The Louvre. The Uffizi. The Tate Modern. The National Palace Museum. For most foreign travelers, art museums rank at the very top of must-visit lists and for good reason: they’re safe. That is, everyone visits them.
However, international travelers willing to venture slightly off the beaten path have long enjoyed an entirely different breed of art experience, with experience being the key word here: art that’s decidedly less conventional and, if you’re lucky, doesn’t involve hundreds of camera-wielding out-of-towners clamoring to get a peek at the same exact thing.
To complement our list of the top outsider art environments in the United States, we’ve expanded our horizons for a look at five of the foremost international visionary art environments. Dotting the globe from the Tuscan coast to the foothills of the Himalayas to the South African outback, these artistic monuments are deeply personal, intensively imaginative and for those who visit them, totally unforgettable.
Similar to our list of stateside visionary art hotspots, the environments you’ll find here are mostly, but not exclusively, the work of self-taught, marginalized artists; are the product of years, sometimes decades of work; and often involve the extensive use of indigenous and recycled materials. PBS Off the Map sums it up nicely: “Visionary artists make art because they feel like they have to make it — it comes from a strong inner belief, or ‘vision.’”
And because five is such a restrictive number, we’ve also included a shortlist of five more weird and wonderful fantasy worlds found across the globe. And please do add to our list in the comments section; tell us the name and location of an international visionary art environment — be it in Europe, Asia, Africa, South America or beyond — that’s stuck with you.
The Garden of Tarot (Niki de Saint Phalle) — Pescia Fiorentina, Italy
Ah, Tuscany … the sleepy vineyards, the olive tree-dotted hills, the postcard-perfect sunsets, the psychedelic sculpture gardens that will leave you thinking that somebody slipped something in your Chianti when you weren’t looking.
Located on the southern coast of Tuscany in the province of Grosseto, Il Giardino dei Tarocchi was completed and opened to the public in 1998, the 20-year labor of love dreamt up by late Franco-American painter and sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle. Famous for exuberantly cartoonish sculptures bedecked in bold hues and sporting impressive bosoms (think Keith Haring meets Peter Paul Rubens), only at the Garden of Tarot will you find such a weird and wonderful assemblage of Saint Phalle’s work in a single location. Inspired by the visionary environments of Antoni Gaudí and Simon Rodia, in 1978 Saint Phalle set out to build her own monumental sculpture park with a notably esoteric twist: clad in an eye-popping array of colored glass, mirrors and ceramics, the garden’s massive concrete and steel structures each represent one of the 22 cards found in the tarot’s Major Arcana deck.
All are interactive, conceived by Saint Phalle to be touched, climbed, stepped inside of, experienced. On that note, De Phalle, on occasion, even lived inside The Empress, one of the garden’s more imposing — and buxom — statues that takes the form of a kaleidoscopic sphinx-woman (yep, there’s an honest to goodness apartment, complete with bathroom and kitchen, within the sculpture). Built by De Phalle with the help of local craftsmen and her husband, the Swiss artist Jean Tinguely, the Garden of Tarot was partially financed by sales of Saint Phalle’s signature perfume line.
Le Palais Ideal (Ferdinand Cheval) — Hauterives, France
(Photo: Xavier Devroey/Flickr)
Fifteen years after dreaming that he “had built a palace, a castle or caves,” postman Ferdinand Cheval was out on his rounds in rural southeastern France when he tripped — and nearly fell — on an intriguing-looking limestone rock. He picked it up, admired its beauty and put it in his pocket. The following day, he returned to the spot of his near-accident and pocketed some more stones. And the day after that, he did the same.
And so, in 1879, Cheval’s obsessive stone-gathering routine began, continuing for 33 years. At night, when Cheval wasn’t filling his pockets with rocks while making his daily rounds as district facteur (he eventually switched to a basket and then a wheelbarrow at the insistence of his wife who had tired of mending his busted pockets), he was hard at work erecting Le Palais Ideal, a massive limestone monument executed in a fantastical mash-up of architectural styles. Once completed in 1912, Cheval’s self-built stone castle started to gain a fair amount of attention – and some local notoriety – along with hordes of curiosity-seekers.
Today the structure, declared a Monument Historique by the French government, remains one of the world’s foremost outsider art environments and continues to attract visitors by the busload. One thing you won’t find at Le Palais Ideal, however, is Cheval himself. Although he had wanted to be buried within the alcazar alongside his wife, local authorities put the kibosh on that plan. And so, Cheval spent another several years erecting a secondary stone structure, a mausoleum, in the local cemetery. He was interred there in 1924, a year after its completion. Reads a quote from Cheval inscribed into his palace’s walls: “I was not a builder, I had never handled a mason’s trowel, I was not a sculptor. The chisel was unknown to me; not to mention architecture, a field of which I remained totally ignorant … Everything you can see, passer-by, is the work of one peasant, who, out of a dream, created the queen of the world.”
The Owl House (Helen Martins) — Nieu-Bethesda, South Africa
(Photo: andy carter/Flickr)
Like with many other self-taught outsider artists who have come before and after her, Helen Martins’ vision came to her later in life. In this instance, it was when a divorced and depressive Martins, returned to her isolated Karoo hometown in 1920 to care for her aging parents. When her mother died in 1941 followed by her father in 1945, the reclusive Martins, already regarded by other villagers as a bit of a kook, was left alone with no one to look after – and no one to look after her. And so, to occupy herself, she started to transform her parents’ homestead into what’s now known as the Owl House. Outside the home, a sign that reads “This is my world” still hangs to this day.
