Rachel Cohen

Max Ernst

Medals

Medals

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, plate 10, detail



Walking through the gallery, struck from the first with what felt like a wind of invention, a strong wind with particles of sand in it, it was at about the tenth image that I noticed that not only did this lion have a medal (and it was a giant medal, ridiculous, but not without pathos, because he also seemed to be a gentleman now fallen on such hard times that he might be a wandering beggar, his ailing daughter clinging to his arm, and the fact that he had retained the medal, such a large one, seemed to suggest a painful pride and attachment to some institution that had not in the end cared for him at all), not only, as I say, did this lion have a medal, but every lion had a medal.

In the first “Lion de Belfort” section of Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté – the lions, the ones of authority parading through ghoulish exhibits, the night watchmen of ill intent, the one in a greatcoat seducing a dancing nude woman by playing the clarinet, the pride-engorged executioner whose victim lies down at the guillotine, the debauched reveler like an appalling caricature of a Dutch lass-on-knee genre picture – they all have medals.

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Worn with obdurate aggression, the medals would be pitiful if they weren’t pernicious. The writing on the medal of the lion in plate 21 is extremely legible: “Merite Agricole, 1883” it says and hangs from a loop that seems half-clamped in the teeth of a dusty disheveled bowler-hatted better-days lion.

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It was the summer of 1933; Max Ernst made these 184 collages in just a few months, while he was staying in the north of fascist Italy. All those medals – given for fifty years of military valor, colonial expeditions, police arrests, agricultural progress, upright bourgeois citizenship – all those medals for what had after all been rape, pillage, murder, surveillance, manipulation, state-sanctioned robbery and unbearable preening – all this hung heavy in the imagination and in the air over Vigoleno.      



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Images are photographed details from Lion de Belfort plates in catalog Max Ernst: Une Semaine de Bonté, les collages originaux, edited by Werner Spies, Paris: Gallimard, 2009.

Une Semaine de Bonté

Une Semaine de Bonteacute

Max Ernst, Une Semaine de Bonté, 1934


Some weeks after my father’s death I thought that I might at last begin my piece on Max Ernst’s Une Semaine de Bonté, but I didn’t.  I did spend some hours studying the images in the catalog of the complete collages, a massive black-spined book with thick cardboard covers that seem the gates to an inaccessible realm.  And it was a right time to be in contact with the images again, and to begin a small private inquiry into Ernst and Surrealism, but I couldn’t really write then, and I didn’t.

The show, at the Musée d’Orsay in the summer of 2009, affected me powerfully, the feeling while there an odd combination of extreme clarity and something like vertigo.  Afterwards I felt a great need to be sure that I could go through the images again, more slowly.  I coveted the forceful catalog and when at the gift shop they said there would be no American show and that they did not ship internationally, I bought it.  I carted it then from Paris to Switzerland, strong help was necessary to get it up and down the peaceable heights, and it had weighed down my luggage to New York and later been moved with my library to Cambridge.

The catalog has become one of the books that’s most important to me to see on my shelves.  Although it is not terribly frequently that I take it down to look through the pages, its presence is a strong clean line, like the novels and notebooks of Dostoevsky, or The Interpretation of Dreams.  “It’s all been squarely faced there,” is how the feeling might be named, “it’s all there, he wasn’t afraid.”