This is my translation of excerpts from an essay written by the poet Alain Borne on the postman Ferdinand Cheval’s Ideal Palace, describing and analyzing that uncanny monument and its equally mysterious creator. Borne’s essay, written in the first half of the twentieth century, was re-published this year in the form of a book, together with the writings of Cheval, and numerous photographs of the Ideal Palace as well as of Cheval and Borne themselves. The translated title of the book is The Postman Cheval And His Ideal Palace (Le Facteur Cheval et son Palais Idéal).
The book is a chiaroscuro of voices, Cheval’s voice, expressed in his writings and Palace inscriptions, intertwining with the myriad voices through which Borne expresses his fascination for the monument—those of poet; artist and creator; moved, overwhelmed, troubled viewer of the Palace; analyst in anthropological, historical, literary critical, art historical, psychoanalytic and other veins. To translate Borne’s own words:
“A sublime Mr. Jourdain, Ferdinand Cheval was an artist without knowing what art was.” (p. 49)
My thanks to the representative of the city of Montélimar, holder of the copyright of Alain Borne’s writings, for permission to publish this translation on my blog.
Details of the book Borne, Alain. Le Facteur Cheval et son Palais Idéal. Strasbourg: Éditions L’Atelier contemporain. 2021, 160 pages, 32 reproductions.
On Alain Borne
Alain Borne was born in 1915 and lived all his life in Drôme, the department in southeastern France that also contains the town of Hauterives where Cheval’s Ideal Palace is located. Borne worked as a lawyer and wrote copiously in his spare time. During the Second World War, he participated in a network of literary resistance. Very close to his mother, he sank into alcoholism and depression upon her death, and died himself not long after, in 1962, in a car accident, aged 47.
Translation of sections of Alain Borne’s essay on Ferdinand Cheval, excerpted from pages 34 to 47
“Ferdinand Cheval is dead; his strange monument survives, which he erected perhaps to the glory of civilization and, more certainly, of himself.
Strange creations are not lacking, from an Eiffel Tower made of matchsticks to a locomotive reduced to a tenth of its size; do not think that I focus more willingly on this one rather than any other simply because it is enormous.
No. It appears to me for a start that the conception and realization of the “Ideal Palace” poses and perhaps resolves certain problems that touch on art (my focus comes from having seen that Cheval worked, and blindly so) and its relations with man.
[…] But since Cheval remains unknown to a large number of people, I prefer to accept that the present book be a mere outline of a larger work, and to avoid neglecting the disconcerting links that unite the complicated and troubling monument to the simple man riven by a dream that exceeded him and that enabled him, thanks to a superhuman and almost incomprehensible tenacity, to access art.
We know so little about Cheval that we must reduce him almost to an existent.
Yet his shadow, insubstantial as it may be, projected onto the work he accomplished, is indispensable if we want, going beyond the domain of art that we chose, to let ourselves be moved by even the least welcome aspect of a work that manifests so emphatically that which the most isolated man can do when his will carries him to the unknown shores of chance, of inspiration and of genius.
If it matters to us to know (or simply to guess) that which Cheval wished to do, what he thought he had achieved, we must refer not only to the inscriptions scattered all over, but also to the several writings left by this singular worker of Hauterives.
We are not sure, of course, that these are exclusively Cheval’s work, but it seems to us certain that they reflect well the mind of the postman at a certain moment in his life, and we believe we must accept them.
Well have we stated it: at a certain moment of his life, precisely once the work had been completed, the long effort ended, with the hand relaxed after the exertion, the heart prey to an emotion other than that of creation, the detachment brought by time, a certain haze over the memory.
The work had detached itself from the artist, was distanced from him; like leaves, come autumn, the forest of his deeds had strewn itself about him.
Though, certainly, it isn’t exactly as a stranger that he encounters the work. Yet, the work is not an extension of himself.
The artist, in the battle of the oeuvre, the vertigo of the already-done and the yet-to-do conquered, clings to the general vision of the endeavor, awaits obstacles, foresees the means of vanquishing them, remains watchful for the internal impulsion of inspiration which will perhaps overturn all, masters that impulsion, judges it, accepts or refuses that which it proposes, advances a bit, at each instant outraged at the lightning rapidity of conception beside the infinite slowness of realization, disoriented, moreover, by the difficulties that arise, never the same, that must be subdued each time in a different fashion, often prey to a discouragement that he can never bridle and never quash except by looking at the path already covered, whipping up his pride and warming himself by future glory.