And what a world it is. Considered one of South Africa’s most important works of outsider art, the interior of Owl House is completely clad in colored crushed glass and specially cut mirrors; outside of the home, the so-called Camel Yard is populated by over 300 concrete and glass sculptures of humans and animals including more than a few owls and even-toed ungulates, all east-facing to reflect Martins’ fascination with the holy city of Mecca and Eastern religion. Although largely shunned by the community, Martins didn’t work alone. She recruited several local men to help her transform the property into a shimmering, quasi-religious wonderland. These men included Koos Malgas, a sheep shearer who later became Martins’ most trusted confidante and collaborator. The Apartheid-era friendship between Martins, a white woman, and Malgas, a black man, scandalized the village even further.
In 1976, crippled by arthritis and depressed over her declining eyesight (some say that all the reflective surfaces inside her home played a role in this), Martins took her own life by ingesting caustic soda. She was 78. As Martins wished, the Owl House and Camel Yard continue to operate as a public museum. South African playwright Athol Fugard brought Martins’ life to the stage in the acclaimed 1985 play “The Road to Mecca.” The play was adapted into a film in 1991 and produced on Broadway in 2011 with Rosemary Harris in the role of Martins.
Park Güell (Antoni Gaudí) — Barcelona
(Photo: Patrik Bergström/Flickr)
The oft-imitated granddaddy of visionary artists/architects, Antoni Gaudí is to Barcelona as what muralist Isaiah Zagar is to South Philadelphia — that is, his work is playfully woven into the surrounding cityscape; it’s difficult, near impossible, to experience Barcelona as a whole without also experiencing Gaudí. Catalonia’s most famous son is everywhere.
That being said, while most first-time visitors to the Spanish city fuel up on sangria and beeline it toward Gaudí’s towering (and yet-to-be-completed) magnum opus, Sagrada Família, it’s the sprawling, shimmering wonderland of meandering footpaths, surrealist structures, view-heavy hillside plazas and kaleidoscopic mosaics known as Park Güell (completed 1914) where you can linger for hours on end and really, truly loose yourself in Gaudí’s work. Simply put, a visit to Park Güell is like stepping into a dream. Plus, no trip to Barcelona is complete without snapping a selfie with the fantastical park’s iconic salamander fountain, aka el drac, or resting your tired heels (please, do yourself a favor and buy yourself a box of Epsom salts in advance) on the undulating Banc de Trencadis — the famed “snake bench” is allegedly the longest bench in the world.
It’s worth nothing that Park Güell was originally planned not as a public garden but as a large residential development strategically located at a remove from the hustle and bustle (and pollution) of Barcelona on the slopes of El Carmel hill to the north of the city. However, interest in the Catalan version of an English garden city was minimal and only two homes were built as part of the DOA development, neither by Gaudí. And so, following the death of the development’s mastermind, the industrialist Eusebi Güell, the land was handed over to the city and opened to the public as a park in 1922. Park Güell was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
Rock Garden of Chandigarh (Nek Chand) — Chandigarh, India
(Photo: Rishabh Mathur/Flickr)
A sprawling, waterfall-heavy wonderland of walled pathways, curious monuments and sculptures created from recycled demolition waste and household rubbish, the Rock Garden of Chandigarh is no doubt an impressive work of visionary art. But what’s really impressive is how the man behind one of India’s top tourist attractions, Nek Chand, got away with it all.
You see, the Rock Garden of Chandigarh was built illegally and on the sly during the middle night by a trash-collecting road inspector named Nek Chand. Starting as a modest garden and growing to a nearly 12-acre complex consisting of hundreds of sculptures and interconnecting courtyards by the time it was discovered in 1975, it was nearly 20 years before authorities finally stumbled across Chand’s secret garden tucked away on deeply wooded, government-owned conservancy land near Sukhna Lake. You’d think that the discovery of the incredibly crafty Chand’s forbidden, fantastical sanctuary would involve heartache, bulldozers and jail time. But despite calls for the garden to be demolished and for the law-breaking artist to be punished for violating the utopian city of Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier-conceived master plan, Chand, in the end, was allowed to keep the garden. In fact, he was provided with a salary and dedicated staff, an official title of “Creator-Director,” and encouraged to expand the private hideaway into a public park. Talk about a best case scenario, eh?
Now spread across nearly 40 acres and second only to the Taj Mahal in India’s tourism department, the Rock Garden of Chandigarh has experienced some hard knocks over the years including widespread acts of vandalism that occurred while Chand was out of the country for a month on a speaking tour in 1996. That incident, and the governmental scandal that resulted from it, birthed the Nek Chand Foundation, a nonprofit organization that ensures Chand’s work with remain preserved, protected and open to the pubic for many years to come.
5 more unforgettable visionary art environments located outside the U.S.:
Bruno Weber Sculpture Park: Dietikon, Switzerland
Las Pozas by Edward James: Xilitla, Mexico
Har Paw Villa by Aw Boon Haw: Singapore
Hermit House by Nissim Cachlon: Herzliya, Israel
Tower of Eben-Ezer by Robert Garcet: Bassenge, Belgium