The drawings of Victor Hugo—author of Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris among other novels, influential poet and playwright, prolific critic and political commentator—are far less known than his literary output. This is partly because he insisted on distinguishing what he referred to as “mediocre pen-and-ink lines” or “vagaries of the unknowing hand” from his epochal public writing. Yet it’s clear today not only that Hugo was a remarkable draftsman but that he was stylistically ahead of his time. In this essay from our March 1999 issue, A.i.A. managing editor Richard Vine discusses an exhibition of Hugo’s graphic work held at the Drawing Center in New York. —Eds.
“I’m very happy and very proud that you should choose to think kindly of what I call my pen-and-ink drawings. I’ve ended up mixing in pencil, charcoal, sepia, coal dust, soot and all sorts of bizarre concoctions which manage to convey more or less what I have in view, and above all in mind. It keeps me amused between two verses.”
—Victor Hugo, from a letter to Charles Baudelaire, April 29, 1860.
IT IS PROBABLY a mistake, though a virtually inescapable one, to see the drawings of Victor Hugo (1802–1885) as an instance of modernism avant la lettre. Certainly the recent state-of-the-art installation of some 102 examples (out of roughly 3,000 extant) at the Drawing Center in New York seemed to invite comparisons with twentieth-century visual artists rather than nineteenth-century belletrists. The selections in the admirably coherent “Shadows of a Hand” were grouped chronologically by technique, as for a formalist survey. In dim, conservatorially correct lighting, each work hung in splendid isolation—iconically remote not only from its companions in the exhibition but, more anachronistically, from the letters, manuscript pages, calling cards, and albums that originally linked them to Hugo’s daily world.
Given this French writer’s reputation for self-aggrandizement, one can understand why the curators—Florian Rodari, a French-Swiss curator and critic, and Ann Philbin, the Drawing Center’s then executive director—decided to limit the atmospherics to a few concise, informative text panels. The author was a prodigy of nature, a self-proclaimed prophet and seer, who manifested a glossolalia impressive even for his immoderate age of thick volumes, lifelong diaries and incessant correspondence. Already prolific, and prize-winning, in his teens (when he also edited and largely ghostwrote a literary journal), Hugo went on to publish a Romantic manifesto, a seminal and riot-inducing play (Hernani), nine other dramas, twenty books of poetry, nine novels (including Notre Dame de Paris, Les Misérables and Les Travailleurs de la mer), and a library’s worth of ringing commentary on literature, politics and social issues. (His Oeuvres complètes, including posthumous titles, run to forty-five volumes.) He received the Légion d’honneur at the age of twenty-three, entered the Académie française at thirty-nine and was appointed a Peer of France at forty-four. In his spare time, he married and fathered five children, womanized compulsively (“imagination,” he said, “is intelligence with an erection”) explored spiritualism, and served in the National Assembly and the Senate. When he died, his bier lay on public view under the Arc de Triomphe. After a state funeral, some two million mourners watched as his body was borne in a seven-hour procession down the Boulevard Saint-Germain (in a pauper’s hearse per Hugo’s instructions) toward its final rest in the Panthéon.
The drawings chosen for the show come from a graphically inventive eighteen-year period between 1847 and 1865, chiefly while the author was in exile (1852–1870) on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey. The son of one of Napoleon’s career officers (later designated a general and count), Hugo went through several flamboyant political transformations—from monarchist (like his mother) to Bonapartist to liberal republican—and in the process was expelled from France by Napoleon III. While banished and refusing amnesty, Hugo experimented for about two years with table-turnings, Ouija boards, and other arcana in the hope of communicating with his daughter Léopoldine, who had drowned in the Seine a decade earlier. In the course of these séances, he reportedly channeled many spirits—including Moses, Dante, Shakespeare, Christ, St. Augustine, the ocean, and death itself—before ceasing all such activity after a fellow participant went mad.
GIVEN THE TROUBLED genesis of these drawings, one might well have expected a series of murky Romantic sketches—landscapes, seascapes, brooding architectural caprices—and, to a certain extent, this is exactly what Hugo produced. But his handling of even the most hackneyed Sturm-und-Drang motifs is, characteristically, at once extreme and subtle. Gloom, haze, or fog partially obscures many vistas. A sideways light, welling from the distant horizon, picks out a lone half-ruined tower, a castle, an old fantastical city seemingly afloat in space (all, perhaps, emblematic self-portraits, as the show’s excellent catalogue suggests). The angle of view is typically low, rendering the structures phallic and heroicized. The foregrounds are often punctuated by cliffs and shores—dark thresholds riddled with vaginal caves, arches, and grottoes.
