On November 22, at 4pm inside the beautiful Civic Museum in Reggio Emilia, I will talk about macabre wonders together with historian Carlo Baja Guarienti.
Our chat is part of a series of lectures called Il Tè delle Muse (Tea with the Muses): I find this title quite gorgeous, because the ironic reference to the etymology of “museum” highlights its original function of being a place of enchantment and inspiration. There is therefore no better place to talk about what I have often called dark wonder; on these webpages I have been suggesting for years that we should overcome the prejudice attached to the word “macabre”, and understand that many of the so-called “morbid” curiosities can turn out to be noble and sometimes necessary passions. We will be discussing exoticism, new trends, wunderkammern and intersections between art, science and the sacred.
Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 in Charmes, a small village in the commune of Hauterives, a little less than one hundred kilometres from Lyon. Ferdinand’s mother, Rose, died when he was only eleven; as his family was very poor, a year later the little boy left school and started working with his father. The latter died a few years later, in 1854. Therefore Ferdinand Cheval, at the age of twenty, became assistant baker. After marrying the young Rosalie Revol, who was just 17, for a few years he went far from the country in search for a job, and accepted various occasional employment offers; he rejoined his wife in 1863 and their first child was born in 1864. One year later, the boy died.
Two years went by and their second child was born. In 1867, at the age of thirty-one, Ferdinand Cheval pledged to become a postman.
In 1873, his wife Rosalie died.
An ordinary life, afflicted by pain and job insecurity. Those were times of extreme poverty, in which hunger and diseases never ceased to claim victims. And yet the nineteenth century was also marked by the modernist turn – monarchy gave way to republic, sciences and medicine made progress in leaps and bounds, industry was just born, and so on. And the echo of these revolutions reached the French countryside. Ferdinand used to handle the first illustrated gazettes, namely the Magasin Pittoresque or La revue illustrée, but also the first postcards coming from all over the world; under the eyes of a poor delivery man from the countryside an exotic world opened up, made of super-fast railways, heroic colonization in Africa and Asia, spectacular and unbelievable discoveries presented at the first International Exhibitions… in other words, daily life was hard as usual but there was still plenty of fuel for dreams.
Ferdinand Cheval used to stack up thirty kilometres a day, always the same way. At that time a postman’s pace was very different from the current “motorized” one. In his journal he wrote:
What shall I do, perpetually walking through the same landscape, but dream? To take my mind off, I used to dream of building a fantastic palace…
But the eccentric daydreaming of this humble postman from the countryside would have stayed as such, if Nature hadn’t sent him a sign.
On the 19th April 1879 Ferdinand Cheval was 43 years old, and his life was about to change forever.
One day of April in 1879, while I was carrying out my usual tour as a countryside postman, a quarter-league before arriving at Tersanne, I was hastily walking when my foot stumbled on something that made me slide a few metres further, and wanted to know the cause. In a dream, I had built a palace, a castle or some caves, I cannot express it properly… I never told it to anyone for fear to seem ridiculous, and felt ridiculous myself. After fifteen years, when I had almost forgotten my dream, and didn’t think about it at all, my foot made me remember it. My foot had bumped into a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… The shape of the stone was so bizarre that I put it in my pocket in order to admire it whenever I liked. The day after, I went through the same place. I found more of them, even more beautiful, I picked up them all on the spot, was enchanted by them… It is a molasse worked by waters and hardened by the force of time. It becomes hard like rocks. It represents such a bizarre sculpture that it can’t be reproduced by any human being, you can read all kinds of animals, all kinds of parodies in it. I told myself: if nature wants to be a sculptress, I will deal with masonry and architecture.
The stone which awoke the sleeping dream.
That stone, discovered by chance, was something like a conversion on the road to Damascus for the postman. And Cheval didn’t draw back, in front of this obvious call to action: little by little, he started to set up his building site – although he had no education, nor the least idea about how a house should be built, let alone a fairy castle.
The country people started to take him for a fool. But all of a sudden life had presented him with a grandiose purpose and, although everyday he made his usual thirty kilometres on foot, there was a new sparkle in his eyes. The weight of the mail to be delivered was increased by that of stones: during the outward journey he selected and positioned them along the road and, on his return, he picked them up with his loyal barrow. Postman Cheval and his barrow became a true icon for the inhabitants of Hauterives.
