It was while studying at the University of Bonn that Max Ernst developed an interest in psychiatry, visiting asylums and viewing the work produced by the patients. He later considered writing a book on the subject, a project halted by the publication of Hans Prinzhorn’s seminal work Bildnerei der Geisteskranken (Artistry of the Mentally Ill) in 1922. Prinzhorn’s book, which Ernst is credited as introducing to his fellow Surrealists, would prove influential in both the group’s aesthetic and intellectual endeavours, and in turn aided Dubuffet’s development of Art Brut. What Artistry of the Mentally Ill appeared to confirm was the existence of a ‘European Primitivism’ at a time when public and artistic interest in the notion of the ‘primitive’ was at its height. Marc Décimo has noted that for avant-garde artists the work of children and psychiatric patients expressed the “exoticism of their own alter egos,” an Otherness within their own society.
For the Surrealists the primitive, in this sense, represented a return to the ‘real life’ that one is closest to in early childhood, free from cultural and societal pressures. Psychiatric patients, supposedly “unscathed” by culture due to their physical removal from it, offered unmediated access to this “unadulterated self.” The Surrealists themselves, however, could not claim to be similarly unscathed, and as such sought to develop and refine techniques that allowed them to disengage from their conscious state.
Surrealist automatism evolved from the Dadaist use of chance and the techniques of psychotherapists, spiritualists, and mediums. Automatic writing and drawing, games such as cadavre exquis (exquisite corpse), and the manipulation of materials in frottage, grattage, and decalcomania were all used to gain access to a concealed consciousness. In the 1924 Surrealist manifesto Breton defined Surrealism as “psychic automatism in its pure state… the absence of any control exercised by reason,” a definition he would continue to rework over the next several decades. He was especially keen to distinguish Surrealist automatism from the previous work of mediums who, due to their supposed lack of education, believed the impulses they responded to came from exterior sources (the spiritual world) as opposed to their unconscious mind. Surrealist automatism, as Katherine Conley has explained, was “a willed passivity,” requiring the unification of both the conscious and unconscious minds, melding together dream and reality.
It is within Surrealist texts on automatism that references to Cheval first appear. Although Breton was not to visit the Palais until 1931, photographs of it were included alongside works as varied as the output of mediums and British Columbian artists in a 1929 edition of the journal Variétés. Presented largely without expository text the juxtaposition of images was intended to simulate for the reader the chance encounter of one or more disparate objects, which the Surrealists saw as an “involuntary act of perception,” opening a window onto another world. The resulting revelatory spark, jolt, or shock characterised Breton’s concept of convulsive beauty, which he had introduced the previous year in his novel Nadja.
As well as working in concert with the other images presented in Variétés, for the Surrealists the Palais Idéal achieved the jolts and shocks of convulsive beauty on its own. Itself the product of a chance encounter with the “bizarre” rock, the Palais offered a “hallucinatory migration through times and places,” producing in the visitor a sense of dream-like dislocation that liberated the imagination. What Beardsley has described as the “uncanny appeal” of the Palais stemmed largely from its combination of real and imagined elements across the façades, and that it appeared itself like a found object for the Surrealists in an otherwise inconspicuous rural village.
The connection between Cheval’s work and Surrealist automatic practices was underlined in 1932, when a photograph of Breton emerging from the Palais was included in Les Vases Communicants. Here Breton again sought to define Surrealism and its intentions, employing the image of two connected vessels between which fluids or gases can pass in a scientific experiment. Representing respectively “the exterior world of facts and the interior world of emotions,” the unconscious and the conscious, their meeting and ultimate mingling illustrated a key aim of Surrealist activity. Automatic techniques were one way through which this mixing could occur, but here Breton appears to argue that it should be possible to achieve this reconciliation without making use of external tactics.
The inclusion of the Palais Idéal in Les Vases Communicants, though brief and unacknowledged in the actual text, is nonetheless significant in its demonstration of how Cheval was located within Surrealism. Rather than simply illustrating a concept as he had done in Variétés, here Cheval is constructed as a proto-Surrealist and claimed for the group. With the “shackled logic of the dream” the Palais bridged distances between architectural styles, geographical locations and time periods with ease. What Breton had sought to illustrate in Les Vases Communicants, and what he had attempted to execute in his own literary and artistic practices, Cheval had achieved seemingly by accident. In the image of Breton emerging from the Palais Willard Bohn saw “Orpheus returning from his voyage to the underworld… with precious information about the unconscious.” Here Cheval is transformed into an oracle of Surrealism, foreshadowing their activities and providing a template for how the divide between dream and reality might be overcome.
The inclusion of Cheval’s work in both Variétés and Les Vases Communicants encapsulates how the Palais was co-opted by the Surrealists as not only a physical, but also a theoretical, model for their activities. One of the last major references to Cheval in Surrealist literature appears in Breton’s 1933 essay “Le Message Automatique,” and in its extended version published a year later. Returning to the subject of automatism and mediumistic art, here Breton is again keen to distinguish Surrealism from Spiritualism and its religious, moral, or stereotyped aspects. In this essay Breton discussed the work of figures on the periphery of Surrealism, or those that he had claimed for the group, including the work of psychiatric patients such as Augustin Lesage, the semi-imaginary Nadja, and Cheval. Together these examples sought to illustrate commonalities between various types of ‘automatic’ work, establishing a paradigm from which Surrealist activities could develop.
