The Postman Of Breton
Essay by: Giorgio Bedoni
Photos: Andree Martis
Video: Carlo Di Blasi
Styling: Leonardo Persico
Make Up&Hair Style: Matteo Bartolini
Concept: Ludovica Gusti
Models: Michelle Richardson @mp Yulia Musieichuk @thefabbrica Vika Lisenko @Fashion
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
-T.S. Eliot The Waste Land (The Burial of the Dead)
April may be the cruelest of months, but the pain couldn’t touch Joseph Ferdinand Cheval that morning as he made his way along the road to Tersanne. Only poets and visionaries have moments like these, cultivating a shadow that o ers no quarter, at times a bolt of lightning, the child of a daydream. Cheval, in fact, had been dreaming for some time now with eyes wide open: a local mailman at Hauterives, a small town in France’s Drôme Provençale, he dreamt of fantastical, never-before-seen constructions extending beyond imagination.
It was a dream built of exoticism, a voyage necessary in an era of colonial adventures and promised lands: a mental journey, and it ma ered li le that the trip was taken among maps or out in a real landscape.
So that morning, on the road to Tersanne, while crossing the thirty- two kilometers of ups and downs unfolding amid the Drôme region, Cheval stumbled and fell, tripping over a large rock. “I discovered,” the mailman would later write in his autobiography, “that I’d accidentally kicked up a strangely-shaped, a ractive rock, and that the area was full of them. I wrapped it carefully in a handkerchief and brought it home with me, promising myself I’d go out to look for others…”
This was 19 April 1879, and from that day forward Cheval couldn’t rest until he’d returned to that place where a stone had set him stumbling; a new-era Don Quixote who found, in a moment of defeat and downfall, both himself and his dream: a dream with eyes wide open that would accompany him for more than ten years, animating his daily travels. A recurring dream in which Cheval, a solitary hero, imagined never- before-seen constructions, raised up towers and pinnacles, cra ed spires and sculpture.
Cheval would later tell of having spent every day walking numerous kilometers with a load of rocks on his shoulders. A diurnal, visionary agonist, by night he proceeded – an authentic autodidact – to build what he would eventually call the “Palais Idéal” (Ideal Palace): a labyrinthine architectural work, built in solitude over the course of thirty-three years (1879-1912), in which ornaments and inscriptions follow one upon the other, bringing to life a unique, suspended world in which everything seems real, just as in the extraordinary adventures of heroes in novels by Julius Verne and Emilio Salgari. e Palais is a nomadic work, the child of dreams. Its stones are a meeting place for distant cultures that Cheval aligns along the façades: Hindu temples and mosques; Egyptian gures and medieval memories; a world that resounds simultaneous, in which the interplay of architectural echoes and the exotic blends with the familiar.
At the end of his long “voyage,” Cheval placed the stone he’d originally tripped upon on the terrace of the Palais: if this palace is the mailman’s Wunderkammer, that rock is its magical, inaugural lodestone, announcing the urgency of a voyage and the inevitable return to a destination. us stone, a material that during those same years was re ecting a return to the Mediterranean heart of art countless kilometers away in Gaudì’s Barcelona, is here an object that individuates original places, feeding conscious fantasies.
Objects and experiences can possess peculiar qualities, activating memories and desires, thoughts and a ections. In his unpublished book on nomads, Bruce Chatwin notes the foundational values of these objects: the family display case – a piece of Victorian-era furniture set in his paternal grandmother’s dining room – was for the young Chatwin a true curio cabinet, one that expressed functions at once magical and so entirely necessary for his upbringing. For Chatwin, that object became a true, tiny Wunderkammer, housing objects he found mysterious, capable of inspiring his rst, early stories. ose small objects were “things” that had to be given a name, key playthings in an illusive atmosphere, designed somehow to activate his potential capacity to think and feel. is same atmosphere a racted many to the Palais Idéal. Already during its construction numerous artists and curious onlookers came to view it, so much so that Cheval’s work became, during the early years of the twentieth century, an icon for many exponents of the avant-garde, and Cheval himself a well- known gure among environmental artists: Picasso dedicated an album with twelve drawings and a poem to him; in Paris Max Ernst created a collage titled “Le facteur Cheval” ( e Postman Cheval); and André Breton viewed his architectural creation as an example of oneiric wonder, rich with ingredients that might satisfy any aspiring surrealist – dreams and magic, gameplay and poetic drift .
It was the same gameplay that surrealists valued through their collective practice of “cadaver exquis,” (exquisite corpse), a brilliant method for bringing the emotions and moods of childhood experience into play. At that time Cheval became, not only in France, a literary gure. He was the eccentric postman who, during the night, a candle a ached to his hat, wandered about gathering “the most beautiful” stones. He was a marathon man of imagination who wrestled the material for a Palais right from his dreams.
In years when, thanks to Rimbaud, Gauguin and others, the a raction of distant worlds and far- ung voyages expanded beyond the mere exploration of exotic realities into personal meanderings and the suspension of identity, Cheval looked to the Orient while at the same time building a temple of the West, the modernist child of Romanesque Bourgogne. A world rich in grotesque gures, dancing characters and metamorphic animals: hybrid, monstrous creatures dominate the scenery, reminding viewers once again of Cheval’s context and history, of the France of late medieval imaginary.
Through his intelligent use of stone, Cheval addresses the south, alludes to that sea the Rhône runs into not far from Hauterives: the seashells that decorate the palace echo and express its nostalgia; they smack of a Drôme Provençale that was already opening up to the total sunlight of the Mediterranean.
The Palais, therefore, is “beautiful” in its otherness and capacity to bewilder, a mysterious half-breed of a work that still today continues to reawaken our nostalgia for distant worlds, illusions, new romance and the voyage understood as escape. ere are no tricks at the Palais, no cheating: in Cheval’s dream it stands naked in its enchantment, and his work continues to resonate today exactly as if it were suspended in time, a brilliant interpretation of the strength of imagination. Palais Idéal is nothing if not an architectural paean to our deep- seated need for travel.
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