top of page

Homages  //  THE POSTMAN CHEVAL

Temple Sri Venkateswara (Helensburgh - Australie)
Temple Sulur (Inde)
Temple Thirukadaiyur (Inde)

How did Ferdinand Cheval, the postman from Hauterives, come into my life ? Was it the photo of André Breton at the Ideal Palace which caught my attention, Breton dressed in a black leather coat, seated on the steps of the staircase leading to the upper terrace of the building ? I cannot remember. Still, one day, the handiwork of the postman struck my imagination at comet speed. 

"
 

If the Ideal Palace was in the spotlight in 2018 with Nils Tavernier’s movie, art brut had enthused hitherto no more than a handful of artists. The Surrealists, André Breton as their leader, were the first to acknowledge the importance of the work of Ferdinand Cheval. The latter, a postman in a small country town, born in 1936 in the Drôme, had built a weird castle in Hauterives after devoting thirty-three years of his life to its construction. André Breton was spellbound by the Ideal Palace. He wrote poems about it. For the author of Le Manifeste du surréalisme, a doctor by training, assigned at his request in 1916 as a psychiatric nurse in Saint-Dizier in the Vosges where he took a very early interest in the artistic works of the patients, how not to see in the handiwork of Ferdinand Cheval a surrealist gem par excellence created by an autodidact, namely the demonstration of raw imagination? Following Breton, Jean Dubuffet, captivated by these artistic productions regarded as minor, coined the term art brut. In his pamphlet Asphyxiating Culture which roundly attacks the formatting and marketing of artists, an essay whose reading is still relevant, one sentence stands out: "Intellectuals are recruited from the ranks of the dominant caste or those who aspire to enter it. The intellectual, the artist, takes then a title which gives him peerage with the members of this dominant caste.” Here is a good starting point to understand why art brut has been snubbed. It falls short on two levels. First: since it does not fit the criteria of what is officially recognized as beau, beautiful, in the ranks of the dominant caste, it doesn’t belong to the category called art. Barthes stressed in Mythologies (1957) what was regarded as good and bad taste. Secondly: art brut is not a rich art. To noble materials such as precious woods, steel, bronze, glass, etc… usually chosen by “official” artists as Dubuffet call them, art brut favors rusty wire, pebbles or string. Art brut is indeed the art of the paupers. The use of the word “art” is somehow misleading, because art brut artists didn’t always aspire to make a work of art. They stacked up pebbles to make fountains, caves or palaces. They plastered walls and furniture with pieces of broken plates, as Raymond Isidore (1900-1964) did to make his Picassiette house. They picked up metal scraps of an airplane fallen during WWII to turn them into a merry-go-round, as Pierre Avezard (1909-1992) did. They got hold of a few tubes of acrylic and started painting like Séraphine Louis (1864-1942). Art brut was in the 50s and 60s the spontaneous expression of autodidacts of the working class or the peasantry, namely people who had very little instruction. A form of art brut was to be found in Central Europe as well as North America. When television hadn’t yet stolen their time and their imagination, lots of people used to put together what they had found on the side of the road, in the nearby fields or in a shed. It was the expression of their fantasies and dreams, not yet called art but, but folk art. I remember the suburban gardens where strange figures of metal or cement emerged from the bushes with a metal cone as a hat. Borders decorated with shells fenced flowerbeds. Dwarfs painted in bright colors gathered around a Snow White asleep near a fountain. The outcome was dreadful. It didn't matter. The creators were unconcerned about people’s opinion. The so-called artists had never thought of competing with Michelangelo anyway.

 

"

