Saturday, December 21, 2019

Facteur Cheval's incredible endeavor, the Palais Idéal

Beautifully rendered columns of the Temple of Nature on the east facade of the Palais Ideal
Many years ago I purchased a wonderful book called Gardens of Revelation by John Beardsley, which discusses 25 extraordinary "visionary environments" created by obsessively motivated individuals.  I was inspired to become a stone artist in part by visits to one of these types of landscapes located in my home state, called Peterson's Rock Garden.  My grandparents lived in the Central Oregon town of Bend nearby and we sometimes visited this magical garden, a realm of fantasy built by a Danish immigrant potato farmer who possessed a level of motivation that drove him to spend decades collecting remarkable stones and assembling them in to a vast array of assemblages.

The oldest construction in Beardsley's book is the incredible work of a postman named Ferdinand Cheval, who lived and worked in the area surrounding a small rural village called Hauterives in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of southern France.  The photos of this ambitiously bizarre construction boggled my mind.  I've since collected a number of books on visionary artists that feature the Palais Ideal, but this one is notable for the way it delves in to the psychology of why people build such things.  There is something inherent in the nature of the creators of these kind of roadside attraction environments that I can relate to.  It require an immense amount of labor and drive that is probably diagnosable as extreme obsessive compulsive disorder.  But then I've always said it isn't necessarily a disorder if you channel that energy in to something creative.

Portrait of Ferdinand Cheval in his postman's uniform

I have visited a number of these types of landscapes around the world as a kind of pilgrimage. Nek Chand's Rock Garden in Chandigarh, India, the cemetery in Tulcan, Ecuador, Watts Towers in Los Angeles, and the Walker Rock Garden in West Seattle, and the Chapel of Jimmy Ray in La Cieneguita, Mexico to name a few.  My own garden is a humble version of such motivated endeavors, and by making a career out of it has spread my obsessive compulsion to a number of places around the globe.  When you do it yourself, you sense a kind of kindred relationship to others who devote their lives to building their eccentric dreams.  You just cant help yourself, you have to do it.

A elaborately complex niche in the east facade of the Palais Ideal
The largest number of visionary environments in the world are found in the United States.  This is in part due to the size of the country, and to the personal freedom that is theoretically granted to it's citizens.  France comes in second.  Many would say we are wacky folk and many have been ostracized by their neighbors for creating something so out of the ordinary that stretches the boundaries of a normal world.  Most of these ambitious artists lacked the funds to purchase materials so they worked primarily with found objects with no formal training.

Another roadside construction I passed on the way to Hauterives

In the 1800's rural France was very poor.  Many people didn't own shoes or bedding and rarely had access to meat in their diets.  Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 to a poor family of farmers in the town of Charmes-sur-l'Herbase.  At that time the region was very unstable, politically divided by Royalists and Republicans, and the farming class struggled to survive.  Cheval was able to attend school until the age of 12, as one of 110 students with a single teacher.  He learned to read and write, count, and draw before becoming a baker's apprentice at the age of 13, working with his uncle after his father passed away.  He married Rosaline Revol in 1858 and returned to Hauterives for the birth of his first son.  He began work as a ranch hand, but took on the position as a postman shortly afterwards.  After 9 years delivering mail in neighboring towns, he was transfered to the Hauterives route, which required walking an incredible 43 kilometers (27 miles) over arduous hilly terrain every day.  Rosaline gave birth to two sons but the first died, following them 8 years later in 1873.  In 1878 he remarried to a woman named Claire-Philoméne-Richaud.  The marriage included a dowry with a parcel of land on which he would build the Palais Idéal.  Claire gave birth to a daughter they named Alice-Marie that same year.

He is said to have had a dream one night about building a palace, or a castle, or a cave, but because of his laborious job, for years it remained just a dream, stashed away in the recesses of his mind.  As the story goes, Cheval tripped on a stone one day along his route and nearly fell.  Curious, he dug the piece of tufa rock out of the ground and found it to be fascinating.  Tufa is a type of limestone formed from compressed volcanic ash.  He carried it home to admire it.  He then returned to this spot and found many more stones with beautiful shapes, which when he gathered them together, said they filled him with delight.  He would fill his pockets daily, and then began collecting them in a basket, and eventually graduated to a wheel barrow.

"The Stumbling Block", the first of the original tufa stones that began an obsession for collecting material Cheval would use to build his palace
On his plot of farm land he dug a round basin and began to build what he called "The Spring of Life".  His neighbors started to regard him as a madman as he filled his garden with his collection of stones.  He would pile stones along his route and then return with his wheelbarrow at the end of the day.  The amount of labor involved is heartbreaking for me to consider.  I know this because I have collected hundreds of tons of rock myself over the years, but once I get them to my truck it makes transporting them much easier than hauling them several miles in a wheelbarrow.