During his time off, every evening and every morning, Cheval continued to build the structure; he went ahead off the cuff, as a perfect autodidact, adding decoration after decoration without a real planning. Tireless, feverish, possessed by the grandeur of the task he was accomplishing.
Postman Cheval started his work with a fountain, the “Source of Life”, then added the so-called “Cave of Saint Amadeus”, the Egyptian Tomb, and a series of pagodas, oriental temples, mosques, and other representations of sacred places, on show one besides the other; the Three Giants (Caesar, Vercingetorix, Archimedes) were in charge of mounting guard over the sculptural complex.
The postman never had a rest. In 1894 Cheval saw another of his children die, the fifteen-year-old daughter he had by his second wife. Overwhelmed by this new loss, he retired after two years but continued to devote himself to his Palace. He was half the battle, he couldn’t stop.
The Ideal Palace was not conceived as a real building, inhabitable, but as a monument dedicated to the brotherhood that unites people, regardless of their creed or origin: a mix of western and eastern forms and styles, an elaborate syncretism inspired by nature, postcards and the magazines that Cheval used to deliver. Sculpted figures, concrete palms, beasts, intertwined branches and columns decorated in arabesque surrounded the sacred representations or buildings; messages and poems by the builder should be reproduced on inscriptions and signs; finally, in the crypt, a small altar was dedicated to his inseparable barrow, that made all this possible and that Cheval used to call “my faithful mate of misery”…
Postman Cheval achieved his Ideal Palace in 1912, after having devoted thirty-three years of his life to it. He commemorated it with a writing, visible under a stairway that runs along the Temple of Nature towards the Northern Façade:
1879-1912: 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of obstacles and trials. The work of one single man.
Satisfied, Cheval announced that the monument would also be his tomb; but, surprisingly, authorities denied him the permission to be buried there. What should he do? Cheval didn’t lose heart.
After having achieved my dream Palace at the age of seventy-seven and after thirty-three years of hard work, I discovered I was still brave enough to build my tomb by myself at the Parish cemetery. There I worked hard for eight more years. I was lucky enough to complete this tomb called “The Tomb of Silence and endless rest” – at the age of 86.This tomb is about one kilometre from the village of Hauterives. Its manufacturing makes it very original, almost unique in the world, but its beauty comes from originality. After having seen my dream Palace, a high number of visitors go and see it, then they go back to their country in amazement, telling their friends that it is not a fairy-tale, it’s reality. See it and believe it.
In that same mausoleum Ferdinand Cheval obtained his well-deserved rest in 1924.
“Le Tombeau du silence et du repos sans fin”.
Shortly before his death, facteur Cheval had the satisfaction of seeing his Palace acknowledged by some artists and intellectuals as an extraordinary example of architecture, without rules or structures, a spontaneous and unclassifiable artwork. In 1920André Bretonbrought him to attention as the pioneer of surrealism in architecture; then, as the concept of art brut emerged, Cheval was even more admired for his work; nowadays people prefer to use the term outsider art, or Naïve art, but the concept stays the same: as he didn’t have an artistic culture, Cheval took the liberty of making impulsive and non-academic choices that made the Palace a unique work in its own way.Picasso, Ernst, Tinguely, Niki de Saint Phalleall loved this crazy and incredible place, that – more or less explicitly – inspired several other fictitious “citadels”.
In 1969 André Malrauxdecided to protect the Palace as a historic monument, against the opinion of many other officials of the Ministry of Culture, with these motivations:
In a time when Naïve Art has become a remarkable reality, it would be childish not to protect – when we French are as lucky as to possess it – the only naïve architecture in the world, and wait for it to be destroyed.
The small town of Hauterives is still there, between the hills and the fields, at the foot of the French Alps. And yet only in 2013 almost 160,000 visitors went on a pilgrimage to the Ideal Palace, today completely restored and in whose frame art exhibitions, concerts and events are organized.
And, as our gaze is lost for the umpteenth time in the tangled stone doodles, we are astonished by the idea that they have really been created by a simple postman who, with his barrow, scoured the countryside in search for bizarre stones; you can’t help thinking about the sardonic provocation that Cheval himself wrote on the front of his Palace:
If some of you is more stubborn than me, then set to work.
But this ironic remark, we like to read it also as an invitation and a challenge; an exhortation to cultivate stubbornness, madness and temerity – necessary for all those who really want to try and build their own “Ideal Palace”.