Heidi Trautmann

847 - Esra Plümer, art historian, presents her first book

UNICA ZÜRN, Art, Writing and Post-War Surrealism

By Heidi Trautmann

I had the pleasure to meet Esra Plümer some years ago for an interview for the second volume of  ‘Art and Creativity in North Cyprus’ (You find my books in all book stores in Cyprus, in the National Library in Nicosia and in the Public Girne Library).  During this interview I learnt about her work on the theme above and am now excited to learn that she has finished and published her book. Please read the details about contents and where to get it by clicking on the poster. Hereafter I would like to share with my readers the interview I did.



Art historian

Born in Nicosia in 1985


Exploring the dimensions of art


With my very basic knowledge of art history, I understood that an art historian would be knowledgeable in all fields of fine arts and would find his/her field of occupation in museums, art galleries and in curating exhibitions. Before I went to meet Esra Plümer, I did some research on the subject and learnt that art history goes back to the 19th century when it was first regarded as a suitable area of study for young wealthy daughters of the higher echelons of society, which would polish up their general knowledge. However, with the development of photography among other disciplines, and its potential for reproduction, the art historian’s field of application has widened and its academic significance has developed unlike any other discipline. Today art history is a popular subject chosen by an ever growing number of students interested in the arts.


Thus prepared, I went to see Esra Plümer in her apartment in Nicosia in July 2012.  She had come from London to spend her summer holidays with her family. I ran into her one day on the occasion of Bahar Ciralı’s (see the interview with the same artist in this chapter) exhibition where they had discussed art therapy. I had read Esra Plümer’s article in the EMAA Art Journal (European Mediterranean Art Association) years back and was eager to talk to her.


Esra is a beautiful and very disciplined young woman, who did not at all correspond to the stereotypical image of a researcher and lecturer in art history.

She laughs and says: “I love teaching and I love teaching art history – at least that was what I discovered when I had my first teaching experience in 2007/08.  I had just graduated with my Masters from the University of Nottingham, doing an academic year as part time lecturer at the University of Lefke.”

Esra has spent most of her life abroad starting at the tender age of two when her father was appointed to go to New York as Second Secretary [in what ministry, Heidi? Or of what?] in 1987 for four years. (He was appointed Representative of the TRNC in New York again in 1997 and is now the Undersecretary to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the TRNC.)   

“When we came back in 1991, I started to attend art classes with Emel Samioğlu* who had her studio just behind our house. I was very lucky to be taught art by her; she had a great influence on me and she introduced me to the work and lives of famous artists, a sort of preliminary instruction in art history. Growing up, I knew I wanted to study fine art.”

Do you still actively do art work yourself, I asked.

“Oh yes, I do. I always have my sketchbook with me for drawing and painting, and I work also on canvas. It sort of balances me out, giving me the chance to digest my daily experiences. But I also love writing, not only about my research but in my diary which I fill with my personal observations, experimenting and exploring visual impressions, expanding realities, find my reality.”

At the age of 12 years Esra and her family returned to New York and she continued her education at the Baruch College Campus High School in New York.

“Apart from school, I continued to have private art lessons and was still determined to study fine art but the opposition I met with, not only from my family’s side, made me decide – after  I had graduated from high school in 2003 – on the history and theory of art, especially since I had been told that I was a keen observer and had a good eye for detail and conceptual relationships.” 

Tell me something about your teenage years in New York, the private art lessons you took. You probably knew all the art centres, museums and galleries. What thrilled you most? Which movement did you resonate to as a young girl? Were the basics laid in your early art education?  In New York we find one of the most important, innovative and sophisticated art scenes, while in more rural areas conservative art is preferred. At least, that is my impression.

“As a teenager in New York, I was like a sponge – taking in everything as a new and expansive experience. The city was like a constant theatre, where I would observe the worlds of others, and at times invent the lives of strangers in my imagination. These characters and their stories can be found in my notebooks from that period.

I attended weekend life classes at the Art Students’ League for some time, where I was the only 15 year old teenager among a group of elderly, or middle aged artists. It was a place where I lost all sense of time. The classes lasted for approximate 6 hours.

I also attended an Advanced Placement Studio Art course for one year in high school, preparing a portfolio to apply for fine art school. 

