Let’s start February with a question. Do gardens have to fit into a particular pattern to be “acceptable” or merit inclusion on the “must-visit” list? There are quite a few people who think they shouldn’t have to and that we’re too hung up on particular notions of culture, beauty, and good taste. They argue that gardens, like art generally, should encompass a much wider range of ideas, styles and materials and not be subject to so much analysis or or always be seen through a traditional lens, or subject to “collective” approval to be successful or interesting.
It has led to a flourishing of alternatives in galleries and gardens across the world. You might not like the results, but there’s no denying they are …lets, for the sake of argument, say …”different”
The photos are mine unless otherwise acknowledged.
I was reminded of this driving along a main road – not towards the White Cliffs of Dover – but through a small town not that far from me in France last autumn. There lining the road outside a small house were an array of colourful figures including the one above one of a man about to raise his bowler hat, standing next to a sign saying Welcome to England. So, of course we had to stop and investigate. It was the garden created by Fernand Chatelain and what a hoot it turned out to be!
Fernand Chatelain was born in 1899 and spent his working life as a baker, but he also took on a smallholding in the village of Fyé 13 km south of Alencon and 46 km north of Le Mans. After he retired he and his wife Marie-Louise built their small house next to the main road between the two cities and, not wanting to be bored after a very active working life, he began to develop a garden, which showed his imagination and sense of humour.
Apart from experimenting with photography as a young man Fernand had no artistic training at all but that didn’t worry him in the slightest.
He began small, with a play on his name because every chatelaine must have a chateau, and all he had was a small modern house. His castle was the first step to filling the garden with not just a range of small buildings but a menagerie, a small human zoo and a collection of invented creatures too. His inspiration came from the news, from his travels and surprisingly from an old illustrated dictionary.
His creations were made courtesy of industrial and construction waste from his neighbour’s building yard, and other cheap or free domestically available materials. He usually started by wrapping chicken wire round a framework of the metal rods and grills used to reinforce concrete. While these are now standard materials in many modern gardens because they’re cheap, extremely resilient and blend in well with their surroundings, back in the 1960s and 70s this must have been quite a novelty.
Once the shape was right he stuffed it tightly with old newspapers and then covered the whole thing with several layers of cement render before it was painted in bright colours and varnished.
All in all he made about 70 pieces, most of them sited along the roadside, with Chatelain helpfully providing signs telling motorists how far it was to either Alençon or Le Mans. Before the motorway network took traffic away, this road was also also the main route for English tourists driving from Calais down to Spain.
When he realised this he added a few figures, such as the man in the bowler hat, deliberately aimed at cheering them up. Word about his collection spread through the local and regional press, then in 1978, photos appeared in an exhibition at Paris’s Museum of Modern Art curated by Claude and Clovis Prevost. They then featured them in a book, Bâtisseurs de l’Imaginaire [Builders of the the Imaginary].
Chatelain worked on his sculptures for some twenty years, often re-arranging or repainting them, but after his death in 1988 the site became neglected.
The paint faded, the concrete started to disintegrate and the site became overgrown. There was vandalism and some of the pieces were stolen. In 1995 his nephew persuaded Marie-Louise to bequeath the sculptures to the commune, and after her death the commune bought the house and grounds as well.
By then many of the pieces were decaying fast and in order to save them from complete ruination a conservation and protection programme was started in 2001. I suspect to everyone’s surprise the scheme was given the backing of UNESCO and this unlocked more money from various agencies.
Between 2005 and 2008 using photos by Fernand Chatelain himself , but also those taken by the Prevosts for their book, work was carried out by two professional restorers from the School of Fine Arts in Tours, at a cost of €150,000 This was largely financed by the state and regional government, with the local commune contributing just 20%. They worked on some 40 pieces, with others which were beyond repair or too fragile now stored in a barn on the site. As part of the longer-term management the site is now run by a small group of volunteers and is part of a European wide network of “Art Brut”.
The problem was, Dubuffet thought, that “mainstream culture”, somehow assimilated every new development in art, and in the process stifled its power of genuine new ways of seeing the world. Only “Art Brut” was immune to this and that’s because it was created by people who were self taught and not influenceable – children, the mentally ill, or artists like Chatelain who had no connection with, or interest in, the world of high art and a total disregard of public acclaim or other people’s opinions because their work was meant only for themselves.
In 1948, a group of friends including Dubuffet set up La Compagnie de l’art brut to uncover and exhibit such art. Dubuffet also had his own collection- a “museum without walls” – which he donated to the city of Lausanne and which now sits within the walls of the the Chateau de Beaulieu. The Collection de l’art brut currently has work by 400 different artists from all round the world but sadly none by Fernand Chatelain!
Dubuffet himself was always experimenting and was always clear about his aim:‘Art should always make you laugh a little and fear a little. Anything but bore’. He thought art should get back to its roots in nature and natural forms and so he hoped to overturn traditional notions of beauty.
“Look at what lies at your feet!” he once said. “A crack in the ground, sparkling gravel, a tuft of grass, some crushed debris offer equally worthy subjects for your applause and admiration.”
I have to admit that, personally, I find it hard to see any of those things reflected in his own sculpture. This tends to be on a huge scale and use more sophisticated materials and techniques than Fernand Chatelaine could ever have dreamt of. However, in his paintings Dubuffet was much more basic, mixing oil paint with unorthodox materials such as sand coal dust, or tar and even pebbles, pieces of glass, string, straw, plaster, or cement to create a thick paste which he laid on with anything that came to hand. Perhaps its not surprising that his critics called it ‘scraping the dustbin’!
There was an exhibition of Dubuffet’s work: “Brutal Beauty” at the Barbican last year and there’s an accompanying video that’s worth watching if you’re interested in knowing more. There is also the Dubuffet Foundation which apart from the information on its website has has a series of videos about his work.
While its true that France venerates, supports and usually heavily subsidises “high culture”, and prides itself being “propre” [which means much more than the literal translation of “proper”], the idea of “art brut” has proliferated. France must have the highest concentration of wacky gardens and art collections anywhere in Europe. There is even a national itinerary of some 30 sites, with a least a handful more that have not been officially included. You can check them all out here on this illustrated list. Many of these look interesting enough to make a special trip to see, so maybe one day when the pandemic is over…
So the question I referred to the beginning of this post and that I want to pose is ….are sites like Fernand Chatelain’s gardens, or the others of the same genre in the same league as Stowe, Stourhead or Wisley? Is it simply a question of taste? scale? intention? planting? But whatever your answer the follow on question then has to be…are they worth saving? And at what price?
The site, which includes more unrestored pieces and some photographs and documents about Chatelain, is open to the public on Sundays and public holidays from 2:30 pm to 6 pm in summer, and all year round, by appointment. The volunteers who look after the site are very welcoming and happy to tell you more.
While there’s is quite a bit written about “Outsider Art” and “Art Brut” in general, there’s very little detailed information about Fernand Chatelain and his work, and what there is in French. There’s a lengthy blog piece about the restoration, and several sites with old photos, as well as a radio broadcast about the restoration work and a 3 minute video made with his niece and nephew about the garden on YouTube. There is a collection of photos of Chatelain and many of his original pieces at the Francis David collection of Art Brut, and also an interesting website/blog which includes an inventory and documentary of art environments in Europe created by non-professionals.
And remember while you might not like or appreciate everything I’m sure Fernand and Marie-Louise had fun making it and, after all, it was probably more for their benefit than ours… and isn’t that what a garden is about?