These Weak Kindnesses

These Weak Kindnesses is a collaborative writing project that takes as its point of departure Max Ernst’s 1934 publication, Une Semaine de Bonté (‘A Week of Kindness’)[1]. First published by Editions Jeanne Bucher in Paris as a series of five pamphlets, and printed as a limited edition by Georges Duval, Ernst’s famous “surrealistic novel in collage” consists of 182 collage compositions combining monochrome images appropriated from 19th Century mail-order catalogues and illustrated popular fiction. Ernst transforms these engravings into wonderfully inventive and disturbing scenarios. Together they constitute an oddly interrelated series of set pieces, characters and visions that conjure up a bizarre and fantastical world in which violence and eroticism coincide with or interrupt domestic civility; where human forms bleed into those of animals; where disruptions in the conventions of time and space not only seem possible but imminent. Yet neither the interrelation of the images nor the significance of their published sequence is entirely clear – there is much room for speculation and invention.

Une Semaine de Bonté employs a number of structural divisions, the most prominent being the breaking up of material into the days of the week, although due to financial constraints these seven sections were eventually squeezed into five pamphlets. There is also the assignment of a series of semi-invented ‘elements’ and ‘examples’ as deemed appropriate for each installment. Each of these divisions suggests a number of possibilities in terms of how the material can be read or further subdivided, and how this might relate to whatever system of classification for potential meaning, or indeed taxonomy of meaninglessness, is to be called upon. Together with these structural interruptions, there are also continuities to be found in the recurring settings, themes and props dotted through the pages. Although it may be difficult to decipher, there is a relationship to narrative or indeed linearity embedded in the work. It is not an accident that it is described as a ‘novel’ and it is not implausible, in light of its obvious address to the use of language and conceptual interconnections, to consider re-imagining Une Semaine de Bonté as a purely textual artefact.

These Weak Kindnesses uses the images that make up Une Semaine du Bonté as source material for the production of writing. Its two authors both respond to each image without consultation, only subsequently bringing their texts together. For every collage that Ernst provides, two distinct texts are produced, each sourced in that same image. These texts are then printed adjacent to each other in order to constitute a two- fold textual translation to each collage that can be viewed almost like an image.

The notion of translation is important. The near-homonymic title of the project echoes Ernst’s original only in its English translation – a reflection not only of the various idiomatic shifts in play but also the potential correlations and discrepancies between the visual and textual. This also echoes the kinds of collaborative effort being undertaken, as each author generates material without explicit reference to the other except through their common, absented point of departure. The approach of each writer will vary according to different degrees of directness: one may use the images to create entirely new scenes bearing only the vaguest reference to the source material; the other may employ another order of reference, involving direct allusions to what is absent, that if the reader were to seek out the originals, might be more or less obvious to understand. The process implies a regeneration of the image, as playing with the notion that the combinatory effort of two extractions could, in some form or other, provide access to what is no longer visible. The suggestion that paired observations pose a collaborative act of interpretation is always undercut by the fact that innumerable other responses could have been generated from these images. Yet, as Paul Eluard suggests in an epigraph included in the fifth of Ernst’s pamphlets, this project also directly concerns the “images to be made” from those Ernst has already produced, and for whom they had also been prepared in advance.

The project is primarily addressed to the unstable limits of visuality in relationships between text and image – in this case artificially heightened because text is implied to be a more or less direct ‘substitute’ for image, or in some sense partially correspondent to a form of visibility that is no longer there. The substance of the work emerges from points of singularity, not only those produced via individual images, but also the relations between the collated series and the associated narrative, literary and visual conventions. One of the questions raised concerns the extent to which, like Ernst’s image-novel, a discernable consistency of voice can be recognised and a coherent collaborative fragmentation established. This is combined with a questioning of authorial control or how material consistency is assigned to chance procedures and aleatory juxtapositions. Like its original source, These Weak Kindnesess, incorporates techniques of collage and ekphrasis in its construction of separate but linked fictions, as well as making reference to Ernst’s links with the surrealist movement.