Stones set along the ledge of a staircase.  You can see that some of the smaller stones have fallen out of the wall because they were not mortared in deep enough.
He did not realize the extent to which his endeavors would take him but he claimed his dreams at night were vivid and drove him to express himself.  He gathered a variety of types of stones, including limestone, flint, sandstone, porphyry, black quartz, fossils, shells and clinker, which he began to to cement together in artistic compositions with a mixture of lime mortar.  He began by working on what is the east facade of the structure, building two waterfall like constructions which he called "The Source of Life" and "The Source of Wisdom", emerging from a pond.  These are watched over by a lion and dog.

The first constructions of the palace, The Source of Life, and The Source of Wisdom
"At the source of wisdom you will find true happiness"
He continued on, in part with visual inspirations from a publication called Le Magasin Pittoresque which was an early encyclopedic pictorial magazine he delivered to subscribers on his route.  And there were exotic postcards of world monuments that became popular at the World Exposition in Paris.
A collection of old postcards featuring great monuments of architecture around the world that may have inspired the imagination of Ferdinand Cheval
He expanded the eastern facade, building what he called Saint Amédee's Cave, named for a local monk, and followed this with 'The Egyptian Monument", an homage to Socrates, and the tomb in which he hoped to be buried had the French government not prevented it later for public health reasons.

Columns of the Temple of Nature lead to a passageway through the palace, framing in the "Egyptian Monument" and a curving staircase to the upper terrace.
The Tomb where he had hoped to be buried
To balance these constructions he built the Hindu Temple on the other side with a tangled mass of various creatures, and the "Swallows Niche" with plant forms, and an honorary niche for his trusty wheelbarrow.

The Swallow's Niche
I used the same wheelbarrow for some 30 years until a wild assistant broke it, so I understand the importance of such a faithful tool.  If I had a larger piece of property I might have built a crypt for my well worn tools.
Ferdinand Cheval and his beloved wheelbarrow

Next to this he built the towering "Three Giants", with long legs set with tiny bits of stone that frame two women in dresses.  The giants wear crowns on which their names are inscribed, Cesar, Archemides, and Vercingétorix.  Archemides was a Greek mathematician and Vercingétorix was a Gaul chieften who united his tribes in a revolt against the Roman Caesar.  Many impressive Gaul ruins are found in this region.  Next to the giants he built "The Tower of Barbarism" capped with delicate palm trees, and tree snag like forms.  He used iron bars to reinforce these appendage like forms.

It took Cheval 20 years to complete this elaborate facade that has a mind altering quality to it in its undulating complexit .  It is about 30 meters long and 14 meters tall, in scale a major accomplishment for any individule.  I have spent the winter's of over three decades traveling, much of that time visiting the great architectural endeavors of humanity and I can see traces of influences from places like Egypt, Angkor, India, and the Middle East iterpreted in his work.

From there he labored his way around to the southern facade where he built niches with shelves on which to place stones he had collected that were dear to him.  He called this section "The Antideluvian Museum", referencing the period in the Old Testament before Noah's flood.

Strange forms create a tree with vines and  birds and animals arching over a gated niche

Shelves built in to the southern facade hold a collection of various stones
The southern and western facades
On the corner transitioning from the southern to the western facade is a lovely little curved staircase with elegant proportions that leads up to the Terrace.

A curving stair leading up to the Terrace
The Mosque and the "Entrance to an Imaginary Palace"
The western facade is much simpler than the opposite side.  Perhaps Cheval realized that he didn't have 20 more years to work on this one.  The columns are smooth, framing representations of various types of architecture.  He built a Mosque, a castle from the Middle Ages, "The Square House of Algiers", "The White House", a Swiss Chalet, and a "Hindoo Temple".

A Castle from the Middle Ages
The Square House of Algier

The Swiss Chalet
The White House
The Hindoo Temple
An entrance at either end of the facade leads to a passageway called "The Gallery" that runs the length of the palace.  All of the surfaces are sculpted, including a menagerie of exotic animals, and plaques with inscriptions conveying the emotions Cheval felt as he labored on the project.  Many of them refer in some way to his drive to create, and the extreme toil involved in the construction.  One inscription says in translation, "This rock will one day tell many things".  I think I know what he means. Rocks tell the stories of how they were formed over time, and the marks of their journeys being transported by the forces of nature.  He originally titled his project "The Temple of Nature".  He carved in to one panel in the passageway a poem sent to him by a poet from Grenoble by the name of Emile Roux Parassac in 1904.  The title of the poem is "Ton ideal, ton Palais", which means "Your ideal, your palace".  It is from this that Palais Ideal was given its official name.

A sculpted passageway cuts through the center of the Palais Ideal in Hauterives, France
A menagerie of exotic animals, including a camel, a flamingo, a polar bear, and an elephant bring to life the wonders of the animal kingdom in this fabulous tunnel.

A earless elephant in the gallery below an inscription that roughly translates as "Remember that man is only dust and soul after death"

He built ingenious suspended chandeliers imbedded with rings of stones and carved reliefs in to the limestone and mortar on all surfaces of the walls and ceilings.

