Caroline Bourbonnais died on10 August last, at the age of 90. One of a generation of admirable women to have presided over a distinctive collection of marginal art, she had for decades collaborated with her husband Alain Bourbonnais (1925–1988), aiming to discover the best specimens of what they dubbed art hors-les-normes (‘art beyond the norms’), also known as art singulier. A successful architect and mischievous artist in his own right, Alain had been collecting for several years when Jean Dubuffet encouraged him to set up a gallery in Paris. Alain and Caroline opened their Atelier Jacob in 1972 with a show of drawings by Aloïse Corbaz. They ran it successfully for a decade, before moving out to the village of Dicy, in the country some way south of Paris, to open a museum under the alluring name of La Fabuloserie.
Their house sits by a lake full of ducks, whose bank serves as an outdoor sculpture gallery; while a large barn houses the bulk of the collection. The Fabuloserie gradually developed a distinctive orientation, largely thanks to Caroline, who became sole keeper of the site after her husband’s death in 1988. She cultivated an atmosphere of celebration and fun, attracting a stream of visitors in every age group.
Among her achievements was the restoration of a complicated merry-go-round devised by the illiterate cowherd Pierre Avezard. The site gained a reputation for the fantastical machines, toys and objects produced by the likes of Émile Ratier, François Monchâtre and Pascal Verbena, not to mention the hilarious tableaux mounted by Francis Marshall, the dolls adorned by Simone Le Carré Galimard and the cement statuary of Camille Vidal. The implicit trend of Caroline’s efforts was to move away from what she saw as Dubuffet’s emphasis on things sad or cruel. Her warm and buoyant personality brought laughter into the museum, which never became a solemn shrine.
Allergic to theory, Caroline saw her role as opening her guests’ eyes to the startling energy and inventiveness of the self-reliant artist. She managed the Fabuloserie with an alert eye to the wider world, loaning works to shows across Europe and sustaining a unique project within an idyllic rural setting, a place of generosity and peaceful exchange which welcomed the frequent visits of the creators themselves. It now falls to her daughters, Agnès and Sophie, to continue her good work.
by Roger Cardinal