First published: Spring 2000
Few artists can claim to live and breathe their work to the same extent as Raymond Isidore (1900–1964), whose house in Chartres was also his masterpiece. Mosaics of broken glass and crockery adorn the building, its courtyards and interior, covering even the sewing machine and coffee grinder. Only the white sheets in the bedroom were left unadulterated. Yet Raymond Isidore never considered himself to be an artist.
A graveyard sweeper by day, he devoted 30 years, 29,000 hours and 15 tons of crockery to this project, in an effort to escape the monotony of his everyday existence. He could probably never have imagined that his house, La Maison Picassiette, would attract over 30,000 visitors each year, and be the subject of a 1998 Channel 4 TV production, called 'Journeys into the Outside', narrated by British pop icon Jarvis Cocker. Even Isidore's nickname conveys the happy coincidence of unskilled misfit and artistic genius that encapsulates the notion of outsider art.
Christened 'Picassiette' by a journalist, Isidore, as the pun implies, is both a scavenger (pique-assiette) and a great twentieth-century artist.
The legend began in 1928, when Raymond Isidore acquired 4 acres of fallow land for 450 francs and determined to build a house for his wife and three stepchildren. In the course of one year, working in the evenings and on Sundays, he built a small home consisting simply of a kitchen and two bedrooms.
Then, in 1937, he began to cover the outside walls of his house with mosaics of an unusual kind. Hunting in quarries and rubbish-tips, Picassiette collected tea-spouts, broken ashtrays and colourful perfume bottles with which to create geometric designs and symbolic narratives. He made mortar from limestone and sand, which was tinted ochre and blue with crushed cement and blue chalk, and his only tools were a trowel, a soup-spoon, a fork and a pocket-knife.
On the front wall of the house, scenes of Jerusalem and Chartres mingle with iconic female figures, the exotic, sensual Palestinian and the pure and maternal French woman. These first designs mark the beginning of a preoccupation with religion, death, the feminine and the exotic – universal themes that recur in his mosaics.