This was a formative year in my artistic, and I can now say, personal development. The theme of my portfolio focused on portraits, namely self-portraits where I explored the boundaries between physical appearance and emotional/mental states. This may have been the beginning of my interest in human psychology and its intersection with artistic production. With the AP Studio Art group, we often travelled to contemporary galleries and museums together. On one of these trips, I recall my first time seeing a painting by Jackson Pollock (a name I would encounter time and time again in the following years, and eventually write about). My art instructor was a young woman, Miss Baron – who was probably the same age I am today. I was amazed by her charm and coolness, and remember that she always fed us with new and innovative ideas.

With the portfolio I prepared during this course, I earned a place on Cooper Union’s summer programme. Though one of my drawings was printed on the exhibition invitation, I was unable to attend the show because I had to leave New York permanently to begin a new chapter in my life in England.”

Why did she go to England, I asked.

 “Because of my parents’ governmental duties, they were sent to another country. So I decided to study in England, at the University of Essex, based in Colchester in the Department for Renaissance and Modern Art. I graduated with an ‘upper 2nd’ for my B.A.’ in 2006.”

I tell her that I have observed in the articles I read in EMAA’s Art Journal (European Mediterranean Art Association) that she concentrates on modern art, dadaism and surrealism…. as for example in a text on Marcel Duchamp ‘Art through Non-art’ and others’…

“Yes, that is correct, my interest and actual studies circled around modern art, post modern art, surrealism and dadaism, in short the art movements in the 20th century which remained my essential subject throughout my academic education. My thesis for my master’s degree was ‘The Collective Uncanny: Looking at Mike Kelly’s Uncanny’ which I did at the University of Nottingham and which I passed ‘with distinction’…. and the thesis for my Ph.D., which I did at the same university from 2009 – 2012, is entitled ‘Reading Unica Zürn: The Development of Textual and Visual Automatism 1949 – 1969’.  But in fact, my work as art historian includes many other aspects – for example, I came across many contradicting publications on one subject which I researched  and published in my article ‘Relics of Documentation: Authority and Authenticity’.”

This article, which I read later, starts with the introductory remark: ‘Accounting for history is not an easy task, considering the endless attributions to it. ……’. Did she encounter such phenomena during her research work for her Master’s and Ph.D. theses and what did she have to do to achieve her results, I asked her.

……..Besides looking for written documents available in our libraries and archives, I had to look for documents in their places of origin, places where the artists had lived, for example. Unica Zürn lived in Berlin and in Paris, so I went to both places, looked in the archives and talked to people who knew about her or about Hans Bellmer, the artist she lived with. I also made valuable discoveries about the circles she lived in and worked with, from newspapers and the film company UFA.”

What kindled your interest in this special group of people, such as Unica Zürn and her contemporaries Hans Bellmer, André Breton, Leonora Carrington, and later Mike Kelley. They all have something in common. They are from a single era, and most of them knew each other and at least met and discussed their work…. Or in the younger surrealist Kathleen Fox whom you covered with your paper ‘Spaces of the Unconscious’, with her themes starting from ambiguity, surreality, fantasy, going to the topic concerning the female, Africa, then black humour, dreams, mythology, death, the unconscious, alchemy, primitive, eroticism, conflict. The thrill of the unpredictable is the matrix of the journey. Is it about a kind of madness, mental illness concerning the situation of women? The use of the female body in art? It was the time between the two world wars and after, so everything was upside down anyway. Unica was living with Hans Bellmer with his obsession with  “dolls”, Duchamp was set on his campaign of anti-art, and so on.

 “I am drawn to people that have an irresistible urge to express themselves – and I am fascinated to find out what is behind it, or not behind it… Impulse and passion are some of the strongest driving emotions, which were categorized at some point in history as ‘madness’. I am fascinated by the marginalization of characteristics that make us human, and the ways in which each individual perceives and understands the body, their own bodies. I guess it is a naïve, almost childlike curiosity that leads me to discover the lives and works of these people, perhaps in the hope of discovering a similarity, or an articulation of the questions I have about life, about being…”


Extract from “The Comfort of Standing Next to Walls: Ill-Literacy in Unica Zürn’s visuality” in Beyond Textual Literacy (ed.) Mary A. Drinkwater, Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2011


