes of magenta or pea green are subsumed into the black outlines of taloned, tusk-sporting birds, whose scrabbling attendants resemble crayfish adorned with African masks. Eyes bulge everywhere, sprouting cilia; flesh alternates with scales and undulating feathers. No. 53 locates a sad-eyed elephantine creature, trailing extravagantly flayed skin and trunk, flying over a rare landscape: a tiny village of minarets and stone steps. In this singularly beautiful drawing, the scale of tragic monster to world seems a window to the intolerable spirits that pushed Zürn to her death.