A Chandelier on the ceiling of the gallery
Above the gallery is a terrace reached by three different winding stairways.  I am tall and the passageways are short and narrow.  I assume people were much smaller back then.  I found the monument to be more intimate in scale than I had imagined it from photographs before seeing it in person.

Cheval working on a scaffolding on palm tree sculptures above the Terrace
There is a gated staircase to a parapet that affords views over the palace.  I behaved myself and didn't climb over the gate as there were several other people around.  I'm sorry now that I didn't ask somebody on the staff if I might be allowed to go up there as the images I've seen taken from that vantage point are quite wonderful.

Dates were inscribed to commemorate the times of construction work on various sections of the palace.  The parapet at the top offers a bird's eye view of the palace but it is closed to the public.

The original "Stumbling block", the stone over which he tripped that set this lifelong project in to motion is mounted upon an architectural plinth
A Tree of Life surrounded by a fantastical array of turrets reminds me of the rooftop chimneys of buildings designed by the Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain.

A curvaceous Tree of Life on the Terrace
Small sculptures of traveling pilgrims climb buttresses to high vantage points to take in the view.  Everywhere you look there is something to discover.  The intricacy of the embellishment is overwhelming to the point of being surreal.  Everything has a story that comes from Cheval's imagination and his interpretation of the world he explored in his mind.

Pilgrims scale the monument to castles in the sky
The sculpting of surfaces in places takes on a psychedelic nature remeniscent of limestone cave formations

A parapet provides the highest vantage point in the Palais
The north facade was probably the final construction of the Palais Ideal.  Cheval had gained considerable experience building his monument and some of the finest work is found on this wall.

The North Facade
The base of the wall contains three grottos with an animal inside each one.  A tangle of intricate serpents garlands the arches alluding to the Garden of Eden.  The faces of Eve, and Adam protrude from separate places over which finely crafted organic cathedral like embellishments project from above.  The technical prowess of this work is daunting, with free hanging botanical protrusions dangling out over space.  It seems as if he were coming to terms with religious beliefs as they may have applied to his life while expressing a significant love for the natural world.

Eve and Adam peer from a fantastical conglomeration of snakes and pendants
In one grotto stands a deer.  In another there is a pelican.  Walking the long, laborious daily postal route could possibly have induced states bordering on hallucinations that drove his imagination.  He would have encountered a great many animals as well on his daily sojourns that helps explain the variety of animals carved in to the palace.  Like nature itself, there is a wondrous diversity represented here.

A deer grazing on leaves in a niche
A pelican tucked in to a niche on the north facade
"This marvel built by its author has no peer in the universe"
Near the completion of the project he inscribed a plaque summarizing his accomplishments.

"1879-1912, 10,000 journeys, 93,000 hours, 33 years of trials, let anyone more stubborn than me set to work"

The Palais Ideal
33 years, much of it spent working with lamplight at night were spent to complete this incredibly ambitious project.  Inspired only by his imagination, influenced by what he saw on his daily walks and limited access to publications, he built one of the world's great visionary art works.  In 1905 the first visitors began to arrive to see this marvel of expression.  After years of consternation by his neighbors, his accomplishments were finally receiving their due.  He gladly gave tours, which must have been astonishing to experience first hand for those who made the effort to find this remote marvel.  I was there on a Sunday and there were a number of people who joined me on that unseasonably warm December day.

A separate balcony Cheval built for viewing the Palais from a distance
The Palais Ideal from the viewing balcony
But after 33 years he wasn't finished with his labors.  Because the French government would not allow him to be buried in the palace, he embarked on the construction of a mausoleum in the town cemetery, a project that would require the next 8 years of his life.  He completed this amazing structure at the age of 87.  I sometimes tell people this story since there seem to be no retirement for me.  I'm still toiling on my constructions at the age of 61, with no end in sight.  So technically I have 26 years of work ahead of me to catch up to Ferdinand Cheval, if the body is willing and able.

Ferdinand Cheval's mausoleum in the Hauterives cemetery
Detail of the facade of the mausoleum
Cheval must have encountered many snakes on his journeys as they are a popular theme in his works
Before he died he had his biography certified, ensuring that the world would know that he and he alone created this monument to his tenacity and imagination.  Shortly after his death at the age of 88, the Palais Ideal began to attract the attention of a new generation of artists.  A number of emerging geniuses visited Hauterives to see for themselves this unique creation, including those who pioneered the surrealist movement.  André Breton, Max Ernest, Pablo Picasso, and later Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely were among the many artists who found inspiration here.  I follow humbley in their footsteps.

Pablo Picasso photographed at the Palais Ideal in 1934
A drawing by Pablo Picasso of the Palais Ideal

Thanks for reading, always, Jeffrey

So many snakes

The north facade

Detail of decorations in a stairwell

A castle built in to a corner of the Palais

The facade where it all started

A vine draped balustrade on a staircase in the northeast corner

Baroque details seem to blend nature and achitectural details found on Gothic churches

Adam, a snake, and an apple

Delicate palm trees reaching to the sky