written in my kitchen

Whimsy and the French
August 21, 2023

Whimsy is not something that those of Anglo-Saxon extraction are truly comfortable with except when it combines with the sort of monomaniacal madness that only the French seem capable of. Then, even though we don’t quite understand it, we do warm to it. Such as that encountered today, right on my doorstep – so to speak – in the Saône-et-Loire region where I live. It took me back years, to the time we visited Hautrives in the Auvergne and discovered the bizarre construction that was the work of near a lifetime for postman Ferdinand Cheval. His massive structure aptly named ‘Le Palais Ideal’ began with one small pebble found on his daily delivery round. That pebble sparked a consuming passion and its eventual transmogrification into one vast folly. It did earn the praise of André Breton and Pablo Picasso though. ‘Le Palais Ideal’ became a by-word of that special French eccentricity and a nationally protected landmark in 1969, and while it is not beautiful, it does have a grotesque sort of grandeur. More importantly – it has this preposterous quality – anarchic and slightly insane. A true expression of whimsy – capricious, idiosyncratic and eccentric yet, nevertheless, the creation of a gentle and wholly harmless man.

I said to Tam, ‘Stop, stop, go back!’ ‘What? Why? I can’t, there’s nowhere to stop and there’s someone right behind me.’ So we continued on, but noted the name of the village we were passing through and agreeing to stop on the way back. Which we did. And found another of those ridiculously mad constructions. How many are there in France, do you think? How many creators with the space to pace out their fantasies and the time to build them are there here? I don’t know the answer to this but in a land where few like to stand out from the crowd, after all liberté, egalité, and fraternité, roughly translated, means: no-one is to stick their head above the parapet – one for all and all for one – no deviating please. Exceptions to the rule are rare. In France, individual geniuses always seem a bit thin on the ground and that’s why it is worth stopping to wonder when you see true idiosyncrasy writ large upon a building.
This particular one, known as the Chateau Bresse-et-Castille stands in the village of Damery – a place with no other obvious signs of waywardness, and is a monument to a singleminded eccentricity. Sadly for us, we missed being able to visit by a couple of years. Now closed up and looking a little forlorn, the ‘chateau’ is the work of Roger Mercier. He continued to add to his life’s work until he died, aged 92, in 2018. The place almost defies description: a fairly ordinary building whose exterior he decorated with all manner of fantastical birds and beasts; a courtyard filled with scenes depicting life in Castille, overlooked by the 22 metre high tower he built on his own using neither crane or scaffolding. The sheer amount of hard labour involved in his single-minded, single-handed construction is awesome and testament to mans’ ability to achieve something heroic when he puts his mind to it. This is folk art on a grand scale conjured from the hands, heart and head of an individual with passion, drive and a dream.

Le Chateau Bresse-et-Castille

You might cite the Taj Mahal or the Brighton Pavilion as equally potty edifices that are not in France; it’s true they do embody the fantastical but they are not really whimisical. I’m reminded too, of Callum’s road on the Isle of Raasay in Skye, Scotland, which shares something of the heroic spirit of ‘Le Palais Ideal’ and the ‘Chateau Bresse-et-Castille’ insofar as it is the result of one ordinary working man’s imagination and single-mindedness. Except Callum’s road isn’t whimsical either having been built with a purpose – to construct a mile of driveable road to connect his home with the nearest bus-stop because his local council wouldn’t.

Once open to the idea of French whimsy one begins to see it all around. It’s a form of self-expression that is both gentle and kind and just a little bit odd. I spot it when we are parking in a knitted parking directive; it’s manifesting itself florally in some activity in the town; I even see it in a studied display on a stall at the ‘Vide Grenier’ we went to on Sunday. worth going to just for the wilder flights of fancy frequently on display; even the kid’s nursery we pass is having a ‘moment’..

This very French whimsicality finds expression in other art forms. Think of a man with a moustache, in a stripy t-shirt and a beret; add white face paint, white gloves and heavy black makeup to the mix. Marcel Marceau. The very image of a traditional French mime artist, so integral a feature of the country’s cultural heritage that it has become something of a national symbol. Mime – or the acting out of a story using gesture but no speech – is, nowadays, definitely seen as a French thing. Music too – those funny lyrical songs composed by such as Jacques Brel (yes, I know he was Belgian but he lived and died in France). Movies too – Monsieur Hulot – comes to mind – Jacques Tati and Fernandel – and in more modern times – the wonderful ‘Belleville Rendez-Vous’.

The tradition is alive and well – witness the summer face of France, its streets decorated with lampshades balloons, umbrellas, and even paper knickers, all made by local people. This is true whimsy – artless art.

And a few days ago we attended an evening of entertainment at the L’Embarqu’, at Tournus. A fairly whimsical enterprise in itself; it’s a sort of social club that costs an annual subscription of 2 euros. Run by volunteers, it puts on all sorts of events including live shows. On this occasion, (and even were one French you’d still be hard put to know what actually was going on), we enjoyed a truly whimsical spectacle. On stage, an oddly-dressed couple duet-ed on a number of unlikely instruments – from 6 string banjo, to Indian surpeta, to double bass and tuba. They sang comical songs, obviously well-known to their audience, who happily sang along, clapped and swayed and shook their arms in all the right places. The whole performance rather defies description – a sort of mass whimsy – but could be regarded as the musical equivalent to ‘Le Chateau-Bresse-et-Castille’.

So, next time you visit France, try viewing the country from this different perspective – look around you and you will find examples of French whimsicality everywhere. Become a collector.

Useful websites