Walls are everywhere around us. In museums, in institutions, in our homes... wherever we go there is a wall which provides shelter for us and the objects that surround us. Similarly, these walls echo the boundaries that our lives are established upon. Even breaking boundaries take place within walls, that is, they are done within certain boundaries. Pictures are put into frames, and subsequently our thoughts are categorized in certain theories. What about the pictures that have no frames? Where are they kept, and how can we interpret these visual illiteracies that claim to be outside of social boundaries?... Within the walls of St. Anne’s psychiatric hospital in France, a seated woman continues to knit the same grey sock that she has been knitting for twenty years. In The Man of Jasmine, Unica Zürn records observing this woman unravel the grey sock time and time again. The sock will never be finished.[i]

Unica Zürn, German born writer/artist is a personality who found liberation in being confined in asylums, clinics, and hospitals and considered mental illness a path to creativity. During her artistic career she produced a series of anagram poems, automatic drawings and several prose writings. There is a perpetuation of illness in Zürn’s work, especially prominent in the titles of her books; such as House of Illnesses, The Man of Jasmine, and Dark Spring, all of which refer to periods of observing and experiencing mental illnesses.  

Zürn’s automatic drawings are often considered visually illiterate while being subjected to contextual and narrative literacies through autobiographical facts and historical analogues...The continuous line in Zürn’s drawings, like entangled floccus, is constantly unravelled, like the grey sock, creating a space of resistance within the walls of the institution. This mode of production exchanges the linearity of institutional borders and embraces illness while refusing the will of the institution to cure it. What I refer to as ill-literate is a representation of the space of resistance Zürn creates inside the institution...

Zürn’s life experiences reflect greatly on the visual literacy of her works, offering a reading of them, through her life story. Thus, it could be questioned whether the autobiographical elements that are used to provide some sort of literacy actually contaminate a ‘healthy’ reading of these images and texts? What are the implications of health and sickness in questions of literacy and ill-literacy? How do the institutions of tradition affect the ways we look at things? And what about the spaces these objects are in, how much do the walls they are displayed on factor in our understanding?”



I can now understand that Esra as art historian has tried to go beyond the working philosophy of each of her chosen artists and to lay open the conditions of their lives, the values life held for each of them, the desperate search for some meaning in life, where there was practically none.


“Art is the mirror of society, with artists coming together in movements to ‘digest’ the problems of society by whatever means. In these art movements visual artists as well as literary and performing artists have cooperated across borders and oceans. It is the processing of art in such movements, the impact it has on society and on the artists themselves, the importance it has had on the development of art to the present time which I wanted to uncover.”

How long did it take her to finish her thesis?

“For my PhD thesis, which was the Unica Zürn project it took me three and a half years.

After her Masters Esra came back to Cyprus for one year,  that was in 2007…

“I spent most of my summer holidays in Cyprus with my family and did odd voluntary jobs as English language teacher and once I did an intern research project for the Department of Museums and Antiquities, analysing and recording the contents of the Fine Art Museum in Kyrenia….” Here my ears prick up…the museum in Kyrenia? I ask ….what was the outcome?  …. “Oh, nothing, really. I handed in my report…”


“That year, as I told you before, I was teaching at Lefke University: ‘Introduction to Art History: From Metropolis to Modernism’. It was quite fun and as I made the lectures interesting with events, slide and film shows, the students loved the term. It was a very rewarding experience.”

While she was teaching in Lefke, Esra tried to get in touch with the art scene in North Cyprus and came across Zehra Sonya, President of EMAA in 2007, and was immediately invited to contribute to the Art Journal and also edit and translate its other articles on art, since it is not easy to find translators and editors in the field of art.

“I had lost contact with my generation in Cyprus, had no friends of common school years, so I had no other choice but to go out and search out for myself people I could talk to and what I could do. I was very keen on meeting young artistic and creative people, so I continued in the following holiday periods to do some advisory jobs in art history for film productions, either translating and editing texts, for example the documentary film ‘The Island where History is accelerated’ by Can Sarvan; or as a creative advisor to the short promotional film commissioned by the Ministry of Tourism, the scenario of which was written by Tamer Garip (director of film ‘Code name Venus’). Another interim project was for the USAID SAVE programme, helping them to carry out their media work. It all helped me to find a mental footing in Cyprus again and to get involved with the interpretation of my own historical background.”


From 2010 to 2011 Esra went back to teaching at the Nottingham University Department of History, preparing and leading weekly seminars on the ‘Introduction to Art History.

