Max Ernst, "Une semaine de bonté"

A Genesis in Five Booklets

The 184 collages of Une semaine de bonté [A Week of Kindness] were created during the summer of 1933 while Max Ernst was staying at Vigoleno, in northern Italy. The artist took his inspiration from wood engravings, published in popular illustrated novels, natural science journals or 19th century sales catalogues. With infinite care, he cut out the images that interested him and assembled them with such precision as to bring his collage technique to a level of incomparable perfection. Without seeing the original illustrations, it is difficult to work out where Max Ernst intervened.
In the end, each collage forms a series of interlinked images to produce extraordinary creatures which evolve in fascinating scenarios and create visionary worlds defying comprehension and any sense of reality.

Max Ernst, The Court of the Dragon 4
After La Femme 100 têtes [The Woman with one Hundred Heads] (1929) and Rêve d'une petite fille qui voulut entrer au Carmel [A Little Girl dreams of taking the Veil] (1930), Une semaine de bonté was Max Ernst's third collage-novel. Ernst had originally intended to publish it in seven volumes associating each book with a day of the week. Moreover, the title referred to the seven days in Genesis. Yet it was also an allusion to the mutual aid association 'La semaine de la bonté' [The Week of Kindness], founded in 1927 to promote social welfare. Paris was flooded with posters from the organisation seeking support from everyone. Like the elements making up the collages, the title was also "borrowed" by Max Ernst.

The first four publication deliveries did not, however, achieve the success that had been anticipated. The three remaining 'days' were therefore put together into a fifth and final book. The books came out between April and December 1934, each having been bound in a different colour: purple, green, red, blue and yellow. In the final version, two works were taken out. The edition therefore consists of only 182 collages.

Reaction to the Disasters of the Century

In Une semaine de bonté, the scenes and events that unfold before our eyes at the turn of each page form a striking contrast with the title. Power, violence, torture, murder and catastrophe are the dominant themes in these collages. The scenes of unrest and brutality that appear on many pages match the alarming political situation of the time and the rise of dangerous forces. Ernst was then reacting against the establishment of dictatorships in Europe, and the rise to power of the National Socialists.

To his contemporary preoccupations were added allegories, mythological allusions, Genesis, fairy tales and legends, as well as fragments of dreams and poetic worlds. The author's favourite themes also ran through the work: sexuality, anticlericalism, the rejection of the family and the wealthy middle classes, the rejection of patriotism, etc.

In the end it was a certain kind of society that Max Ernst seemed to want to denounce. His irreverent collages reflect the state of mind of his men who had returned from the First World War traumatised (he himself had served in the German Artillery) and who had had to take their place in a society that was doing everything it could to forget the horrors of the war. He took conventional, stereotypical images of evil, abjection and suffering, such as were found in newspapers, magazines and novels. By transforming them and combining them with each other, he radically changed the original message of these images and in doing so, increased their impact
Only at the end of this complex series do we come back to oniric, poetic motifs that can be understood as a hymn to liberty, dreams, fantasy and the voluptuousness of seeing.

But finally, in this visual novel, without words, we the spectators have to rely on our own interpretation. It is for us to reconstruct an event, to identify a story or to try to give meaning, until we can go no further.

Structure and Division of Une semaine de bonté

The only text present in Une semaine de bonté is that of the titles at the beginning of each section. To link the days of the week, Ernst uses a subtitle to associate each one with an 'element' – a sort of shared symbol with the images to follow - and an 'example' – a figure or theme that will be repeated in subsequent pages. Only in the last book are the days accompanied by selected quotations from Marcel Schwob, Jean Hans Arp, André Breton, Paul Eluard and others.

Picking up similar motifs and details page after page, even within the same chapter gives the novel cohesion. A visible separation into paragraphs was therefore possible without text. Masks (a lion's head, a bird's head, etc.) and elements (water, dragon, cockerel, etc.) identify the days of the week. The fact that each book is associated with a colour establishes a further distinction. Finally the seven symbolic elements introduced as subtitles – 'La boue' (Mud), 'L'eau' (Water), 'Le feu' (Fire), 'Le sang' (Blood), 'Le noir' (Darkness), 'La vue' (Sight) and 'L'inconnu' (The Unknown) – provide another means of structuring the book.

