Contributed by Ken Buhler / It is something that has happened to all of us. Walking in a natural setting, a rock, a shell, or piece of wood catches our eye. We stoop to pick it up and then marvel at the impossible intricacy and beauty wrought by nature. Perhaps we carry it in our hand or pocket for a while, or even bring it home and put it on a windowsill or shelf. We might keep it for a very long time. In the year 1879, forty-three-year-old Ferdinand Cheval, while on his postal route in Hauterives, France, tripped over such a strange and beautiful stone that it altered the course of his life. The stone, with water-sculpted rings formed through eons of erosion, reminded the postman of a dream he had fifteen years before in which he had built a palace. He spent the next 33 years fulfilling the vision he had in his dream.
One hundred and forty-two years later, on an overcast day this summer, I walked around, through, and over the postman’s richly ornamented creation. Imagine the most elaborate, fanciful and bizarre fairy-tale like sand castle possible. It is teeming with, octopi, dragons, ostriches, flamingos, lions, elephants, deer, plants, gods, fairies, giants, and historical figures all interwoven with architectural forms whose references include Hindu, Buddhist, and Egyptian temples, Islamic mosques, and Swiss chalets. It is part grotto, part sculpture. part castle, and part monument. This is Ferdinand Cheval’s masterpiece, Le Palais Idéal.
While walking his eighteen-mile postal route each day, Cheval would collect various rocks and fossils that seemed promising for use in his palace. At first his pockets or a basket sufficed for these finds, but eventually his “trustworthy friend,” the wheelbarrow (now lovingly entombed in the palace), came along with him to carry the load. It was not only physical material that Cheval gathered during his postal work. The mail itself became an important source of inspiration and information for his building. Picture postcards from exotic places like Angkor Wat as well as illustrated magazines (such as National Geographic) with photographs of different cultures and environments passed through his hands on a regular basis. These “tributaries” of images from all over the world fed Cheval’s voluptuous sensibility and he united them with his impression of nature, binding them in mortar, lime, and stone. The structure accomplishes all this yet conveys the fluidity of a gestural drawing.
As I contemplated this structure with its broad and irrational compendium of cultural influences all in vibrant harmony with each other, I thought of Mark Twain’s comments about travel. He said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.” Though Cheval himself did not travel to other places, his voluminous imagination and vision were capable of taking him where he needed to go to tell his story, a fortunate gift for any artist.
It is comforting to know that Cheval’s obsession, though at first an object of ridicule, was not only accepted, but highly celebrated during his lifetime especially by many artists and writers who encountered his work. Anais Nin published an essay about Cheval. The Surrealists applauded the connections he made to the world of dreams and the unconscious. Both Max Ernst and Pablo Picasso created artworks about the Fracteur (Postman) Cheval and Andre Breton, a poem. Simone De Beauvoir, Lenora Carrington, Salvador Dali, and Nicki St. Phalle, are just a few of the others who hailed the work of Ferdinand Cheval.
Today, Cheval’s lifetime of obsessive creativity has echoes in the work of Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers as well as environments created by other outsider artists. Formally, it has relationships to Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia and to the Brighton Palace, built in 1787 as a seaside resort for the Prince of Wales. Cheval thought of his own structure as a palace for the everyman, the peasant, as he declared himself to be. In addition to the well-known artists and writers who gave him adulation, Cheval, in self-recognition of his own heroic undertaking, did not hesitate to cast himself as the personification of the ultimate hard-working common man who can accomplish anything with enough “elbow grease”. Hand-carved on the building by Cheval are several short poems or sayings that reveal this sentiment. These include statements like “Pantheon of an obscure hero” or “Out of a dream I have brought forth the Queen of the World”.
It is no exaggeration that Cheval put his whole self into this project. He planned to entomb both himself and his wife, but when local health regulations prohibited this, he began eight more years of work constructing a family mausoleum in the cemetery of Hauterives. It has the same lush sensibility and feeling as Le Palais Idéal. One year after finishing the tomb, Cheval finally rested in his own creation.
He sums it all up in one saying carved into the palace walls – “1879-1912 10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of struggle. Let those who think they can do better try.”
About the author: Painter and printmaker Ken Buhler is an artist in residence at Bard College, where he has taught since 2000. He lives and works in Brooklyn and in Masonville, NY.