Sometimes dreams and fantasies come true, as in Hauterives in France near Lyon, where we find a strangely naive building consisting of tunnels, terraces and artificial caves, one after another, without any logical order
Although La Palais idéal is not a real palace or building – it lacks interior rooms – this is maze of different areas called “rocher” by the builder, meaning rock. This idea came to Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, whose parents were farmers, in the second half of the 1800s. The story has rather trivial beginnings, beginning with a stone, the one on which Joseph stumbled during a walk. Fascinated by the unusual shape of that rock fragment, he returned several times to the area to find other similar stones. His imagination began to run wild.
Collecting stones became his obsession. When would head home after delivering the mail, he would return with a heavy bag. The letters he had delivered were replaced by the stones he collected along the way. For the people in the town, he was only a strange man, at first. Later he was seen a madman. However, in the ‘900 when the artistic avant-gardes had changed the aesthetic standards, his work would be re-evaluated. He was considered a genius.
Cheval began building his “dream” in 1879, spending every free minute he had on the project. He would mix stones with mortar and cement, and although he had no knowledge of construction, he created an imposing structure that covers an area of 350 square meters and that in some places reaches 11 meters in height. On the west terrace, he incorporated the origin of everything: the stone on which he had first tripped. When he undertook this work, he was already 43 years old. He would work there for more than 30 years, with the enthusiasm and joy of a child who is building a castle on the beach.
The 19th century was coming to an end, a new century advances in the wake of technology, speed and efficiency, Cheval turned his back on everything and regressed to the world of fairy tales. However, in this going back, in building a cocoon in which he enclosed his life, he was quite modern. The surrealist movement that arose in the 1920s would recognize an unconscious surrealism in his creation.
The building is made up of a set of artificial walls from which emerge, as if they were self-generated by stones, disparate figures such as Vercingetorix, the Gallic chief who fought against Caesar, or animals with symbolic meanings, as well as some thoughts, mottos or quotes. The relief of the dromedary with the inscription “by creating this rock I wanted to demonstrate what my will can do” is truly emblematic.
His sources of inspiration are quite heterogeneous and show a universalistic vocation, ranging from the Bible to ancient Egypt, from Hindu texts to the book of Caesar’s Gallic wars, as well as the Greek world, with the figure of Archimedes, and Muslim culture. Postcards from all over the world seem to have given him some ideas, as well as the illustrated books he consulted and whose images were then freely reinterpreted by his imagination. The entrance is to the north where the visitor stands in front of a spectacular terrace. The main façade, which he built first and took him 12 years of work, is actually the east wall, the “Egyptian monument” as he called it.
The building is impossible to classify. It is a bizarre structure, yet with a naive eccentricity. Cheval had no academic training and did not attend artistic circles. He had only a dream and a vivid imagination. His art is out of any scheme, because he didn’t understand these concepts. In the end, as he wrote on one of the walls, this is nothing but the “dream of a farmer”.
Cheval would have liked to be buried there, since the rock was his promise of immortality, his personal revenge against a banal life and the redemption of his humble peasant origins. On one wall he wrote “This marvel of which the author can be proud will be unique in the universe”. However, authorization for his burial was denied, so he built a mausoleum in the cemetery of the city because “Son of peasants, a farmer myself, I want to live and die to prove that even in my category there are men who have genius and energy”.
A national monument since 1969, today La Palais idéal is a tourist attraction and reminds us that dreams can come true when we really believe in them, and that we are all called to do great things.
Anna Maria Calabretta