Thursday, 6 October 2011

Ferdinand Cheval and the 'Palais Ideal'

Born in 1836 in the Drome department of France, Ferdinand Cheval seemed fated to have a banal and unremarkable life.
Initially apprenticed to a baker, Cheval went on to become a postman, serving the area of Hauterives in Drome and lived out a mundane existence until 1879 when he would, at the age of 43, have an experience that would affect the rest of his life...
While working on his postal route he tripped over a stone.
Fascinated by the shape of the stone Cheval wrapped it in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket and took it home.
Looking at the stone later Cheval was reminded of a dream he had once had of building a castle made of stone.
Inspired, Cheval returned to the same spot the next day and noticed many other strangely shaped stones scattered about.
He began to collect them each day, bringing them home and started to build a pond in his garden made from the stones he found.
Cheval also decorated the pond with various figures and ornamental designs, all built from the stones that he brought home from his route.
His confidence bolstered by the success of his initial creation, Cheval decided to move onto a project on a slightly larger scale.
He would build his castle...
Cheval continued to collect stones on his route, eventually adding an extra 8 kilometres to his daily trek to allow more chance to gather stones and armed himself with a basket as the sheer mass of stones had long ago moved beyond what his pockets could hold.
His wife also forbade him from using his pockets for storage as she grew tired of having to constantly repair his trousers from the wear and tear of the stone's transportation...
Cheval finally ended up using a wheelbarrow for collecting the stones and bringing them home and extended his search into the night, armed only with an oil lamp for light.
With only rudimentary education let alone any knowledge of architecture or engineering Cheval began to build his castle slowly and with care.
He used lime, mortar and cement to bind the stones and began initially by building the outer walls of the structure in 1879.
Cheval retired from the Post Office in 1896 and began to work on the castle full-time.
He drew upon many different sources of inspiration as the project developed with elements of a Hindu temple blending with a Swiss chalet, an Algerian maison or a Muslim mosque all tied together around the idea of a medieval castle.
There was also a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary and a few Egyptian mummies dotted around for good measure...
Cheval declared the project to be inspired by the spirits of 'Julius Caesar, Archimedes and Vercingetorix.'
Eventually, in 1912, 33 years after beginning, Cheval declared his work to be finished.
It stood 35 feet high, 40 feet wide and was 85 feet long.
Cheval himself estimated that he spent 9,000 days or 65,000 hours working on the project and probably could have finished it sooner but for his reluctance to 'steal God's day' and work on Sundays...
Initially Cheval hoped that he and his wife, now in their 70's, would be entombed in the castle when they died but the local authorities forbade anyone to be buried outside of the regional cemetery.
Not discouraged by this in the least Cheval immediately began work on a mausoleum for himself and his wife in the grounds of the cemetery using the same methods and materials.
He finished that another 8 years later...
His neighbours and many other people in the local area dismissed Cheval as a lunatic or a crank but soon the castle began to attract visitors including Andre Breton, Niki de Saint Phalle, Lee Miller, Pablo Neruda and Pablo Picasso and the work was referenced by luminaries such as Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst.
Andre Lecroix, an archivist in the French Government, wanted to list the building as an official monument and asked Cheval to write the story of its construction and decide what its official name should be. Cheval dutifully delivered the story but insisted that Lecroix should name the building.
Lecroix duly christened it 'Le Palais Ideal de Facteur Cheval' or 'The Ideal Palace of the Postman Cheval.'
Ferdinand Cheval died in 1924 and was interred into the mausoleum he built in the cemetery.
The Palais Ideal lived on, although by 1968 it had began to fall into disrepair.
In 1969 Andre Malreux, the French Minister for Culture, officially declared it a historic monument ensuring its ongoing protection and it now also enjoys status as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
However, probably the most fitting tribute came for Cheval in 1986 when the image of the 'facteur' and his work was immortalised by the French Government.
Their medium of choice?
A postage stamp...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Dave Sim: Cerebus, Spirituality and Sexism.

