Art of the 20th Century

 



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Max Ernst


"A Week of Kindness"



(A surrealistic novel in collage)




 

Max Ernst

(b Bruhl, nr Cologne, 2 April 1891; d Paris, 1 April 1976).
German painter, printmaker and sculptor, naturalized American in 1948 and French in 1958. He was a major contributor to the theory and practice of SURREALISM. His work challenged and disrupted what he considered to be repressive aspects of European culture, in particular Christian doctrine, conventional morality and the aesthetic codes of Western academic art. Until the mid-1920s he was little known outside a small circle of artists and writers in Cologne and Paris, but he became increasingly successful from c. 1928 onwards. After 1945 he was respected and honoured as a surviving representative of a ‘heroic’ generation of avant-garde artists.



 




 

 

This is the legendary collage masterpiece of Max Ernst (b. 1891) , one of the leading figures of the surrealist movement and among the most original artists of the 20th century. From old catalogue and pulp novel illustrations, Ernst produced this series of 182 bizarre and darkly humorous collage scenes of classic dreams and erotic fantasies which seem mysteriously to lure the unconscious into view . . . Stern, proper-looking women sprout giant sets of wings, serpents appear in the drawing-room and bed chamber, a baron has the head of a lion, a parlor floor turns to water on which some people can apparently walk while others drown . . .

UNE SEMA1NE DE BONTE (A Week of Kindness) is divided into seven parts, one for each day of the week, with each section illustrating one of Ernst's "seven deadly elements." "Oedipus," "The Court of the Dragon," and "Three Visible Poems" are among the startling episodes of Ernst's week. The Dada and surrealist epigraphs which introduce each section appear in this edition in both French and English.

UNE SEMAINE first appeared in 1934 in a series of five pamphlets of fewer than 1000 copies each, and has never been reprinted before this present edition. Previously available only to a few libraries and collectors, this is a major source and great treat for anyone interested in the surrealists and their work, in collage, visual illusion, dream visions and the interpretation of dreams.



 

PUBLISHER'S NOTE

Oneiric visions and erotic fantasies were the stock in trade of the Surrealists. For artists concerned with the free association of images, with the meaningful reas-semblage of disparate objects, and with the play element in art, collage was the quintessentially appropriate technique. Raised to a significant art form by the Cubists and Futurists, given new potentialities by the Expressionists in Germany and Russia and the Dadaists throughout Europe, collage reached its height among the Surrealists (many of whom had been Dadaists earlier), and Max Ernst is generally recognized as its greatest exponent.

Born in the Rhineland in 1891 and a self-taught painter, Ernst was exhibiting in Cologne by 1913, in which year he met Jean Arp, soon to be one of the founders of Dada in Zurich. In 1919 Ernst became one of the Cologne representatives of Dada, and in the same year became intrigued with the images to be found in mail-order catalogues. He moved to Paris in 1922, and before the year was out published two works in collaboration with the outstanding poet Paul Eluard: Repetitions and Les malheurs des immortels, the beginning of the series of collage books that was to culminate in Une semaine de bonte (others were ha jemme 100 tetes in 1929 and Reve d'une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel in 1930). In his individual collages Ernst used paint and the most diverse materials, and the act of pasting was not always a part of the creation, but in these public." tions he relied solely on cutting and pasting pictures from old books and catalogues. The printing process concealed the joins completely, and the results are incredibly effective.

Une semaine de bonte was finished in three weeks during the artist's visit with friends in Italy in 1933. The fateful events of that year in Ernst's homeland, including the Nazis' condemnation of his work, may account for the mood of catastrophe that pervades this collage "novel."

The Semaine appeared in five booklets in the course of the year 1934- All five were printed by Georges Duval and published by the Editions Jeanne Bucher in Paris in a limited edition totaling 828 sets. The first booklet, "Sunday," in a purple paper cover, bears the acheve d'imprimer (date on which printing was completed) 15 April; the second, "Monday," in a green cover, is dated 16 April; the third, "Tuesday," in a red cover, is dated 2 July; the fourth, "Wednesday," in a royal blue cover, is also dated 2 July; the fifth, completing the "Week," in a yellow cover, is dated 1 December.
 

In his earliest collage books Ernst generally made up completely new scenes out of many separate pieces, but for most of Une semaine de bonte he used complete existing illustrations as base-pictures, altering them with pasted-on additions. His base-pictures were chiefly the relatively crude and usually lurid wood-engraved illustrations of French popular fiction that were plentiful in the books and periodicals of the late nineteenth century. The subject matter of such literature was torrid love, torture, crimes passionnels and the subsequent incarcerations and executions (by guillotine), hatreds and jealousies among the very wealthy and the very indigent: the inferior spawn of Eugene Sue and Emile Zola. Ernst made his trip to Italy with a suitcase full of such pages.

