While in the capital city of Luxembourg last week, I happened upon a mid-century building near the 'red bridge' which spans one of the gorges cutting through the city. Enticed by the geometric shapes of rocks of various colours stamped into concrete, I detoured to take a quick look and was pleasantly surprised. The Grand Theatre de Luxembourg was designed by Parisian architect Alain Bourbonnais and built in 1959-63, commissioned and completed in time for the city's millennium celebration. The building was renovated in 2002-03 by the Berlin architectural firm, Gerling + Arendt Planungsgesellschaft mbH, as it was in dire need of updated stage technologies, lighting and acoustics. The building is the city's major venue for ballet, drama and opera productions, and also hosted the Eurovision Song Contest twice, once in 1973 and again in 1984. Bourbonnais was also the architect of the beautiful modern church, l'eglise Stella Matutina in the western Paris suburb Saint-Cloud-Montretout, and of the gare de Nation, located on the edge of the 11th and 12th arrondissements of Paris.
Bourbonnais (1925 – 1988) was an enthusiastic collector of Art Brut. In 1983, he established The Fabuloserie, a museum for his collection in Dicy, France. His widow, Caroline Bourbonnais, still manages the museum today. Bourbonnais collected pieces by unknown artists outside the artist community – farmers, miners, factory workers, etc. The creators were all thinkers, inventors, tinkerers, who created art out of discarded objects. As a young man, Bourbonnais had aspired to be a painter, but practicality and his parent's urges led him to architecture, which gave him the creative canvas he seeked. While on a site visit in the central country of France, he spotted some strange figurine creatures on the shelf of a pub. The barman told Bourbonnais that the Innkeeper carved them out of tree roots he found in the nearby dam. Caroline recounts how from that point on, whenever they took a holiday in the country, Alain would say to the locals, "We heard that in the region, there is a man or woman, we do not know very well, which makes things not seen anywhere else." Inevitably, they would be directed to these creators who Caroline said were often locked in their solitary, dream-like world. Then Alain arrived unexpectedly and gave them the praise, assurance and acceptance that they had been longing for, a "moment of grace". Michel Ragon, art critic and friend of Bourbonnais, said The Fabuloserie was not a museum per se, but a cabinet of curiosities. It is a celebration of nonconformity, of 'art outside the standards'.
One of the most celebrated artists on show is Pierre Avezard, affectionately known as Petit Pierre. Born partially deaf and with physical deformities, Pierre grew up on the outside, taken out of school after only two years and ignored by most of those around him. In effect, he developed an astute eye for observation and a profound ability to understand how things worked mechanically. He tinkered with metal scraps found around his parent's farm and created a crane propelled by his bicycle which he used to drop beets into the pen of his favourite cow. His most well-known work is the carousel now housed at The Fabuloserie. For 20 years (1937-57), Pierre worked on his beloved carousel, collecting materials which the rest of society regarded as worthless. Many curious onlookers were drawn to see his gigantic undertaking and he charmed them with his unguarded kindness and exceptionally unique vision. One visitor's recount of his experience demonstrates the awe inspired by the intricacy of the spectacle. "The magic was beginning to invade the soul of every visitor: the small world tin animated in a whirlwind of fantasy in which fantasy and reality blended perfectly. Bicycles, trucks, carts circulated in all directions, planes circling in the sky, the village policeman sat down at [a] table, a few couples whirling, a ball field, a skytrain and a cable passing over the heads, fishermen came out of big fish in April, a cyclist trying to catch a rail car without end, the farm animals were moving here and there." Video of Petit Pierre's creations at The Fabuloserie.
"We live, yes, in a materialist society so commonplace, and stressed over the market because the race to the carrot is more rapid than our imagination, our vital need for dreams we are stolen." Caroline attests that in this society, The Fabuloserie stands as a "message of hope, faith in man to do by giving those who are not allowed to plunder their imagination." Caroline's full account of the creation of The Fabuloserie can be read here.
New York Times article of Petit Pierre and The Fabuloserie.
Caroline Engel for Danish Teak Classics