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Few nineteenth-century figures are as towering as the French poet, novelist, playwright, critic, and politician Victor Hugo (1802–1885). Though he is remembered mostly for his literary achievements, particularly The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862), he excelled at drawing. From September 27 to December 30, 2018, the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles exhibited over seventy of his haunting works on paper (he made more than four thousand of them), as well as a select number of photographs and prints. Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo, beautifully curated by Cynthia Burlingham and Allegra Pesenti, illustrated the depth of his creative spirit. For Hugo, drawing was mostly a private endeavor. His images, brooding in their melancholy, nevertheless reveal an artist of the highest caliber—one who married an intense Romantic sensibility with an abstraction that is prescient of the avant-garde. In telling this story, the curators abandoned a linear historical narrative, organizing the drawings instead according to their subject matter and techniques of making: “Stones,” “Water,” “Spheres,” “Justice,” and “Stains.” This approach allows Hugo’s drawings to stand as artworks in their own right, related to but not reliant on his literary and political career.
The majority of the works on display stemmed from the period of Hugo’s exile from France, between 1851 and 1870. While a member of the National Assembly (he was elected in 1848), he led an unsuccessful rebellion against President Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who, in December 1851, had staged a coup, dissolved the legislature, and ultimately pronounced himself emperor. Following his departure, Hugo lived in Brussels and then with his family on the Channel Islands, first in Jersey and then in Guernsey (he only returned to France after the emperor’s abdication in 1870). His removal from the urban clamor of Paris allowed for an intense period of creativity. During this time he produced most of the drawings in the show, as well as political criticism and novels like Les Misérables and The Toilers of the Sea (1866), his great tale of coastal life in the face of industrialization. In 1852 his son Charles took up photography, and most of the pictures in the exhibition were taken with his camera (and were likely composed at the direction of his father).
In his drawings, Hugo turned to the natural and even supernatural worlds for inspiration. His landscapes and seascapes, rendered mostly in dark ink, wash, crayon, and white gouache, suggest feelings of wonder as well as loss. Nowhere is this contrast more evident than in the sections on “Stones” and “Water,” where nature’s elements function to inspire equal parts awe and horror. Stones, for instance, are the building blocks of architecture—the most monumental expression of human culture—as well as of tombstones. To this end, Hugo lavished attention on buildings and cities, though he consistently portrayed them in shadows, enmeshed in fog, or in a state of ruin. One drawing shows the ghostly outline of a town as seen through a spiderweb (115). His renderings of castles and lighthouses likewise exhibit feelings of mystery and peril. In Le phare de Casquets (The Casquets lighthouse, 1866), a shining beacon in white gouache implies hope (109). Yet in the distance, a ship is shown tossed in the waves. One finds similar dualities—between the beautiful and the ugly, the strong and the weak, and the high and the low—throughout Hugo’s literature. In this regard, his drawings function as an extension of his broader artistic project.
Hugo’s depictions of water and use of ink allowed for a concentrated emotional release. In Ma destinée (My destiny, 1867), one sees and, indeed, feels Hugo’s pen frenetically traversing the page to create a dramatically cresting wave (139). Brown ink wash deepens the shadowing effect, and the dappled white gouache atop the surf conveys a sense of energy. Personal tragedy likely contributed to these poignant renderings of water, notably the drowning of Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine in 1843. Crippled by her death, Hugo published no new writing until his exile. Drawing (and especially drawings of water) thus provided a cathartic artistic outlet that was unfettered by language. In the section on “Stains,” we see Hugo splotching and rubbing ink on each sheet to create liquified forms of even greater abstraction. This experimental use of the material thus marked out a creative enterprise that employed the very media of writing but for purely visual ends; see, for example, La bouche d’ombre (The mouth of darkness, ca. 1855–57?) (169).
