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|octopus with the initials V. H.
by N. F. Karlins
Victor Hugo (1802-1885), that titan of Romanticism who is now best known as the author of Les Misérables and [the Hunchback of] Notre-Dame de Paris, spewed out thousands of pages of plays, verse, novels, criticism and political, social and philosophical essays throughout his career. Few connoisseurs outside of France have realized that he also spewed out drawings -- about 4,000 of them.
Judging from the approximately 100 works on display in "Shadows of the Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo" at the Drawing Center, Hugo the artist turns out to be as big a dynamo as Hugo the litterateur. He produced only works on paper of astonishing invention, spontaneously dashing them off in dark brown or black pen-and-ink wash, sometimes with touches of white and rarely with color. Most are small, and date from the 1850s and 1860s.
Not surprisingly from an author, Hugo was expert at tapping into the unconscious. His otherworldly "Planet" drawings immediately bring to mind Odilon Redon. Other works are Romantic outpourings that can seem more than a little weird on closer inspection. These dark and wind-whipped landscapes and/or brooding castles, cells, and escarpments occupy an ambiguous space made more unsettling by quick shifts in scale and undecipherable figures in the distance.
Perhaps more shocking to the contemporary viewer are Hugo's proto-Surrealist use of automatic techniques and his proto-Abstract Expressionist experiments with tache and free brushwork. To keep his art fresh, he would cheerfully experiment with his children's stencils, ink blots, puddles and stains, lace impressions, "pliage" or folding (i.e. Rorschach blots), "grattage" or rubbing, using match sticks or his fingers instead of pen or brush, and even toss in coffee or soot to get the effects he wanted. It seems that some drawings were made with his left hand or while not looking at the page.
His Mushroom (1850), for example, has a sickly, poisonous cast from sparingly applied orange and green. This monumental fungus looms over a landscape like something that crawled out of a recently nuked field. Radical shifts of scale, a plethora of textural effects and various layerings of ink wash make this surreal vision endlessly haunting. The work is a technical tour de force, done with pen and brown ink-wash, black ink and crayon, white gouache, reserves and a stencil, watercolor, and by partly scraping and rubbing the sheet and by dabbing it with his fingers.
Lyrical abstractions, mystical nether worlds, and vaguely limned castles, landscapes, seascapes, all aswirl in tempests or eerie in moonlight, plus architectural motifs and even calling cards were churned out by Hugo with the same spontaneity of the pen and brush that he employed for his writings. They convey a turbulent search for meaning beyond the ordinary, as do Hugo's literary works.
Hugo would turn from writing to art, whenever sentences eluded him, often using the end of his quill pen to start a drawing. His art kept helped to keep his words flowing, while his love of words fed his art. Beside labeling and inscribing drawings, Hugo would at times incorporate words as formal elements. The latter is often the case in his ornately handmade calling cards, like a 1855 effort with the letters of his name forming a stand for a drawing of a landscape with castle, all this hovering in the center of a sheet saturated in brown ink with some ghostly white clouds. Many of his calling cards were created as gifts to visitors and friends while he was in political exile from France (1855-1870) and living in the English Channel Islands.
His drawings, originally a sideline, became much more to Hugo shortly before his exile. He stopped writing to become more involved in politics and turned to drawing as his exclusive creative outlet during the period 1848-1851. In 1853, he became interested in séances, or "table-turning." It wasn't long before Hugo quit, but not before he realized how effective those sessions were in setting free his unconscious. His artwork became much more experimental from that time forward.
Hugo considered himself a true artist, keeping his most radical works to himself. Although he tried to hide his art from the public, he shared his drawings with family and friends. Some people did see at least a few of his works, and they garnered favorable comments from many artists (van Gogh liked them) and were fought over by his admirers. In his will, he left the many in his possession to the Bibliothèque Nationale.
Hugo may have been right to fear that his art, if known by the public, would overwhelm his fame as a literary giant. While much of Hugo's output of words is all but unreadable today, it is hard to imagine his drawings would ever be considered dull.
"Shadows of a Hand: The Drawings of Victor Hugo," Apr. 16-June 13, 1998, at the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10013.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.