First Book

Element: La boue (Mud)

Ernst moved away from the chronology of Genesis by starting the week on Sunday, which he plunges into an orgy of violence, blasphemy and death. Similarly, the associated element, 'La Boue' – primeval mud, der Urschlam – is in complete contrast with the Creator's day of rest.
This chapter moves through widely varying environments in order to study the relationship between the sexes. Persecution, theft, seduction, torture, punishment and death dominate. The man with a lion's head, a symbol of power, is a recurrent figure. Decked out with medals, decoration and even a Sacré Coeur, this hybrid creature incarnates, in turn, social, public and religious authority.
Max Ernst, Water 26

Second Book

Element: L'eau (Water)

The violence of man in the first section gives way to the force of nature. Water is the main theme. It destroys bridges, floods streets in Paris, penetrates bedrooms and apartments, and carries many human beings away with it. Here, Woman is queen.

Third Book
Element: Le Feu (Fire)

The story begins in 'La cour du dragon' in Paris and continues among the bourgeoisie. Dragons and serpents rub shoulders with human beings, who themselves have the wings of a dragon or a bat, or even of an angel.
The fire of passion, the opposite element to the natural force of water, leads to tragedies symbolised by attributes or animals plunged into this bourgeois hell. The surreal motifs on the walls and door panels express the dreams, fears and hidden desires of the bourgeoisie.

Fourth Book

Element: Le sang (Blood)

The mythical character of Oedipus is here depicted with the head of a bird. The collages tell his story, the murder of his father, in particular, and the riddle of the Sphinx. The most famous of them all is devoted to how his parents wounded his feet to be sure that he would never come back after being abandoned. Taken in and adopted by Polybus, the king of Corinth, the child is given the name Oedipus meaning "swollen foot" in ancient Greek.
In Ernst's work, the scene where he is wounded, the result of a surrealist transposition, shows a bird-man stabbing the foot of a naked woman with a dagger.

Last Book

Element: Le noir (Darkness)

Once again, Max Ernst uses emblems to represent different forms of power.
In the first series of images, the Gaulish cockerel symbolises the French state. In the second, the heads of the cruel characters we have seen so far, are changed into the stone effigies of Easter Island.

Element: La vue (Sight)

Three Visible Poems

"If three is greater than 6, draw a circle around the cross, and if water puts out fire, trace a bucket around the candle, passing above the knife, then put a cross on the ladder." Prof. O. Decroly and R. Buyse (Les tests mentaux [Mental tests]).

Here it is mainly emblematic images that follow the eventful scenes of the previous series. For some plates, Ernst returns to a method which he particularly used at the beginning of his career: "synthetic collage". These compositions are made up of heterogeneous elements placed on a sheet of white paper. To link them up, the artist fills the intermediate space with ink or pencil, creating, as a general rule, a scene evoking a broad landscape.

First Visible Poem
Max Ernst, The Court of the Dragon 7

"And I object to the love
Of ready-made images
In place of images
To be made"
Paul Eluard (Comme deux gouttes d'eau [Like two drops of water])

Second Visible Poem

'Un homme et une femme absolument blancs.' (A man and a woman absolutely white). André Breton (Le Revolver aux cheveux blancs [The White-Haired Revolver]

Element: Inconnu (The Unknown)

In this last section, women in a trance leave their beds and bedrooms to fly away. All weight, characteristic of reality, is abolished. Through these arched figures, Max Ernst illustrates the surrealist fascination with hysteria, a liberating and inspiring illness: "Praise be […] to hysteria and to its procession of young, naked women gliding along the rooftops. The problem of woman is the most marvellous and disturbing problem in the entire world. "(André Breton. Manifestes du surréalisme [Manifestations of Surrealism], Paris, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1962).

Up until last year, the original collages of Une semaine de bonté, which Max Ernst kept throughout his life, had only been exhibited once in their entirety (minus five plates, probably judged to be too blasphemous). This was in March 1936 at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno (National Museum of Modern Art) in Madrid, just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. This exhibition is therefore a wonderful opportunity to highlight one of the best kept secrets of the twentieth century, and one of the major works of Surrealist art in which Max Ernst expressed his desire to defy established categories and to abolish the boundaries between genres.


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