Amid this eroticized terrain, Hugo’s cities rise up fretted with his beloved architectural embellishments (Notre Dame was but one of his many encomiums to the Gothic, whose physical preservation he advocated with fervor). The ancient gables and crannies, dark passageways, and illogical juxtapositions are widely regarded as his metaphors for the rich accretions of human history and the unfathomable intricacies of the individual mind.
An eerie stillness reigns in these scenes. Human figures, if they appear at all, are minuscule—suspended in an immensity between the stony vestiges of civilization and the sweep of raw nature. Distinctly absent are the urban masses of Hugo’s most famous novels, and gone with them is his usual polemicism. Although some images illustrate a passage of narrative, they all seem fervidly internal, obsessed with the rapport between the self and the objective world, the “I” and the “not I.” Movement and implied sound enter this pictorial universe primarily through Hugo’s studies of coastlines and waves—and especially of shipwrecks, which in his book L’Homme qui rit, the catalogue tells us, he associates explicitly with the fate of mankind.
The most representational of Hugo’s drawings have a tendency to bleed off into abstraction, both at the image edges and, within the scene, at the very places where we might expect the contours to be sharpest. Other deliberate ruptures of illusion include the intrusion of initials or full names—usually his own, sometimes those of his longtime mistress, the actress Juliette Drouet. Occasionally, this seemingly egomaniacal practice derives from the drawing’s use as a calling card or as a typical nineteenth-century device for commemorating a family name. More often, it is laden with grander implications.
In an 1855 work, for example, the gigantic initials Vll and JD, as elaborately intertwined as the illicit lovers’ lives, float over Marine Terrace, Hugo’s large, four-square family house on Jersey—the white pile he shared with his wife, and detested for its austere “Methodism.” (Some readers may be pleased to know that Madame Hugo, early in the marriage, had her own dalliance with the literary critic Charles SainteBeuve, who wrote an 1834 novel titled Volupté about their affair. Thereafter, she effectively granted Hugo his sexual freedom; it was Juliette who frequently bemoaned his libertine ways.) In Two Castles in a Landscape (1847), the eponymous buildings (which Hugo in an attached script describes as “dark giants ready for the fight”) each form a shadowy, site-dominating “H.” This is the signal letter not only of Hugo’s surname but also, as a catalogue entry notes in regard to the image of a ship thrust sideways against two vertical metonym for “Homme (Man), Héro (Hero), Humanité (Humanity).” Hugo placed Octopus with the lnitials VH (ca. 1866) at the manuscript for Les Travailleurs de la mer, where the monster of the deep (which merges traits of octopus and squid) is characterized though she would seem to have a powerful kinship with the author—lurking underwater (i.e. subconscious), capable of grasping in all directions, and escaping capture behind clouds of ink.
EVEN IN HIS relatively conventional works, Hugo’s procedure was, according to an account given by his son Charles, distinctly unorthodox. Beginning anywhere on the page, evolving his first marks into a fully realized detail, then expanding outward to elaborate the whole composition, Hugo boldly inverted the classical method of composition. In many other works, something even more radical happens. (Romanticism, we should remember, was a species of artistic revolt, both thematic and formal.) While Hugo’s prime medium remains metallogallic ink, which gives a coloristic effect that Robert Hughes has called “fecal,” he also sparingly incorporates areas of brighter hue, along with more somber and unconventional materials—soot, coffee, cigar ash, etc. His touch becomes improvisational, his impulses freely experimental. He practices tachism, expanding the suggestiveness of random drips and pours—by titling and by implement—into arresting patterns and images. He uses blotting to achieve diffusive effects of light and depth; works multiple fingerprints into pictorial forms; does pliage (folding) with results that anticipate Rorschach tests; drops ink-soaked metallic lace on the paper surface (sometimes letting the tracery stand, sometimes surrounding it with illustrational detail); makes cutouts and employs stencils that echo the value-reversing contrasts of photographic negatives (with which his sons Charles and François-Victor were then experimenting); and occasionally attaches diverse elements to the sheets in a kind of proto-collage. Whatever the technique of the moment, Hugo shifts freely between representation and pure abstraction, sometimes combining the two. And he does so while working independently, before the official birth of abstract art.
