June 15, 2016

Jeanne Devidal, La maison de la folle / The house of the silly lady

this picture and the next one © Louis Motrot, 1988.

Above singular architecture, a structure surrounded with enigmas which existed until 1991 in Saint-Lunaire, Brittany, France, was photographed in 1988 by Louis Motrot, a historian living in neighbouring Saint-Malo ¹.

Life and works

Born in 1908 in the Breton town of Brest as daughter of a couple with five children that run a pub and traded in wine, Jeanne Devidal in 1926 moved to Paris where she went to work with the french national postal and telephone company.

In 1941, during World War II, she was reassigned to Boucé, a community some 200 km west of Paris in territory occupied by the Germans. She lived there with her older sister Leonie Devidal. It might be that she was part of a network of resistance fighters and that she intercepted messages. Just before the liberation of France most members of the cell were arrested and executed (the massacre of Riaux).

It is very likely that the two sisters because of this event did acquire a war trauma, but Jeanne Devidal would never talk about this period in her life.

In 1947 together with her mother and sister (her father and two brothers had died) Jeanne settled in the community of Saint-Lunaire, where they opened a shop in haberdashery named Chez Jeannette.

She acquired a piece of land near the part of the beach known as Longchamp where she had a house built in the pavillion style as usual along this coast.

In 1953, from mid april until mid november, Jeanne's sister Léonie was included in the psychiatric hospital in Rennes. She would never return to Saint-Lunaire. Then Jeanne's mother died, whereupon Jeanne herself in 1956 from mid january until end april was hospitalized in the same psychiatric hospital.

this picture © Pierre Quero, 1990.

Jeanne Devidal now lived alone in the house in Saint-Lunaire.

It is unknown why, but in 1957 she began to transform the house into an art environment. It has been reported that she made decorations in a rather artistic way, creating bas reliefs with inlaid shells, making paintings and sculptures. However, to my knowledge, no pictures of the house's interior are available on the internet.

Apart from making decorations, Jeanne Devidal also began enlarging the house by adding new walls and annexes, using not only cement, but also a variety of unusual materials, such as shoes, crates, driftwood from the beach and boxes of sardines, producing a tangle of constructive elements, fenced windows, overhangs and motives, combined with miscellaneous stones, wooden elements, found objects and vegetation. The interior became a maze of galleries and rooms.

Inhabitants of Saint-Lunaire nicknamed Jeanne Devidal la folle de Saint-Lunaire (the silly lady of Saint-.Lunaire), but Agathe Oléron, who made a documentary film about her (first presented spring 2016) assesses this as unjustified: ".....(she) was an artist. She did not just build a strange house. She painted, drew, sculpted and wrote on the walls. She lived in her art".

© Pierre Quero, 1990
(Pierre Quero, engineer and expert for the Court of Appeal 
in Rennes in 1990 reported the municipality 
of Saint-Lunaire about the status of the house)
Jeanne Devidal has been active in constructing and decorating exterior and interior of this singular architecture for some 35 years, often starting at 5 or 6 o'clock in the morning, always covered with a scarf, a hat or a hood.

As an explanation for her activities it has been suggested that she, haunted by delusions, sought protection behind the walls she built, but Agathe Oléron, who in preparing her film talked with many people who somehow have known Jeanne Devidal, thinks there is no single univocal statement available.

In the 1980s the site was visited by many tourists, often via buses of tour operators and local residents who considered this annoying, did not understand that the local authorities tolerated the unlicensed structure. The story went that Jeanne Devidal enjoyed protection by high ranking persons.

drawing 50 x 65 cm, paper, pencil, graphite 
© Agathe Oléron, 2013 (click to enlarge)

In 1987 the building withstood a severe storm, but during Christmas 1990 an observation tower collapsed, whereby Jeanne Devidal was hit. Firefighters found her among the rubble, fortunately only slightly injured. She was hospitalized and thereafter she went to live in a sheltered accommodation in Saint Briac. There she lived for seventeen years until she passed away in july 2008, almost a hundred years old.

Following a decision of the mayor, supported by a report on the status of the building in terms of security to the public, Jeanne Devidal's singular architecture was demolished in 1991. It was replaced by a conventional coastal pavilion.

Documentary film by Agathe Oléron (2016)

In her first full length documentary film Agathe Oléron seeks to portray Jeanne Devidal and her singular architecture. In an interview she relates her experiences when as a young child she for the first time saw the house. She felt as if Jeanne Devidal had made a giant sand castle to protect herself and that the next wave would swallow up everything:"For me it was impossible to live in such a house, it was scary".

© graphic design Agathe Oléron, 2016   
© picture Pascal Pignol, 1981 

She relates that Jeanne Devidal was highly respected by the adults of the community: "Everyone has appropriated the character and each time it evoked in the people a happy memory, a mystery, something pleasant".

First presented on June 3, 2016 to the inhabitants of Saint-Lunaire, the film will circulate in France. Here is the trailer (1'16", YouTube, published October 2016)

More documentation
Article in regional journal Le pays malouin 30-12-2015
* Another article in Le pays malouin, on the occasion of Agathe Oléron's film, 1-6-2016
* Article in regional journal Ouest France 31-12-2015
* Website Habitants-paysagistes (by Lille Art Museum, from March 2018 on) has an entry with a variety of photographs by Francis David (1988), l'Aracine (1981-1996) and documentary panels (1985-1995) by André Escard

¹  I want to thank Agathe Oléron for the additional information she sent me

first published June 2016, last revised July 2023

Jeanne Devidal
La maison de la "folle de Saint-Lunaire"
boulevard des Tilleuls
Saint-Lunaire, dept Ille-et-Vilaine, region Brittany, France
site doesn't exist anymore

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