The Sculpted Rocks of Rothéneuf

Mar 10, 2022 0 comments

In 1879 in a small town in the south-east of France called Châteauneuf-de-Galaure, a postman began the construction of a fantastic palace, which took 33 years to complete and which today bears his name, Palais Cheval.

Some 15 years later, at the other end of the country on the coast of Brittany, a priest known as Father Fouré began the creation of an equally fantastic set of seaside sculptures, earning him the nickname of the Breton Cheval.

Photo: Gilles San Martin/Wikimedia

His real name was Adolphe Julien Fouéré and he was ordained a priest in 1863. He served in several parishes until a vascular problem in 1894 caused him to practically lose his hearing, forcing him to retire. He took refuge in the small village of Rothéneuf (the birthplace of the explorer Jacques Cartier), about five kilometers northeast of Saint-Malo.

There, with no previous artistic knowledge, he became interested in sculpture and began a work framed in the incipient Art Brut (art created outside the limits of official culture), the interest in primitivism and the exotic, and the naive or naïve.

Between 1894 and 1907 he created numerous sculptures in wood, which anyone could see by visiting his house, which he had turned into a sort of museum. He sculpted everything from totem poles to political figures of the time, saints, mythological beings, animals, whose shape was usually adapted to the shape of the piece of wood he carved.

Adolphe Julien Fouéré. Photo: 

But undoubtedly his most famous work is the more than 300 sculptures he carved directly on the granite rocks along the Emerald Coast (Côte d'Émeraude), a monumental outdoor work exposed to marine erosion.

The ensemble includes free-standing figures and mainly bas-reliefs, which Fouré polychromed with bright colors (according to the author's own writings, mostly in blue, light yellow, maroon and chocolate colors), and whose features he emphasized by applying tar.

They represent fantastic figures from his imagination, but also from his readings of history and geography, and from the current events read in the newspapers. Thus, we find references to the first Boer War in southern Africa, to the work of missionaries in the French colonies, and scenes that evoke remote places such as China, Russia or Japan.

Photo: Fanoflesage/Wikimedia

Among the characters represented are the legendary Irish saint Saint Budoc de Dol, who ended his days in French Finisterre, who appears twice (once in his tomb). And Jacques Cartier (first French explorer in America), one of the most repeated themes since we find it not only in the rocks but also in some wooden sculptures.

Cleopatra, Napoleon, Emperor Faustino of Haiti , Queen Behanzin of Dahomey, Queen of Saba, Queen Victoria, Merlin or Gargantua, are some of the characters that can be identified among the sculptures.

Each winter Fouré would restore the sculptures, cleaning and repainting them so they would be ready for the next wave of visitors during the summer. Such was the expectation that in 1896 the city of Saint-Malo set up a tram line especially to deal with the large influx of tourists who came to see the rocks.

Photo: Bernd Brägelmann/Wikimedia

A paralysis in 1907, which also affected his speech, forced Fouré to interrupt practically all his activities, including sculpture. He died three years later, on February 10, 1910, when Cheval, to whom he had been compared, was still two years from completing his famous palace.

During the following years his work continued to become popular and numerous curious people flocked to Rothéneuf to see the strange sculptures on the rocks of the coast. In 1925, 80,000 annual visits were counted. In 2012 the place was still receiving about 40,000 visits a year.

Over time the works made of wood disappeared and today the whereabouts of none of them are known. The sculptures made on the rocks by the sea also began to deteriorate, losing all their polychromy. Little by little, seawater, saltpeter and inclement weather are eroding them to the point that today they are in danger of disappearing.

Since 2010 there has been an association of friends of Father Fouré's work that tries to preserve his memory, holding exhibitions, guided tours, and maintenance work on the sculptures.

Photo: Infernal Quack/Wikimedia

Photo: Michel Lefrancq/Wikimedia

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


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