In the battle of the oeuvre, the artist’s judgement of what he does never ceases to rear up, leaping from detail to whole, from intoxication to despair, from joy to ennui, from certitude to doubt. The oeuvre stands between all and nothing, one perceives it through the transparency of an outline that is more or less vague and changing. Until the last instant, the creator knows but little. In sum, he is in the clutches of a complicated malady consisting in a series of crises, each one unprecedented. He struggles to the end, rent between his will and chance, between the material and his temperament, between that which he can and that which he wants, sometimes inspired, sometimes blind, at once hyperopic and myopic, alone and imagining a crowd around him that he scorns and hates, whose eyes he wishes to charm without exception.
The oeuvre ended, the final chapter complete, the last stone in place, a man of seventy-six years walks away from the site that he began constructing as a man of forty-three.
It is with a certain gratitude, and simultaneously a certain astonishment, that Cheval will now judge his oeuvre, and also with a certain humility, for the monument has become, in a way, the heroic part of himself and, deprived of it, he would no longer feel important.
That he was able not merely to accumulate but to arrange harmoniously such a pile of stones and lime stupefies him. He can no longer clearly recall his groping progression towards this realization in which chance has played such a great role.
That is when he begins to systematize.
Systematization is a common step: man, a logical animal, reassures himself by inventing a link with his impulsions, a form following his actions, a coherence to their dispersion, a solidity to fluidity.
Thus do we render visible and legible the indistinct, touchable the fleeting, perceptible the impalpable.
Face turned towards the past and lifted towards this monument that lives with his own life force, Cheval, in all good faith, affirms a link between himself and an oeuvre that escapes him, and that has become a stranger unto himself, a link that strips him of his greatest merit, and that does not adhere to the course of facts.
Thus will he avoid passing judgement on the building for the construction of which he has suffered so long. Thus will he, somehow, lead others to think that he is not responsible for the invention of the forms, often troubling, that have emerged from his willing fingers, but which were given to him by insistent dreams.
His pride, and it is very deep, he derives from his perseverance as a worker and also sometimes from the skill that he has achieved, but at no moment does the pride of the artist well up in him. He knows that he has been daring and courageous, but he thinks that these are the qualities of the artisan. He knows that he has created figures that are ‘grotesque, amusing, bizarre.’
Perhaps the little notice he takes of the artistic part of his oeuvre comes precisely from his convincing himself that everything about the monument was given to him, and that his sole personal merit was to imitate long and well. Or perhaps if the postman Cheval did not have the feeling that he had created a work of art, it was simply because he was ignorant of the existence of art or perhaps that he was ignorant of what art is. In any case, only once does the word “art” slip from his pen. And he seems much prouder of his knowledge of geography, history or botany that enables him to imitate than, for example, of the decorative motifs of the gallery, of such exquisite inspiration—these are there merely in order to ’erase the emptiness’ after a fashion—or of the three giants, of proportions and material so astonishing that one never tires of admiring them.
He thinks that the monument has no value except by virtue of its strict reproduction of beings and things, and the constancy of his efforts.
One would have liked to have Cheval describe to us the contours of his reverses, and his successes in métiers that he had to acquire—mason, architect, sculptor, etc. He does not venture into these descriptions.
And yet it is a wonder that in forty years, a monument erected by an amateur has not been damaged, has not fallen apart to a greater degree. Cheval was right to prize his skills as an artisan: over thirty years of work, he had the leisure to study and achieve mastery.
Traces of his pride are to be found everywhere in his autobiographies, but also on his monument itself:
“My will was as strong as this rock”
Cheval was right to feel proud, but he could have felt so for other equally strong reasons.
The cult of work and work alone accorded with the moral code of his time. Cheval seems to refer at once to Christian morality and to a secular morality that took form in the first years of the French Third Republic, following a certain strand of social thought of the Second Republic.
He remained blinded by the performance. He forgot the details of his passionate struggle against the material.
Certainly, he gives full reign to his pride, so much so that the latter transforms almost into vanity. This is his reward. As are equally the praise and wonder of others. He says it and repeats it naïvely:
“They leave, one and all, marveling and saying:
It is incredible, it is impossible.”
Thus does Cheval satisfy himself with this feeble coin of glory, letting himself be moved by the suffrage of individuals who visit his monument as a curiosity, seeing there, like himself, nothing but heaps of hours squandered, of money sacrificed, and of stones piled.
Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky that Cheval was self-satisfied and a bit naïve for, assuredly, it was the certitude of astonishing that sustained him amidst the worries and reverses inherent in an oeuvre on such a scale, and without this certitude might he not have been tempted to abandon it all?
But this vainglory is combined with something greater and more moving: while the admiration of his contemporaries merely tickled him pleasantly, he was not unaware that the admiration of generations to come was his sole chance of not quite dying. And that, surely, was one of the goals, conscious and avowed, of the postman Cheval.”