Bordeaux flea market was held every Saturday at Saint Michel square in the Arab quartier. It was the living heart of the old Bordeaux. If most of the North African men had adopted the European costume, the women with tattooed foreheads were still wearing the traditional long dress ensconcing them from head to toe. All sorts of fruits and vegetables were sold there, wonderful sweet cakes, plump and pink legs of lamb. Spicy whiffs floated about out of an open door. The furniture shop in the street Victor Hugo sold armchairs and sofas dressed in tacky velvets, low and inviting seats designed to lounge on, half-reclined in a Roman way, to eat Turkish delight. I loved walking around the flea market. Letting myself be carried away in a state of availability leading me haphazardly to knick-knack, fabrics or postcards was a somewhat surrealist attitude reviving a memory, and sometimes it engendered a text. I felt immediately drawn to the work of Christian Boltanski, an artist who recreated lives by accumulating a whole range of small personal objects like ribbons, clothes, notebooks, etc… alongside larger objects like a wooden bed and a lamp, organized in display cases. In 1990 The inventory of the objects that belonged to the young girl of Bordeaux, presented at the museum of modern art of Bordeaux, CAPC, had moved me so much that a few years later, in 1995, I wrote Eloge de l’oubli, (Praise of oblivion) which was initially an inventory of everyday objects with a commentary. The installations of Christian Boltanski were uplifting. I recognized a brother in him as I had found a sister in Djuna Barnes. I wanted to express emotions and moods in my writings. This is maybe the reason why I felt attracted to art brut. Another major exhibition had inspired me as well: the works of New Realists I saw in Paris at the Petit Palais in 1970. I begged my mother to visit it after I saw a poster advertising the show. It electrified my fourteen years old mind since the criteria of beau beautiful, were jettisoned. I rarely visited museums, yet whenever I had the opportunity, I absorbed all that I saw like a sponge. I remember with precision the paintings, sculptures and installations of the New Realists who used dirty, worn, rusty, broken objects. Daniel Spoerri's snare-paintings where drinking glasses and plates filled by the remains of a meal were stuck to a vertical board. Niki de Saint Phalle had piled up dolls heads in a display case. Further was one of her shooting pictures: a white altar splashed with bright drippings. Yves Klein had opted for the radical choice of one colour with his Monochrome bleu. It was an immense rectangle hung high up, coated with the distinctive and stunning hue of blue which would be called International Klein Blue – a painting I couldn’t stop admiring while my mother had reservations. None of us knew that we were looking at a milestone of modern art. I also encountered the works of César, (the famous Pouce) Arman, Tinguely, Ben. Over the years, my interest in art brut didn’t wane. I visited the museum of art brut in Lausanne bringing together the 5000 pieces of Jean Dubuffet’s collection, bequeathed to the city in 1971, where are exposed the famous drawings of Aloïse Corbaz (1886-1964) and the mesmerizing paintings of Augustin Lesage (1876-1954). Either New Realists or art brut, this form of art spoke to me. In spite of the atmosphere of the time whose literature was ruled by a set of intellectual, often cold and disconcerting esthetic standards, I realized how much a more tangible space, intimate and generous would be a more welcoming shelter for my work.  

 

"

The Ideal Palace has inspired Breton Picasso, Niki de Saint-Phalle. It bewitched me as well. One morning, I said to M, my partner, that I wanted to go to Hauterives. We would spend the weekend there; and I would take notes to begin the work I had planned to write on Ferdinand Cheval. After driving more than 600 kilometers, we arrived in Hauterives by late afternoon, found a family pension where we took a room. It was autumn. Night fell quickly. After unpacking, we walked down to the dining room, a gloomy room where a few people were dining. We were served a hot meal. The night before I discovered the Palace, I had so haunting a dream that it seemed like a never-ending nightmare. I was standing at the foot of a huge wall whose surface was made up of brownish, irregular, round stones emerging from it. Far from being still, the wall was a living organism. The dirt joining the stones was moving, bubbling, flowing like molten lava. In the morning, in a strange state of mind, I felt a little nauseous, and realized that I had been standing in front of one of the walls of the Ideal Palace. (I had never seen any snapshot of the Ideal Palace before, save the one with André Breton.) The next day, after breakfast, I took my sketchbook and walked with M toward the palace. 

 

"

At the end of a track, a woman greeted you. For a few francs, you bought a ticket. On a wooden table was a stack of booklets. I leafed through one. It was Ferdinand Cheval’s brief autobiography. Then a flight of stone steps took you downhill. At the bottom stood the palace. It was a delirious structure of greyish stones, some sort of castle -or was it a church ? a temple ?- much smaller than it appears on any photograph I have seen since. The site was not as tidied up as it is today. The path was overgrown with weeds. Beyond stretched the countryside. There were few visitors. I was disappointed at first glance, as I expected a building of considerable proportions. M raised his eyebrows. I walked around the palace because like most works of art brut, often childish, it stirs up one’s curiosity. My eyes raced across the weird facades overloaded with a dizzying accumulation of elements - often of very small size – like heads, gargoyles, shells. There was a potted cactus next to a bird alongside a wall whose furrows resembled a stack of sea weed left by the receding tide, but did Ferdinand Cheval reproduce something of the vegetal or the animal realm ? I raced to the terraces towering the whole structure, raced down the stairs to discover almost by chance the dark corridor as oppressive as a grotto which runs through the innards of the construction. On its side, I saw the famous wheelbarrow used by Ferdinand Cheval to carry the stones, a faithful friend stored in a niche guarded by bars. And finally, I found a place to sit and started drawing. I spent my morning there and half of the afternoon.​ 

