For those of us of a certain age, the name Victor Hugo (1802-1885) conjures a vision of the cruel Inspector Javert pursuing a beleaguered Jean Valjean through the sewers of Paris in the novel “Les Misérables,” which we were required to read in high school. Hugo was also a politician and an artist, and “Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo,” the startling, poetic exhibition at the Hammer Museum—including over 70 of his drawings and prints, plus some ancillary photographs—demonstrates that he was a great artist.
Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo
Through Dec. 30
Hugo was elected as a writer to the Académie Française in 1841; seven years later, as a politician, he was elected a deputy from Paris to the Constituent Assembly. In short order, he became a leader in the unsuccessful resistance to Louis-Napoléon’s coup d’état, which led to his formal expulsion from the country in 1852. He and his family (Hugo’s marital life was complicated) spent the next 18 years in exile in the Channel Islands. Hugo had an opportunity to return to France in 1859 but, because he still disapproved of the government, didn’t come back to his country until he returned, “triumphantly,” in 1870.
Although Hugo tinkered with drawing prior to his exile (at least six works in the show predate it), only on Jersey and Guernsey did his draftsmanship come into its own. The “stones” of the show’s title are at once protective and destructive, alluding to books as well as tombs and dungeons; “stains” are the principle physical vehicle for Hugo’s proto-abstract Romanticism—a kind of combination of Caspar David Friedrich and Robert Motherwell. Whorls and fogs of dark-brown ink surround snippets of realism—castles, moons, boats, heads—in an imaginary world that’s both dreamy (“Medieval Fortress,” 1863) and menacing (“Ecce Lex [Hanged Man]” 1854), nocturnal (“The Casquets Lighthouse,” 1866) and daytime (“The Town of Vianden Seen Through a Spider Web,” 1871).
If Hugo’s aesthetic and psychological treatment of his subjects isn’t astonishing enough, his command of a variety of media is equally impressive. In “Landscape With Two Derelict Castles” (1847), he uses ink, crayon, graphite and shellac rather seamlessly. In “Taches-planètes” (1864-69) Hugo employs some solvents and gum arabic, and then, in a presciently avant-garde approach to his media, soaks, blots and folds the paper to get a cosmic effect that’s almost entirely abstract. (One work in the show, “Abstract Composition,” 1864-69, is obviously—and miraculously—totally abstract from the git-go.) Elsewhere, Hugo uses cutouts and collage, frottage (i.e., rubbing) with matches and sticks and the ends of his pen handles, and a “pyrographed” wooden frame. (In Cub Scouts, we called that woodburning.)
Hugo drew with a deceptively solid sense of composition, an eye for crucial details, and a deft, lovely touch with ink that can be mentioned in the same breath with Rembrandt’s. There’s no record of Hugo having attended an art school and, though he did consent to having some prints made, bound and offered for sale (unsuccessfully, as it turned out), he mostly held his drawings close to his vest while he was alive. They weren’t publicly exhibited until 1888, three years after his death. During his banishment from France, however, Hugo left behind some works for others to see in the apartment of a friend, Paul Meurice. About them, the critic Théophile Gautier said, “He excels at combining, in his somber and fierce fantasies, the effects of chiaroscuro of Goya and the terrifying architecture of Piranesi.”
While Hugo’s drawing talent seems to arise out of thin air, its emotional depth may well be linked to a personal tragedy. In 1843, his daughter Léopoldine (who was born when Hugo was but 22) and her new husband were drowned in a boating accident on the Seine. Hugo learned of her death from a newspaper story published days later. It sent him into a literary depression that prevented him from publishing anything until 1852, the year he landed on Jersey. It’s hard to look at the threatening, swirling waters that figure so prominently in Hugo’s drawing oeuvre (in the exhibition, “Water” is one of five titled galleries, alongside “Stones,” “Spheres,” “Justice” and “Stains”) and not see them as connected to Léopoldine’s sudden and horrible death.
How would this exhibition be regarded, we wonder, if it were merely the product of an ahead-of-his-time 19th-century visual artist—and not someone who’s also one of the greatest novelists ever? Hugo himself seems to have regarded his rather private drawings as on par with his publicly praised literary output. In 1866, he bound 36 of his drawings into the original manuscript for his novel “Toilers of the Sea.”
Victor Hugo knew full well what he was about, on both fronts.
—Mr. Plagens is an artist and writer in New York.