Looking at the first few issues from 1977 it's hard to believe what 'Cerebus the Aardvark' became...
Initially conceived as a parody of the popular 'Conan the Barbarian' comics that had recently been published, with a heavy influence from Steve Gerber's 'Howard the Duck' strip, the early stories are an energetic, if scrappy, affair.
However it didn't take long for Dave Sim, the creator of the series, to see the potential scope of this new world he had created and expand upon it.
With the second story arc, 'High Society', Sim took his cast of characters and moved them to the city state of Palnu where Cerebus, a hard-drinking, combative Aardvark finds himself dragged into the corridors of power. Sim realised he could address any theme he wished to in this book and went on to explore religion, finance, sexuality, war and creativity across the later volumes of the series.
'Cerebus the Aardvark' was a huge success and sales on the book were phenomenally high, particularly given the fact that Sim self-published as well as creating the book single-handed.
By 1984 Sim found himself struggling to keep up the book's monthly schedule and recruited Gerhard, a fellow Canadian artist, to produce the backgrounds of the script, allowing Sim to focus on the highly-detailed character work that had become synonymous with the strip.
Another reason for Sim's need for help was a vow he had made in 1979.
'Cerebus' was going to be 300 issues long...
To be fair on Sim he had made this declaration after being hospitalised following ten days of prolonged LSD usage and could have backed down later without any major outcry.
Sim's steely determination to see this through and stand by his rights and obligations as a creator would crop up again throughout his career...
When the first collection of Cerebus stories were collected into a single volume Sim first made them available directly from himself via mail order. This upset many of the comic stores who had supported 'Cerebus' as a title but Sim was unapologetic.
It was estimated that he made up to $150,000 by this decision so it's unlikely he lost a lot of sleep...
However, it was later in the life of the series that things really began to get interesting.
While researching the various religions of the world to create the beliefs of the 'Pigt' and 'Cirinist' sects that are in the story Sim began to develop his own system of spirituality that borrowed from Christianity, Judaism and Islam. His practices included fasting, celibacy, prayer and the giving of alms and considered the holy books of all these religions to be equally valid as the word of God.
As it went on 'Cerebus' shaped Sim as much as Sim shaped 'Cerebus'.
He wanted to discuss religion in the book so he did the research and made Cerebus the Pope.
He wanted to discuss politics so Cerebus became Prime Minister.
He wanted to discuss the life of a writer so he introduced Oscar Wilde as a character.
He wanted to write gags for Groucho Marx so he 'cast' him as Lord Julius, the ruler of Palnu.
And then he wanted to discuss feminism and gender roles...
So, he created a character called 'Viktor Davis' who outlined what Sim had come to believe were the position of men and women when it came to creativity.
'Davis' explained that men were 'lights' who tended to produce while women were 'voids' who tended to absorb.
Many were alarmed by this language but felt it was appropriate for an author to give his characters opinions that may upset people but may not represent the views of the author himself.
However, Sim went on to support the theories that 'Davis' had put forward in an editorial under his own name where he elaborated on the ideas and explained that his work didn't get sufficient coverage or respect because of a 'Marxist/feminist/homosexualist axis'.
This caused a major storm in the comics world and a lengthy debate followed.
Another creator, Jeff Smith, got caught up in the furore and had a heated exchange with Sim that ended up with Sim accusing Smith of being dominated by his wife and challenging him to a boxing match.
Smith declined...
The sales on 'Cerebus' dropped later in the series as Sim pursued his various agendas but he remained determined to stick to his 300 issue target.
He left orders that if he died Gerhard was to complete as many issues as he wanted with just backgrounds and then, if necessary, the remaining issues up to 300 to be published as blank pages...
In March 2004 Sim published 'Cerebus the Aardvark' #300.
It was the culmination of 27 years and 6,000 pages of work.
Sim has described it as 'the longest sustained narrative in human history', has made arrangements for it to enter the public domain upon his death and while he is alive there is an open invitation for other creators to use his characters in their own work.
Few people take him up on the offer...