Palais Ideal (Ideal Palace) is in the “otherwise forgettable village”, that is Hauterives, north of Valence, France. It is the handiwork of Facteur (Postman) Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, who spent 33 years of his life building it.
Cheval (1836-1924) left school at the age of 13 to become a baker’s apprentice, but eventually became a postman. Neither snow nor heat nor rain nor his own wildest fancies stopped him from walking 32km a day. He was a wiry man with a straggly moustache and small fierce eyes. In his dreams he had built a palace, a castle or caves. He did not tell anyone about his dreams for fear of being ridiculed.
One day, when he was on his rounds, he stumbled on a stone. The stone had a strange shape, he put it in his pocket to admire it at leisure. It was a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by time and was as hard as a pebble.. The next day he went back to the same place and found more stones even more beautiful than the first one. He gathered all the stones. They represented a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate and they represented kinds of animals and caricatures. He said to himself : “Since Nature is willing to do the “sculpture”, I will do the “masonry’ and the “architecture”.
For the next 33 years, Cheval picked up stones during his daily mail round and carried them home to build his Palais Ideal. To his heavy mailbag he added a wheel-barrow and over the years he constructed what is regarded as an extraordinary example of Naïve Art (Outsider Art) architecture. It is one of the “oddest monuments of all time” ——Palais Ideal. By Cheval’s count it took more than 9,000 days or 65,000 hours.
The Palais Ideal is a mixture of different styles with inspirations from Christianity to Hinduism. Cheval bound the stones with lime, mortar and cement. The completed work was 26m long, with a height that varied from 8-10m. “You start wondering,” the facteur (postman), “if you have not been carried away into a fantastic dream with boundaries beyond the scope of imagination.” Nothing was beyond the scope of his own imagination. His version of a “Hindu Temple” stood next to a “Swiss Chalet”, which stood next to the “Maison (House) Carree” in Algiers which stood next to a “Medieval Castle”, and somewhere, in between, there was an “Arab Mosque”. ” The tutelary spirits of the place,” the postman declare , “were Julius Caesar, Archimedes and Vercingetroix.
The grounds were planted with Cacti and Palm Trees and Aloes, and here and there figures which, said their creator, “are the rather reminiscent of ancient times, such as Cedar Trees, Bears, Elephants, Sheepdogs and Cascades. At the other end you will notice & figures of classical antiquity which are situated near Ostriches, Flamingos, Eagles and Geese.”
The result is “weird” but not unpleasing. Said the poet John Ashbery, “a memory which is also a dream”. John first visited the Palais Ideal in the 1950s. Lawrence Durrell, who admitte he cam “to be amused” in a lofty British way, found himself “moved.” Cheval, himself, equally used the words “bizarre” and “grotesque” about his memorable fancies and claimed not to care that people laughed at him as he wheeled his way along his route, adding a good 8km a day as he searched for stones. He wrote, “I knew that throughout history, men who were not understood have been held up to ridicule, even persecuted.”
He began the building in April, 1879. The Palais Ideal is outstanding even in an age that produced the Watts Towers in Los Angeles and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, uninflected by any wish for technical innovation or daily use. Aesthetic considerations or historical connections are beside the point : IT IS ITS OWN ODD SELF and not surprisingly has inspired artists from Picasso to Niki de Saint Phalle. –
Just before his death, Cheval began to receive some recognition from luminaries like Andre Breton and Pablo Picasso. His work is commemorated in an essay by Anais Nin. In 1932, the German artist Max Ernst created a “collage” titled “The Postman Cheval”. The work belongs to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and is on display.
In his 70s Cheval decided that the Palais ideal was finished and exhibited his wheel-barrow and trovel in a niche. By then visitors had started to come ——- a tourists’ register was opened in 1905 ——- fired by the postman’s unexpected practical streak. When a photographer began selling postcards of his Palais ideal, he sued him to retain the monopoly, and issued his own postcards, on some of which he figured in his postman’s cap.
When Cheval was 75 years old, he announced that he wished to be buried in the Palais Ideal. However, since that is illegal in France, he proceeded to spend 8 more years building a complicated tomb nearby, which he entered permanently in 1925 at the age of 88.He has been called the Hieronymus Bosch of “cement” and a “rustic” Fra Angelico. He remains his “uncategorized self” and even the Postal Museum show and catalogue fail in coherenc, except for a stunning 1:10 scale model of the Palais Ideal that looks about the size of a badminton court.
In 1969, Andre Malreaux, the Minister of Culture declared the Palais Ideal as a “cultural landmark”, and had it officially protected. In 1986, Cheval was put on a French Postage Stamp. The Palais Ideal is open to visitors every day except Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.