Especially remarkable in the exhibition was the emphasis placed on Hugo’s techniques of art making. Using a cutout stencil of a castle, for instance, he created multiple drawings of varying atmospheric effects (85, 86, and 87). In addition to stencils, he employed mixed media, experimented with frottage, and folded ink-soaked sheets of paper in on each other to generate loosely symmetrical patterns (see Rosette, 1859; 175). In another composition, he used his own fingerprints to animate the upper register of a sheet (163). In a parallel move to index his authorship, Hugo scrawled on actual pebbles, thereby establishing an irrefutable bond between the artist and the tangible stuff of nature (119). These efforts show how Hugo pressed his art beyond the traditional bounds of representation, reconceiving the very processes by which art was made and foreshadowing the avant-gardist experiments of the early twentieth century.
In the section on “Spheres,” nature gives way to the supernatural world, where Hugo’s drawings of celestial dreamscapes suggest a place where reality and imagination might coexist. He had a well-known interest in astronomy and the night sky—a curiosity that only intensified following his exile. In Jersey, he conducted séances and table-turning sessions. The loosening of his compositional style in drawings such as Planète-œil (Planet-eye, ca. 1854–55) and Planète (Planet, ca. 1854) thus aligned with his deepening engagement with the otherworldly and the subconscious (143 and 151). To this end, the Surrealists took great interest in Hugo’s ethereal renderings of the sky (thanks, in large part, to Hugo’s great-grandson Jean and his wife Valentine, who circulated some of his images among their circle, which included André Breton).
Only in rare instances in the exhibition do we see Hugo depicting politics directly, despite the fact that his very displacement to the Channel Islands was due to exile (he refused to return to France even after the emperor granted amnesty to dissidents in 1859). In this regard, the exhibition’s section on “Justice” is at once a visual outlier and an ideological reinforcement of Hugo’s politics. The most evocative drawings, rendered in deep chiaroscuro, depict a man suspended from the gallows (154 and 155). The lifeless body, lit from the left, hangs isolated in the center of the compositions. Hugo created the work in response to the execution of a local criminal in Guernsey (Hugo was fervently opposed to capital punishment). Interestingly, he allowed the drawing to be repurposed as a piece of political dissent in the lead-up to the American Civil War. In 1860 his brother-in-law, Paul Chenay, made an aquatint of the drawing with a new title, John Brown, which they published to protest the recent execution of the forenamed American abolitionist. The experience led to future collaborations with Chenay and other printmakers, though Hugo did not experiment with etching or engraving himself.
The exhibition, beautiful in its display and illuminating in its approach, sheds light on the artistic abilities of one of the great figures of nineteenth-century literature. The richly illustrated catalogue of the same title offers essays by Florian Rodari, Burlingham, and Pesenti. Rodari’s “From Stones to Stains” explores Hugo’s aesthetics, specifically his evocation of stone and water. Rodari sees writing and drawing as two parts of Hugo’s broader effort to reconcile contradictory dualities (oxymoron, he writes, is the foundation of Hugo’s oeuvre). Burlingham’s “‘Nothing but Shadow and Light’: Hugo’s Drawings in Print” examines the author’s engagement with print media, which sheds light on the circulation and reception of the author’s images in the nineteenth century. Pesenti’s “The Promontory of Dream: Cosmic Landscapes and Infinite Visions of Night in the Drawings of Victor Hugo” studies the author’s celestial imagery. It traces how his Romantic sensibility and scientific interests (in astronomy as well as in technologies like photography) gave rise to an approach to drawing that hovers between the real and the surreal. Broadly speaking, the three essays position Hugo’s drawings in their own time. The power of the exhibition, however, remains the centrality of the works themselves—their artistic complexity, their composition, and their techniques of making. For Hugo, drawing was not about illustrating his literary or political ideas (though he did include several of his drawings in a later publication of The Toilers of the Sea). Instead, it functioned as a unique vehicle to explore deep questions about humanity, temporality, and the wonders of the natural and supernatural worlds. The drawings, in other words, speak for themselves.
Postdoctoral Fellow, USC Society of Fellows in the Humanities and Department of Art History, University of Southern California