As well as connections to Ernst’s own techniques of appropriation, cutting and pasting, the project echoes his use of uniform layout and construction, particularly his reliance on final printing processes to cover his tracks, effectively concealing the joins of his compositions. The act of publishing ultimately granted his images a substance independent of their origins. Similarly, in These Weak Kindnesses, there will be no indication of who has written which text, nor any explicit reference to how a piece of writing has been generated from a particular image. It is hoped that this process will further flatten obvious patterns and fixed distinctions of style, provided the composite process allows the cumulative writing to build up its own structural coherence and effectiveness, independent of the processes that have produced it.

Because Ernst’s images occupy the role of the popular engravings he himself first used to create his collages – his ‘base-pictures’ – it is as if the method employed in These Weak Kindnesses were simply another application of his own process: the selection and sampling of details; an overlaying of gestures, bodies and elements; extemporisations upon unresponsive surfaces; shifting landscape registers; ‘unnatural’ tonal combinations, and so on. It will be interesting to see whether the texts will take on something of the atmosphere surrounding of Ernst’s own collages – the general “mood of catastrophe” that accompanied their quick fire production in early 1930’s Italy as the Nazi’s relentlessly rose to power elsewhere. Another point of interest will be the extent to which the character of a piece of writing, in particular a collection of texts composed in a similar manner but in vastly different contexts, can be carried across different media, over time and layers of historical context.

Although it may not be made explicit, the relation between the ‘original’ and the ‘translation’ underpins the entire project. The transfer from image to text is suggestive of an unusual form of novelisation, which indicates the project’s relation to cinema in the sense of trying to extract or flesh out a screenplay from a storyboard of existent scenarios. It is worth mentioning that Ernst’s publication has been employed as a resource for other works in the past, particularly in cinema. Hans Richter’s 1946 film Dreams That Money Can Buy, the first section of which, ‘Desire’, was written and directed by Ernst himself, is a direct homage. In fact the artist can be seen in this episode – one of a series framed by the device of a ‘dream seller’ housed in a office, visited by a gallery of individuals – at one stage pulling shipwrecked bodies from underneath a bed, a useful metaphor for the way in which (written) images are being extracted from images in a kind of acknowledged nesting of references and counter references.

Not only the structure of Ernst’s book is to be replicated – elements of the aesthetic of the publication are also to be sourced from the original. Une Semaine de Bonté was published in five booklets: the first installment, corresponding to ‘Sunday’, appeared bound in purple. The second, or ‘Monday’, came in a green sleeve. ‘Tuesday’, the third section published was housed in a red cover; ‘Wednesday’ in royal blue, and the fifth edition, which in fact completed the week by including ‘Thursday’, ‘Friday’ and ‘Saturday’ came in yellow.

The structure of the five sections of These Weak Kindnesses will be as follows:

  • Volume One [‘Sunday’]: [p3-p37 in 1976 Dover edition] – 34 images translated into 68 adjacent texts, plus titles and acknowledgments.
  • Volume Two [‘Monday’]: [p41-p67 in 1976 Dover edition] – 26 images translated into 52 adjacent texts, plus titles and acknowledgments.
  • Volume Three [‘Tuesday’]: [p71-p114 in 1976 Dover edition] – 43 images translated into 86 adjacent texts, plus titles and acknowledgments.
  • Volume Four [‘Wednesday’]: [p117-p144 in 1976 Dover edition] – 26 images translated into 52 adjacent texts, plus titles and acknowledgments.
  • Volume Five [‘Thursday’ (1st section)]: [p149-p164 in 1976 Dover edition]; [‘Thursday’ (2nd section)], p167-p176 in Dover edition]; [Friday – ‘First Visible Poem’]: [p181-p186 in 1976 Dover edition]; [Friday – ‘Second Visible Poem’]: [p189-p192 in 1976 Dover edition]; [Friday – ‘Third Visible Poem’]: [p195-p196 in 1976 Dover edition][‘Saturday’]: [p199-p208 in 1976 Dover edition] – 48 images translated into 96 adjacent texts, plus titles and acknowledgments.

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[1] An unprecedented exhibition in the Americas of all 184 of Ernst’s collages used in Un Semaine du Bonté was staged by Museu de Arte de São Paolo, Brasil between April and July 2010.