The art historian Werner Spies has identified three of the base-pictures (those for pages 20, 169 and 170) as illustrations from the 1883 novel Les damnees de Paris by Jules Mary. It is also known that Ernst stopped at Milan on his way to his friends' place in Italy, and there purchased a Dore volume (said to have been used in the "Cour du Dragon" sequence). By adroit manipulation of elements in these pictures, he created a phantasmagoric "novel" that touches secret springs of laughter and horror.

Ernst's "Week of Kindness" is also a collage of concepts and language. Instead of the traditional seven deadly sins (peches capitaux), we have deadly elements {elements capitaux) ; and while two of Ernst's elements, water and fire, belong to the traditional four, he gives us seven and includes five unusual ones. The "examples" of the elements also appear to be quite capricious, but even there we find some subtle relationships. Each section of the work is preceded by an epigraph from the writings of a Dadaist or Surrealist (Ernst's friends Arp and Eluard; Tzara, the co-founder of Dada; Breton) or an adoptive forebear of the Surrealists (Jarry, nineteenth-century author of Ubu ro'i). In the present edition, each bit of titling or text is translated into English on the page following its appearance in French.

As we begin the "Week" (with Sunday), we find that the "example" of the "element" mud is the Lion of Belfort. This is the name of a patriotic statue by Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi (sculptor of Liberty Enlightening the World') erected in the town of Belfort in eastern France after the Franco-Prussian War. Many of the figures in this section of Ernst's "novel" have the head of a lion. (Ernst's most illustrious predecessor in the creation of animal-men was the French artist Grandville, 1803—1847, much revered by the Surrealists.)
 

On Monday, the watery element pervades every picture, whether the locale is a bedroom or a city street: an anxiety-dream situation and perhaps an allusion to Noah's flood.

On Tuesday, large or small dragons (sometimes bats or serpents) are almost universally present, or else wings sprout from people's backs. The odd details found within the picture frames on the walls of rooms are also reminiscent of Grandville. The Cour du Dragon formerly opened off the Rue du Dragon in Paris (between St. Germain des Pres and St. Sulpice). Ernst's hosts in Italy had a mediocre "old-master" painting of St. George and the dragon over their mantelpiece, and during his stay Ernst painted a replacement for it. It is likely that this dragon inspired those in the Semaine.

On Wednesday, the "example" of the "element" blood is Oedipus—is this not because his marriage violated the direst taboo associated with consanguinity? The Eluard epigraph, with its reference to "mamma," ties in with the Oedipus legend. The other epigraph is an extract from a complainte, a type of popular ballad commemorating a notorious crime or catastrophe. Complaintes, which used to be printed on broadsheets and chanted by street singers who hawked the sheets, are the equivalents in verse of the illustrations Ernst was using in Une semaine de bonte. The leading figures in the pages of this section have birds' heads; Ernst claimed to have a bird-headed visitant named Loplop (often portrayed in his work) who made revelations to him. The Sphinx, also associated with Oedipus, makes a brief guest appearance.

In "The Rooster's Laughter" at least one rooster or rooster-headed being appears in every picture. The heads of many of the figures in "Easter Island" are shaped like the stone heads of the idols discovered on that island in the southeastern Pacific.

The "Three Visible Poems" are the most abstract section of the work and include some of the most haunting inspirations. The Eluard epigraph to the "First Visible Poem" could well serve as the motto for the entire book: "And I object to the love of ready-made images in place of images to be made." (In 1947 Ernst and Eluard published further "visible poems.")

In "The Key to Songs" the work ends vertiginously with a series of falling figures.

A book of this sort, appealing equally to the emotions and the intellect, can be freely interpreted by each reader according to his own experiences, by the lights of his own mental baggage. No full "reading" seems ever to have been published, but the psychologist Dieter Wyss, in his book Der Surrealismus (1950), has provided a strict post-Freudian analysis of the "Lion of Belfort" section: the lion-headed figure in its various guises represents a lust for power in the superego; the woman who (in this interpretation) gradually submits to the lion's blandishments, sinks into vice and is finally destroyed, is identified as the "psyche" or "anima"; and the fully human male who undergoes much suffering and is eventually guillotined, is the psychoanalytic subject or patient, presumably the artist himself. If Wyss's somewhat casuistical and simplistic reasoning is not fully convincing, his picture-by-picture analysis is nevertheless absorbing and abounds in finely observed details.

From its first publication, Une semaine de bonte has been highly admired, and a stimulus to further creation. Most notably, some of its plates (particularly pages 49 and 50) inspired Hans Richter's 1946 film Desire (Ernst also wrote the dialogue and acted in it), released in 1947 as the first part of the avant-garde episode film Dreams That Money Can Buy.

 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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