Here Cheval is mentioned within the text, being described by Breton as “the uncontested master of mediumistic architecture and sculpture.” As evidence for this Breton claimed that Cheval was “haunted” by the cave systems of the Drôme region around Hauterives which emerged “unbidden” within the Palais. While it is true that Cheval drew some of his imagery from his dreams, his identification as a ‘mediumistic’ creator suggests either intentional communication with the spirit-realm or else a lack of agency, working as if in a trance, guided by unseen forces. Neither is true of Cheval; though it has been claimed that he worked from the drawing of a local medium, Cadier, Cheval is not known to have had any direct involvement with Spiritualism or its practices.
Further, Breton’s designation of Cheval as a mediumistic creator is a dubious honour. While he felt drawn to the work of those whose “automatic abilities were unrestrained,” as Conley has noted he scorned their “lack of common sense” and belief in external spiritual forces, and distanced himself from them. Falsely identified as engaging in Spiritualist practices, Cheval was frequently “tossed into [a] stew” of other creators with whom he had little affinity, including psychiatric patients. Of this latter association Cheval was aware during his lifetime, writing in his autobiography that his neighbours perceived him to have a “sick imagination,” while his interment in a hospital was only prevented by the village’s relative tolerance of him. “I knew,” Cheval concludes, “that throughout history men who were not understood have been held up to ridicule, even persecuted.”
The inclusion of Cheval and his work in “Le Message Automatique” completes his transformation into a proto-Surrealist that had begun in Variétés four years previously. Over the course of these publications the Palais is subsumed into a larger Surrealist worldview, used as both a guide for their activities and as an embodiment of their ideals. In this process many of Cheval’s original intentions have been overlooked or purposely obscured. Cardinal especially took issue with Cheval’s inclusion in “Le Message Automatique,” arguing that he was “hijacked as a passe-partout paradigm for Surrealism,” and that his identification as a mediumistic creator was only to allow for Breton to graft “various satellite domains” onto the group.
Cardinal’s summation of Breton’s relationship to Cheval is accurate, though it overlooks Dubuffet’s similar treatment of the Palais. Like Dubuffet’s relationship to his Art Brut creators fifteen years later, Breton positioned himself as the arbiter of his encounters with the Palais, ultimately controlling its image and its history, facilitated, of course, by the fact that Cheval himself was not alive to contribute to debates about his work. Cheval became the Surrealist’s puppet, so that even when his own voice was heard in his autobiography and inscriptions, it is distorted. His references to the importance of faith and patriotism, as well as the necessity of living a moral life driven by hard work are ignored by the Surrealists, who could not reconcile such sentiments with their own.
Variétés presented the Palais as one of many Surrealist objects, “wrenched out of their contexts of origin and reconfigured into the self-contained, self-referential context of the collection.” This de-contextualisation contributed significantly to the establishment of the Palais in the Surrealist imagination as a liminal space, existing partway between dream and reality. Within its new context as a precursor to Surrealism, not only were the afterlives of Cheval and his Palais dictated by Breton, but so was their history.
THE POET AND THE PARAKEET
The mythical image Cheval acquired in the Surrealist imagination is expressed most clearly in the creative works produced by the group in response to the Palais. While the texts addressed above located Cheval within the context of Surrealist activities, André Breton’s poem “Facteur Cheval” and the collage of the same name by Max Ernst demonstrate the postman’s role as muse, prophet, and model. Both appearing in 1932, the same year as Les Vases Communicants was published, the poem and collage complete the apotheosis of Cheval, yet also offer the clearest demonstration of his ultimate separation and subordination to the Surrealists themselves. Though both address Cheval, he himself is not present or given a voice in either, instead becoming a passive witness to Breton and Ernst’s own activities.
Published in the collection Le Revolver à Cheveux Blancs, Breton’s poem appears to be a direct response to his visit to the Palais the year before. In an architectural ekphrasis delivered through a series of monologues by a range of speakers, Breton attempts entry into Cheval’s dream world in order to graft it onto his own. Bohn, in his book Marvellous Encounters (2005), concludes that through the poem Breton sought to proclaim the “superiority of the surrealist vision” and align himself with Cheval. Filled with metaphors and metamorphosis, lacking punctuation and employing “convoluted” syntax, the structure of the poem mimics the complex, labyrinthine forms of the Palais itself. Like the Palais the structure of Breton’s poem houses the waking and dream existence of Cheval, who is present only in the direct address “you” and in the figure of the man asleep.
The image of l’homme qui dort appears also in Les Vases Communicants. Here the sleeping man is placed alongside his complimentary vessel, the wakeful man, with the intention of developing a symbiosis between these two states, mixing the dream-self into the real-self and vice versa. “Facteur Cheval” can be read as a companion piece to Les Vases Communicants, taking as its subject a man who had reconciled the contents of the two vessels, and who demonstrated for Breton “the possibility of abolishing the immemorial opposition between dream and reality.”
The action of the poem takes place in this liminal space somewhere between the two, narrated by four separate speakers: a flock of birds, the sighs of a glass statue, exotic plants, and fleshy statues. The metamorphosis of one speaker into another replicates the experience of moving around the Palais and encountering its various architectural and ornamental elements. The scenes they describe speak largely of Breton’s own desires, while Cheval and his work are reduced to an armature on which to hang them.