"

A few hours later, something most unusual took place. Drawing an entire side of the palace was a diabolical and almost impossible task as its surface was formed by an accumulation of elements where nothing was alike. Thus, I concentrated on details, faces, dents, protuberance, heads. And then some sort of intoxication took hold of me. The palace exerts a curious attraction on those who look at it long enough to crack its strangeness. What happened exactly, I wouldn’t know, but the more I looked at the palace, the more it looked at me. The dream I had during the previous night made sense; the palace was alive indeed. It was moving. The more I watched it, the more I was fascinated, even hypnotized by what I was looking at. After several hours of contemplation, a little dizzy, I left for the family pension. Before leaving, I bought the booklet where Ferdinand Cheval recalled his story. The next day M and I took a walk in the hilly countryside of the Drôme where creek-beds were strewn with stones and pebbles very much like those used by the postman to build his palace many years before.   

"

Reading Ferdinand Cheval’s modest autobiography enlightened me. I understood why Breton had been enthused by his creative process as it is recounted in his short and beautifully written story. Although the postman had never been a student of an art school, although he had no training as a mason, although he was a postman certainly inspired by the postcards he watched at leisure before distributing them, he had had an epiphany the day he stumbled on a stone. Here is what he wrote: “One day in April in 1879, […] I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few meters away. In a dream, I had built a palace. […] Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn’t thinking about it at all, my foot reminded me of it. My foot tripped on a stone that almost made me fall.” Ferdinand Cheval’s endeavor had been the result of an accident. When this incident happened in 1879, the postman was forty-three. And this looks like a surrealist process, entirely given over to chance. As Breton writes in Nadja, this artistic approach is made possible thanks to “sudden rapprochements, petrifying coincidences, reflexes that take precedence over any other development of the mind, a musical chord struck as on the piano. » The fortuitous encounter of two elements that nothing pairs off in reality, a « petrifying coincidence » - the choice of words is perfect - not only makes the work of art but it also brings about the artist. And the power of the dream, a premonitory dream in which Ferdinand Cheval saw the form of a strange palace, creates the inspiration. Dream makes reality.​ 

 

"

I wrote my text on Ferdinand Cheval in 1992. It was entitled L'homme en marche. George Monti agreed to take it for his literary revue. It was my first published work with Le Temps qu’il fait.

"

Art does not imitate life, but life imitates art as Oscar Wilde thought. I found the Ideal Palace again here, a few kilometers from my home. I live in Australia, you think, a long way away from Hauterives, so how is this possible ? Did I find a monument of art brut ? No. Shortly after I moved over to the Illawarra, I saw something towering the tops of the eucalypts. It looked like the Ideal Palace. It was an immense, pyramidal construction, a surprising assemblage of interlocked human and animal heads and shapes and reminded me curiously of another building which had hallmarked my life. This strange pyramid was the gopuram of a Hindu temple as I learned later, the Sri Venkateswara temple (picture 1) very similar to the ones that Ferdinand Cheval must have marveled at on the postcards he was carrying in his satchel. I saw many taller, more breathtaking gopurams in India (pictures 2, 3). This coincidence, which is no coincidence at all, makes me think of the spark setting off the imagination called inspiration. But where does it come from? Why inspiration came to some poor buggers –  some locked in lunatic asylums, others having very little instruction- when those who would have liked so much to be artists, and who have certainly worked hard to become one by attending an art school, feel as if they were restrained by a straitjacket when it comes to create? Isn’t there a strange mystery ? I can't help thinking of what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious: it is a universal, trans-personal unconscious, which contains the whole spiritual heritage of the evolution of mankind. Jung describes it as “autonomous partial-system”, namely it functions like a pool of knowledge, archetypes and symbols external to the person. This is where, in my opinion, the spark of inspiration lays. The artists of art brut were inspired. Yes, more than anyone else, they were inspired by this collective unconscious which they received, like vessels, as if they had drunk their manual skills and knowledge directly from a source of living water. Didn't Séraphine Louis assert that “her angel” told her to paint ? Didn't Ferdinand Cheval have a premonitory dream ? Wasn't Augustin Lesage listening to a “voice” who told him what to do ? The way they worked relentlessly to sculpt or paint was their raison d’être, halfway between life and the imaginary -or between life and the collective unconscious. With their spontaneous approach to art, or “wild” approach to art to quote Dubuffet, they could sublimate their physical ills and mental sufferings, make their life livable and find peace. Yes, art heals. 

© Catherine Rey 2022 - All rights reserved  

bottom of page