It’s the kind of split that can make the most inflexible minds cringe. Like Jeff Koons’ lobster suspended at the Palace of Versailles in 2008, like McCarthy’s sex-toy installed on Place Vendôme in 2014, Jean-Michel Othoniel invests the Ideal Palace of the postman Cheval, in the Drôme, to celebrate the 110th anniversary of his construction.

Jean-Michel Othoniel, the darling of the Emmanuel Perrotin gallery, became a member of the Academy of Fine Arts in 2018. A major artist responding to public commissions since 2000, he is notably responsible for the metro entrance to the Palais station -Royal, transformed into the Kiosque des noctambules, the grove of the water theater in the garden of the Palace of Versailles. The State artist entered the Louvre in 2019, the Petit Palais in 2021 during the temporary exhibition The Theorem of Narcissus – one of his works is now part of the collection.

His new exhibition, Le Rêve de l’eau, which is held in the Ideal Palace of the postman Cheval until November 6, offers an encounter with the venerable work of an Immortal in a green coat, grafted on that of the humblest of humble, an autodidact. Does the paradoxical meeting of academicism and art brut make a good match here or a big merry-go-round?

“Horse is a sober, reserved character”, explains to us on the spot Frédéric Legros, director of the Ideal Palace since 2019. But contrary to what one might think nowadays, the function of “postal official”, in this Drôme of the late 19th century, is no small trade. Ferdinand Cheval went to school for 5 years, unusual for a man born in 1836, almost half a century before Jules Ferry made education compulsory in 1882. Cheval is a postman because he can read . Also read the mail to the illiterate who receive it. Horse reads everything. The first illustrated magazines, which have just been published, postcards from all over the world since travel is becoming more democratic. Horse travels 30 to 40 kilometers on foot each day to cover a tour too steep to be contemplated by bicycle. “And what does a walking man do, asks the director of the Palace? He’s dreaming. »

Ferdinand Cheval invents a composite mental palace. His imagination gallops between an extraordinary view of the city of Algiers at the Taj Mahal, passes from a Greek philosopher to fabulous florescences. Until the day when, in the spring of 1879, Cheval, 43 years old, stumbles on an extraordinarily shaped stone which he digs up. “It looks like a cloud,” says Othoniel, who reproduced it by molding it into glass sconces that illuminate the underground gallery. The stone inspired the postman with a now famous phrase: “If nature wants to do sculpture, I will do masonry and architecture.” »

From then on, during his rounds, Cheval collects the stones that capture his attention, reserves them on the side of the road. His task accomplished, he embarked on a second round. Pushing his wheelbarrow in front of him, he loads his loot, brings it to the allotment where he cultivates his vegetable garden. At nightfall, lit by candle or kerosene lamp, Cheval, without any technical or artistic knowledge, but practically inventing reinforced concrete by dipping iron rods in lime and cement, begins the slow elaboration of his dream.

After 33 years of effort, the palace is complete. People come to see it from all over the world. Even the American press talks about it and Cheval poses in the photo…

More than half a century later, Stéphanois Jean-Michel Othoniel, “little child of the 1970s, plastic, colors, bell legs”, as he says, comes to split “the jungle” which then surrounds the Palace. From the age of 6, every summer, to visit her mother, a farm girl then a maid in this “very isolated, very austere” region, her mother, a teacher, “on the lookout for what could make teaching more exciting for his children” takes them into the syncretic maze of Cheval. “As a child, I think what interested me was the complete freedom of the postman. To move from one universe to another, the disturbing side of the caves, the underground gallery, the monsters everywhere. A raw art in which children “easily project themselves”, because “less intimidating, even disinhibiting”, specifies Othoniel, who admits to having since become a “great fan” of this free art.

But beyond elective affinities and a common family ground, if Othoniel was invited by Frédéric Legros to invest the space of the Ideal Palace – “a closed world, with its own madness, where there is nothing to add”, and which he approached in a “homeopathic and poetic” way”, specifies the artist -, it is to realize “the big dream” of the postman: to put the Palace in water.

“It’s something that only existed at the time in a very ephemeral way!” explains the director. When he completed his work in 1912, Cheval hired a maid, Julia Micoud. Every afternoon, when visitors show up, she hides in the tower and throws buckets of water to run the fountains and waterfalls. “A hidden water network, which did not really work”, specifies Frédéric Legros, but underlines the dimension close to the “happening” that the visit of the Palace by its creator reserves.

The exhibition Le Rêve de l’eau, by Othoniel, stained glass, beads and glass bricks made in India on which water flows and rustles, “revives the postman’s dream”, until November 6.

Le Rêve de l’eau, by Jean-Michel Othoniel, at the Ideal Palace of the Horseman, from May 14 to November 6, 2022.