“I started as a teaching assistant, continued as part time lecturer which gave me ample time to do some side jobs I was interested in, for example as co-curator for Dr. Victoria Tischler in the Division of Psychiatry at Nottingham University, whom I helped with art shows in a gallery in Nottingham. I still do this whenever she calls me.”

Apart from her teaching and other advisory jobs, Esra had started to work on her Ph.D. thesis in 2008, which she completed in August 2012, just recently. My congratulations!


“Some time ago, I moved to London where it was easier for me to step out of my door and be in the centre of things, archives, museums and current exhibitions. It is less a problem for me to go from London to Nottingham.”

What did she do in her free time? I ask this for reassurance that she did something other than working and researching.

“I think I am a very lucky person; I have always come across fantastic people along the way. I like to discover new things and am always open to new things, which leads me sometimes to travel spontaneously. For example, in 2008 I went on my first research trip to Herford, Germany to see the exhibition ‘Loss of Control’ at MARTa (the Museum for Contemporary Art). Before my trip, I arranged to interview the Curator and the Director of the museum, Jan Hoet (a high profile Belgian curator and art critic). On my first day I met the assistant of the Director, Michael Train and had a tour of the exhibition. During our conversation, Michael mentioned that Mr. Hoet was in Ghent for a film screening at his son’s gallery, and that he would be driving there to pick him up and bring him to Herford the next day. He asked me if I’d like to come along. I thought about it for half a second and said: “Sure, why not!”. We had departed in the afternoon and reached Ghent in the evening, just in time for the screening of an American artist’s experimental film. At a long table, artists, critics and curators from all around the world were seated, among them myself – a curious researcher, and a little out of my comfort zone. After a long night of intellectual exchange, and a delicious pear dessert, the next morning I was a guest at Jan Hoet’s beautiful home, having breakfast with his lovely wife. I was astonished by his art collection, modestly laid around the house and became obsessed by the condensed honey served at the table. It was such a random turn of events that I suddenly found myself in Belgium at a morning family gathering, with Mr. Hoet’s daughter running out of the door to catch a plane to London to see the Rothko show at the Tate that year, and Mrs. Hoet asking me if I would like more tea. That day, we returned to Herford in Michael’s car and I had the privilege of talking to Mr. Hoet for nearly four hours. It was by far one of my more memorable trips, with one of the most charismatic men I have ever met.”   


“Recently I have taken an interest in gardening, and have turned the little balcony of my London flat into what resembles a small scale botanical garden. I gather my tools and material, and plant my own seeds. My plants, though dwarfed by the row of sky scrapers seen from across the horizon, appeared to me a forest; each growing greener and taller in time. This summer, one of them blossomed and gave the most beautiful flowers. It is an inexplicable feeling – nurturing life, even at a small scale.”        


Esra is now about to return to England to teach students the value of art history while she hopes that the honour of becoming an aunt to her sister’s baby will come true before she leaves; a new bond to consider in her home country. What are her immediate and long-term ideas of her future, does she see any possibility of returning to Cyprus for good?


“I have my plans or rather my dreams, great dreams….but what is progress without dreams? It always starts with a dream, don’t you agree?


Note by the author:

The interview was conducted in September 2012.


*) artist included in Volume I of “Art and Creativity in North Cyprus”



- “Relics of Documentation: Authority and Authenticity”, in EMAA Vol. 8, Cyprus, 2008

-“Marcel Duchamp: art through non-art”, in EMAA Vol. 9, Cyprus, 2008

- “Greenberg’s Heroes: Saving one Painting at a Time”, in EMAA Vol. 10, Cyprus, 2009

-“The Comfort of Standing Next to Walls: Ill-Literacy in Unica Zürn’s visuality” in Beyond Textual Literacy (ed.) Mary A. Drinkwater, Inter-Disciplinary Press, 2011

-“Reading Unica Zürn: ill-literacy and The Man of Jasmine” in EMAA Vol. 11, Cyprus, 2010

-“Unica Zürn’ü okumak: ‘aklın hasta okuryazarlığı’ ve Yasemin Adam” (trs.) Mehmet Ratip in Haşhaşi, Vol. 2, Istanbul, 2010

- “Kathleen Fox: The Spaces of The Unconscious” in Papers of Surrealism, Issue 9, 2011

-The Luminary Forest: Robert Desnos and Unica Zürn’s tales of (dis)enchantment and transformation” in Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment (eds.) Catriona McAra and David Calvin, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011








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