The feel of this formal eclecticism (for the techniques were not, strictly speaking, unprecedented) is not teleological—in the manner of Picasso and Braque racing to perfect their Cubist breakthroughs—but expansive and random, almost desultory. Or so Hugo would have us believe. In his 1860 letter to Baudelaire, and elsewhere, he insisted on distinguishing these private doodlings, these mere graphic trifles, from his true vocation: his epochal public writing. (During his exile, Hugo reportedly produced one hundred lines of verse or twenty pages of prose every morning.) Although he had set up a fully equipped studio in Paris, and kept himself well stocked with materials on Jersey and Guernsey, he preferred to describe himself as simply tossing off these pictures (which were often enclosed in letters or given as gifts)—unclotting his pen and his imagination between bouts of bardic verbal composition. Untrained (though he had drawn seriously since 1830 and felt competent enough to design interiors, furniture and architectural details), he produced these “vagaries of the unknowing hand,” he said, to distract himself, to amuse his friends (many of whom just happened to be important writers, artists and critics) and to entertain children.
In his lifetime, according to Pierre Georgel’s catalogue essay, Hugo sanctioned only a few public exposures of what the poet himself coyly called “these mediocre pen-and-ink lines put down on paper more or less awkwardly and any old how by a man who has other things to do.” (Prints derived from drawings he had given to friends did, however, turn up fairly often in popular journals and in portfolios documenting multi-artist collections.) The artist once consigned four works to Alfred Marvey, an esteemed etcher, to be prepared as lottery prizes in 1847. In 1860, Hugo’s brother-in-law, the engraver Paul Chenay, persuaded him to authorize a print version of Ecce (1854), a stark gallows scene originally lamenting the execution of a murderer on Guernsey, now issued as a protest against the execution of the abolitionist John Brown in the US. This was followed in 1862 by an album of landscape images with an introduction by France’s reigning Aestheticist critic, Théophile Gautier, who had earlier published an admiring article on Hugo’s art in La Presse.
The volume failed commercially but garnered esteem from tastemakers like the Goncourt brothers. At least one major critic, Philippe Burty, wrote that the drawings portended a revolutionary change in artistic sensibility such as actually occurred a year later at the Salon des Refusés. As the cult of admiration grew for this self-styled “artist in spite of himself,” many unauthorized reproductions were published, particularly in Victor Hugo illustré, where, for example, thirty-six drawings Hugo had bound into the manuscript for Les Travailleurs de Ia mer first appeared.
HUGO WILLED his papers and drawings to the Bibliothèque Nationale. In 1888, three years after his death, the first show of his work was organized by longtime friend Paul Meurice for the Galerie Georges Petit. This much-publicized event, inaugurated by the president of France, led to the founding in 1903 of the Maison de Victor Hugo, where under Meurice’s guidance several hundred of the (mostly more representational) drawings went on display.
There, for the next six or seven decades, the pictures languished as curiosities. A few examples were occasionally included in outside exhibitions, but the work remained largely neglected by the artists and critics who established the modernist idiom. There were notable exceptions, of course. Van Gogh spoke admiringly of Hugo’s ability; Picasso purchased a number of drawings. In 1914, the formalist scholar Henri Focillon praised the images extravagantly for their technical daring and visionary élan. Twenty years later, the Surrealists (particularly Breton, who was for a time romantically involved with the wife of Hugo’s great-grandson), sensing a precursor, took an avid interest in the tachist and other nonobjective work. The full range of images was published in the ‘60s, and important exhibitions began to appear in the ’70s—although the Drawing Center show was the first Hugo solo ever to appear in a noncommercial venue in the US.
In counterpoint to this previous isolation, commentators in the catalogue and in the extensive press coverage spawned by “Shadows of a Hand” have suggested an extensive genealogy for Hugo’s drawings. The heritage stretches back to Leonardo’s dictum that artists should be able to find a wealth of evocative visual incidents in a stain on a wall and moves forward through the heavily chiaroscuroed work of Rembrandt, Piranesi, and Goya. (Strangely missing from this account is Alexander Cozens, the eighteenth-century Russian graphics master and theoretician of “blot drawings.”) Paul Huet is cited as an influence on Hugo in his own time, with Huet’s dismay at the praise lavished on Hugo’s amateur efforts duly noted.
Hugo’s work at its most experimental is said, in turn, to prefigure not only the looseness and psychological intensity of art informel and Abstract Expressionism (especially Pollock, de Kooning and Kline) but also the bricolage inventiveness of artists like Arp, Ernst, Schwilters, Johannes Baader, and Cornell. The recent flurry of interest in Artaud brings another possible heir to mind (along with Dubuffet and the entire art brut phenomenon), and an affinity certainly seems evident in the early drawings of Beuys. Some critics have even discerned a link between Hugo’s signing of rocks brought home from the seashore and Duchamp’s later christening of the readymades.
