“What can you do when you always walk in the same setting, if not dream?
As a distraction, in my dreams I built a fairy palace.”
— Ferdinand Cheval, the postman builder of the Palais Idéal
Ferdinand Cheval quit school at age 12 to be a baker’s apprentice. He became a postman in 1867 at the age of 31. In 1878, he was transferred to Hauterives in southern France as a rural postman. He walked 18 miles per day. As he walked, he imagined building “fairy palaces.” Daydreams.
About a year later, walking too fast, he tripped on a stone. A beautiful stone, “sculpted by nature.” He slipped it into his pocket and carried it home. The next day he did the same. And again the day after that. He carried home stones every day for 33 years, filling his pockets, then baskets and finally a wheelbarrow.
As the stones piled up in his yard, he began to build walls with cement, lime and metal wire. He knew nothing about architecture except what he’d dreamed in his imagination. He had never touched a trowel before, never attempted any masonry. He invented his own reinforced concrete, twisting the metal wire into retaining shapes for wet cement. He pressed choice rocks, pebbles, fossils or shells into the concrete. He added tree bark for texture.
With a candle on his hat, he worked late into the night. 20 years later, by 1899, he had completed the walls of the palace core, draped with animals, figures, gargoyles, all sculpted in concrete.
He added hundreds of sculptures of birds and plants. He built three giants each 30 feet high, guardians of the palace. He built grottos and dug out a burial chamber for himself—a pharaoh’s tomb where he would lie for eternity amidst his creation. He built a crypt for his tools—the last resting place for his “closest friends”: the trowel, mixing bucket and wheel barrow. He finished in 1912 after 33 years of daily toil. He began at age 43. He finished at 76.
In his notebooks, he noted often that the scope and power of his vision—now realized—will assure him of place in people’s memory. He welcomed tourists from outside the area. Foreign visitors were often encouraging.
But, his neighbors were disdainful. He was their inside joke. They came to laugh at him while he worked. Cheval wrote in his notebook:
Gossip then began in the district and it was not long before the opinion of the locality was established: “There’s a poor mad fool filling up his garden with stones.” Indeed people were quite prepared to believe it was a case of sick imagination. People laughed, disapproved, and criticized me, but as this sort of alienation was neither contagious nor dangerous, they didn’t see much point in fetching the doctor, and I was thus able to give myself` up to my passion in perfect liberty in spite of it all.
However, he was “discovered” by the surrealist artists of the early 20th century who saw in Postman Cheval the power of dreams and the unconscious. He was endorsed by Pablo Picasso, André Breton and others. Breton wrote that “the postman Cheval remains the undisputed master of mediumistic sculpture and architecture.” The film director, Jacques Brunius, called the palace a “monument to imagination.”
Long after his death in 1924, Cheval and his work continued to draw criticism, even antipathy. In the 1960s, the Palais Idéal was nominated for designation as a national cultural landmark to be awarded by the Culture Department of France. Naturally, a government committee must weigh in. Their report, termed the Detractors Report on one web site, said in 1964:
“The whole thing is absolutely hideous. A deplorable stack of insanities that are scrambled in an uncouth man’s brain.”
Scorned by his neighbors or enshrined by the surrealists or deplored as insane by the powerful Culture Department?
Creativity is confirmed or denied only by the culture that receives the idea. The neighbors laugh. The surrealists applaud. And the gate keepers of culture are outraged. Each of these three reactions reflect the assumptions and expectation of 3 different cultures. The first is the small town in rural France—peasants, craftsmen, and shopkeepers with minimal education. The second group are the self-anointed avant garde in rebellion against the status quo. And the third group represents the status quo, the taxpayers, and the tradition of French art, which, by the 1960s, also embraced the academically trained surrealists.
For Postman Cheval, the Palais Idéal was the realization of his dream, a vision that he had worked on in his head for most of his life. He was not seeking to be recognized as creative or to stand with the great artists of France. He wanted to be remembered.
He was not alone. Many others have turned to improvised, large scale work to make the world remember:
- Simon Rodia, an Italian immigrant construction worker and tile mason, built Watts Towers in Los Angeles over a period of 33 years from 1921 to 1954. Rodia explained, “I had in mind to do something big and I did.”
- When he quit being a lumberjack, Fred Smith devoted 15 years to making over 200 life-size figures in concrete and glass mosaic. He sculpted his neighbors along with Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Kit Carson and the lumberman’s hero, Paul Bunyan. Smith said, “Nobody knows why I made them, not even me.”
- The Village of Prelude Art is protected by a stockade of twisted and discarded junk. Inside are three buildings: Church of the Poor, Sanctuary of Scorched Wood and the Refuge. The buildings are constructed from the detritus of rural France: wood from the forest, plaster, discarded car parts, bottles and other found materials. This is Roger Chomeaux’s world. Chomo, as he is known, built everything in the compound including the buildings and thousands of sculptures inside and out. But, Chomo is not alone: the trees are filled with effigies and doll heads looking down. Why did he build it? He responded: “What mark will you have left on this earth that will content your God?”
- In his life, Edouard Pennel collected 1400 different dolls to adorn a garden environment he created. He also collected 1000 keys. What sparked his imagination appalled and embarrassed his family: within a month of his death all the keys and dolls were gone. The relatives of Armand Schulthess did the same in Switzerland to his acres of cryptic messages, and sculptures of astrological and celestial forms.
Ferdinand Cheval’s Palais Idéal still stands as a monument to his imagination and persistence through 33 years of hard work. But, was his palace creative—that is original, insightful or beautiful to others? It was a question for everyone but Cheval. “It is the work of one man,” he often said.
In 1969, 45 years after Cheval’s death, the French Minister for Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, named the Palais Idéal a Historical Monument of Naïve Art. In 1986, Cheval was featured with his postman cap on a French postage stamp.
Palais Idéal is now owned and maintained by the people who once scorned him—the town of Hauterives where the palace draws 150,000 visitors per year.
Cheval’s achieved his dream: he is remembered.
Ferdinand Cheval wrote in summary: “This is art, this is a dream, this is energy.”