Jun 4

The postman’s fairy palace

During a long-ago class, I learned about the Facteur Cheval, an 1800s postman who randomly built a fairy palace. Here’s an excerpt from my old art history textbook, The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes:

The other naif [besides Henri Rousseau] whom Surrealism especially admired was not a painter but a builder who, in the obscurity of his own country garden, created what was perhaps the most elaborate, beautiful, and mysterious “unofficial” work of art made by any nineteenth-century artist. He was Ferdinand Cheval, a postman or facteur in the village of Hauterives, about forty miles from Lyon. The Facteur Cheval (as he is usually called) had done nothing remarkable for forty-three years of his life. But one day in 1879, on his delivery round, he picked up a pebble. It was a piece of the local greyish-white molasse or tufa, gnarled and lumpy, about four inches long — his “stone of escape,” as he later called it. He put it in his pocket and, from then on, began first to collect more odd-looking stones, then tiles, oyster-shells, bits of glass, wire, iron, and other junk. Back in his garden, he began to lay foundations and build walls. He was, by his own account, bored of “walking forever in the same decor,” and so:

… to distract my thoughts, I constructed in my dreams a faëry palace, surpassing all imagination, everything the genius of a humble man could imagine (with grottoes, gardens, towers, castles, museums and sculptures), trying to bring to a new birth all the ancient architectures of primitive times; the whole thing so beautiful and picturesque that the images of it remained alive in my brain for ten years at least … but the distance from dream to reality is great; I had never touched a mason’s trowel … and I was totally ignorant of the rules of architecture.

Facteur Cheval fairy palace

He began to take a wheelbarrow on his rounds, collecting more and more of the bizarre stones of the region, rock-collecting by night, building in the morning and evening, delivering letters by day, and sleeping very little. This routine went on for a third of a century. The result, the Facteur’s Ideal Palace, contained all his ideas — mostly built, like the Douanier Rousseau’s, on pictures he had seen in magazines, photos, and almanacs like the Magasin Pittoresque — about the “true origins” of ancient Greek, Assyrian, and Egyptian architecture, with side-glances at the Taj Mahal, the Maison Carrée in Algiers, the mosques of Cairo, the White House, and the Amazon Jungle. Dark grottoes (which the Facteur called “Hecatombs,” meaning today “Catacombs”) ran through it, and wild bristlings of minarets and sculptured palms crowned its towers. Almost every surface that was not ornamented with the writhing effusions of the Facteur’s imagination carried an inscription: “Interior of an Imaginary Palace: the pantheon of an obscure hero. The end of a dream, where fantasy becomes reality.” “The work of giants.” “Remember: will is power.” And, very movingly:

For forty years I dug
to make this faery palace
rise from the earth.
For my idea’s sake, my body has confronted all:
time, ridicule, the years.
Life is a swift charger
but my thought will live on in this rock.

It took this proud and certain man, by his own reckoning, 10,000 working days (or a total of 93,000 hours) to finish his Ideal Palace. When he did so in 1912, he at once set to work on the construction of his tomb in a cemetery nearby, which he also finished well before his death, at the age of eighty-eight, in 1924. Thus Breton and the other Surrealists could have met him, though they did not; it is not known when they first went to Hauterives, but the Palais Idéal immediately became one of the sacred spots of the surrealist world. Max Ernst made a collage in praise of the Facteur Cheval, and Breton wrote a poem about him (a companion piece to the verses Apollinaire had written on the Douanier Rousseau). This, it appeared, was the palace of the unconscious mind that no architect had ever built, a nearly sublime fantasy in which the formal means of Edwardian garden-builders — grottoes, stones, shells — had suddenly shot up to the heights of obsession and revelation.

It seems that there is now a website for the Ideal Palace, with directions for visitors.