Another side of novelist Victor Hugo
“Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo” at the Hammer Museum
by Bondo Wyszpolski
When we think of Victor Hugo we think of “Les Misérables” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” largely because of the film and theatrical treatments that have become enduring classics in their own right. A few of us have even read the novels that inspired these movies and Broadway shows, and maybe even one or two of his other books, such as “The Toilers of the Sea,” a personal favorite, which is referred to in the current exhibition at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles.
The only previous solo exhibition of Hugo’s drawings in the U.S. took place in 1998 at the Drawing Center in New York. The current show is a representative sampling with some stunning images, but there are many other sheets that are equally as impressive (I’m looking at the French-language “Victor Hugo: dessins et lavis,” by the conservator of the Maison de Victor Hugo in Paris), which will involve overseas travel if we want to see them because of their fragile nature. In truth, we’re fortunate to see the ones gathered here.
For Hugo, as Florian Rodari writes in the “Stones to Stains” catalogue, “Sublime and abyss are two sides of a single reality that is simultaneously enigmatic and constantly evolving.” Added to this, many of the drawings have a nocturnal or crepuscular glow, and, not surprisingly for one who stepped bolding through the Romantic Era, Hugo paid a certain obeisance to the moon: “”Poets have invented a metaphorical moon, scientists an algebraic moon,” he wrote in “Promontorium Somnii.” “The real moon is halfway between the two. That is the moon my eyes beheld.” Allegra Pesenti then notes that “The breadth of knowledge that backs Hugo’s drawings of the moon and other celestial spheres is paired with introspection and a deeply personal aesthetic.”These celestial spheres, possibly representing wayward planets in space, might have had something to do with Hugo’s participation in séances, for he was a firm believer in the spirit world. They also suggest Hugo’s interest in visual texture, notably evident in his abstracts, the “stains” of the title, which could also be extended to include splotches. These works, of varying quality, often seem to foretell art and art movements of the following century: not quite Rothko and not quite Pollock, but almost, and not quite some of the European surrealists of the 1920s and ‘30s. In his own time, Hugo’s work is reminiscent (to this viewer) of Peder Balke, a Norwegian painter who depicted the wild and watery terrain of the far north.
More appealing perhaps are Hugo’s atmospheric pictures (often veiled or surrounded by a swirling brown mist) of ruined castles, fortresses, chateaux, lighthouses and abbeys, works that could today be employed to illustrate the tales of Poe or Hawthorne, let alone Hugo’s own stories. He especially favored the silhouette, perfect for Dracula’s hilltop abode, some of these being stenciled silhouettes of medieval towns and towers cut from paper. Clearly, Hugo wasn’t averse to experimentation in his quest for dark, moody, dramatic effects.
In lines reflective of the show as a whole, Rodari notes of Hugo that “Whenever he could, he championed the beauty of old cities, with their maze of streets conducive to encounters and to mischief; he railed against the rectilinear avenues that modern town planners proclaimed to be more practical. Everywhere he constantly defended disorder, proliferation, improvisation, irregularity–in short, the commotion of life.”Three works in the show (among others, of course) illustrate this: In the tempestuous “My Destiny” (1867), a ship momentarily rides the crest of a mighty wave. Referring to the title, one might ask, “Will we all be swamped?” The phantasmal “Seascape with sailboat and a monstrous figure in the sky” (1880-1883) is wide open to the imagination, and was pasted into the front of “The Toilers of the Sea” because it could well embody the strange, emotional turmoil of that novel. One of my favorites on display is “The Casquets Lighthouse” (1860), with its rough-hewn twisting exterior stairway. The eerie, atmospheric effects give this forlorn beacon a supernal feel, like a flaming torch during a wind-swept night.
Also, among Hugo’s better-known works are his depictions of a hanged criminal, “Ecce lex” and “Ecce,” the illustrations as well as the condemned man executed in 1854. Later on, Hugo’s brother-in-law repurposed this powerful visual statement, and what was originally the murdered John Charles Tapner, on the English Channel island of Guernsey, was etched “and circulated as a protest against the execution of the American abolitionist John Brown in 1859,” as co-curator Cynthia Burlingham (with Allegra Pesenti) describes it in the catalogue.The exhibition is not large but it occupies three galleries and offers some unexpected insight into a man of protean talent and energy. At his state funeral in 1885, an estimated two million people came to pay their respects. I’m sure that very few of them would have been surprised that Hugo’s works are so widely known today.
Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo is on view through December 30 at the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. The accompanying catalogue is published by the Hammer with DelMonico Books/Prestel and is available at the museum. (310) 443-7000 or visit hammer.ucla.edu. ER