THERE IS something deeply appealing about the image of Hugo sitting alone on Guernsey, inventing half of formal modernism while cleaning his pen between chapters. The fairy-tale scenario plays into our fantasies about visual artists unknown in their lifetime (or known for other things) who somehow emerge as major figures after their deaths. It even has a certain masochistic allure, in the un-PC notion—backed by the hard evidence of the drawings—that certain individuals (we used to call them “geniuses”) are stupendously endowed and monstrously energetic, capable of doing as an afterthought what others cannot do with the utmost concentration.
Moreover, this seeming nonchalance of sheer giftedness was in Hugo coupled with a willingness to surrender to the putatively instinctual. “Vertigo,” he wrote, “is a tremendous lucidity”—a sentiment that, while evoking the ancient mystery cults, presages Rimbaud’s systematic “derangement of all the senses” and gives implicit license to several generations of boozeand-drug–addled automatists.
But such a reading threatens to distort Hugo into a present-day wish-fulfillment. Proponents of artistic laisser-aller want his drawings to endorse creative spontaneity; in actuality, they bespeak a natural deftness disciplined with rigorous formal intelligence. Even his smears and squiggles are, in their own way, as highly determined as any academic figure study—just as the “spirits” which spoke when Hugo held the planchette were infinitely more articulate than those who nattered dully through his fellow occultists. His translation of imagined perception, his visual syntax (right down to the control of his washes), is as intricate as the metrics of his verse or the narrative structure of his gargantuan novels. His work is a demonstration, from the dawn of the modernist enterprise, that there is in fact no “free” association, no true automatic writing, “Great artists have an element of chance in their talent,” he observed, “and there is also talent in their chance.”
Indeed, the persistent amorphousness and ambiguity in Hugo’s images is not a result of happenstance but of worldview, not an accident but a creed. Vain, magisterial, grandiloquent, Hugo sees with a God-like view, but what he sees is—finally—obscure, equivocal, imperfect in flux. Throughout his published work, he held to a master conception of reversals and metamorphoses, of correspondences between extremes of scale (from the astrophysical to the microscopic), of the elasticity of time, of uncanny mirrorings (like those between Esmeralda and Quasimodo or between Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean)—a universal vitalism and fluidity, echoed graphically in his tachism, his raking perspectives, his transformation of ignoble materials, his studies of reflections and haze, and the twinship in complementary sections of his pliages. Hugo drew with the same quill and ink with which he wrote; his pictures are, despite his disavowals, writing carried on by other means. The difference is that he did not subject them, collectively, to the same architectonic ordering that he imposed on his major compositions; they retain the immediacy of visual notes, of sketches.
It is startling to recall, then, that the author died fifteen years before Freud published The Interpretation of Dreams. The conventions of self-knowledge in depth, of subconscious motives, of id, were not yet available; Hugo had no ready system of drives and sublimations, no doctrine of the psyche, no established vocabulary (verbal or visual) for the explorations he undertook. More impressive still, he was the age of Goethe, Hegel, Wagner, Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and Balzac, when immensity of scope—the willingness (more, the felt need) to take on the stars and the sewers, the minute and the metaphysical—was rampant, a philosophical duty for any Western intellect who aspired to the status of “major.” Such audacity was endemic to the search for a new synthesis to bolster, or replace, the thousand-year-old heritage of Christian feudalism then under assault by industrialization, republicanism, science, and secularization. A vocal advocate of “art for progress” (though his heart secretly may have often been with “art for art’s sake”), Hugo had to confront the post-Revolutionary void, and invent an alternative to it.
The drawings thus offer us—in miniature, so to speak—a glimpse of the imaginative promiscuousness that marked Hugo’s entire political, literary and artistic life: a compulsion to try out everything, to conduct countless thought-experiments—on the off chance that a few will open onto revelation or wisdom. In his writing we see him exploiting every conceivable style and source—scripture, history, myth, legend, suspense tale—because each seemed in some way relevant, and none definitive. In the end, his response to turmoil was not a system (though he toyed with many) but a vision and a temperament. It is this unlikely modesty at the extreme, this Socratic knowing that ultimately he does not know, which renders Hugo’s bombast tolerable, even endearing.
By putting the intimate struggle of a cultural titan literally before our eyes, this superb exhibition affirmed that great artists do not need to be “saved” from the past; it is we, as viewers, who need to be temporarily redeemed from the present, if we are ever fully to grasp what art is—and can be.