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12 January 2022updated 13 Jan 2022 11:39am

The sinister art of Victor Hugo

When the author of Les Misérables turned from pen to paintbrush, he conjured dark worlds from spilt ink and coffee.

By Michael Prodger

In the preface to his unperformed 1827 play Cromwell, the young Victor Hugo laid down a challenge to prevailing artistic orthodoxies: “There are no rules, or models,” he declared. In post-Napoleonic France, under the restored Bourbon monarchy, this was anathema. Just four years after the defeat of the Corsican tyrant, rules were everything – in the theatre and in society. In 1830, with the writing of Hernani, a melodrama set in 16th-century Spain, Hugo made good on his maxim.

The play received its premiere on 25 February at the Comédie-Française in Paris, the home of French classical theatre. The first-night audience, primed by pre-performance leaks of excerpts and in self-selecting claques, watched as Hugo broke with the verities of time and place, strayed from rhyming couplets, and employed puns and metaphors and an unseemly degree of naturalism. Within minutes there was uproar as traditionalists booed and hissed and modernists applauded and hurled abuse at their adversaries. The actors were drowned out and scuffles in the auditorium turned to fist fights. This thespian riot and the disturbances that followed subsequent performances quickly became known as the bataille d’Hernani – the battle of Hernani – and recognised as the moment that marked the ascendance of romanticism in French art.

The following year Hugo would reassert his adherence to the romantic cause with the publication of Notre-Dame de Paris – published in English as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame – a novel that revelled in the gothic, both architecturally and in its sensibility. Its success in France and across Europe spurred the Paris authorities to restore the cathedral and is sometimes credited with inspiring a new appreciation of medieval architecture after centuries in which it had been deemed coarse and uncivilised.

Both his subversive romanticism and his willingness to face down tradition stayed with Hugo. By 1851 he was not just the most lauded author in France but a politician of forcefully reformist views. As a member of the National Assembly he gave speeches calling for the abolition of the death penalty, for the alleviation of poverty, for free education and for universal suffrage. In December that year, however, a coup headed by Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, the president of France and soon-to-be Napoleon III, dissolved the National Assembly and granted Louis-Napoleon dictatorial powers. Hugo’s response to this usurpation was to attack Louis-Napoleon, branding him a traitor and denigrating him as “Napoleon the small”.

[see also: 2022: the year in art]

Fame did not make Hugo unassailable, and he took himself into exile, first in Brussels, then Jersey and finally to Guernsey, where he bought Hauteville House in St Peter Port (owning property meant he could not be extradited back to France), and spent the years 1855 to 1870 just 30 miles from the coast of his homeland. It was there that the gothic of The Hunchback of Notre-Dame found new expression – from the pen still, but not in writing.

Before exile, Hugo was a prolific if untrained draughtsman, sketching caricatures or recording places seen on his travels. In Guernsey, however, drawing became his primary means of expression. He would end up making between 3,000 and 4,000 drawings, many of an extremely experimental nature. His friend the critic Philippe Burty described how: “Any means would do for him – the dregs of a cup of coffee tossed on old laid paper, the dregs of an inkwell tossed on notepaper, spread with his fingers, sponged up, dried, then taken up with a thick brush or a fine one.” He would turn and tilt the paper to direct the rivulets of ink, fold or cut it, press leaves or lace on to it, blot it and scrape it with the feathered end of his quill, add shellac or charcoal, even sometimes, it was rumoured, drops of his own blood.

From this abstracted mess he would conjure castles and churches, mountains and churning seas, monsters and forests. Almost all his drawings are in sepia tones or black and dark blue and, apart from a few ahead-of-their-time abstracts, are brooding when not menacing. In 1859 he wrote to a friend and told of how, in his solitude, sombre scenery “has a supreme attraction for me” and drew him “toward the dazzling apparitions of the infinite”.

The infinite of his drawings was a sinister place, as evidenced by this picture, Landscape with a castle on a cliff of 1857, now in the British Museum. With its frisson of horror and its gloomy depths full of suggestion, it invokes the haunted piles of early gothic novels such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764) and Matthew Lewis’s The Monk (1796). It matches too Hugo’s description of night in Toilers of the Sea as “an unspeakable ceiling of shadows; a depth of obscurity that no diver can fathom; a light mingled with the obscurity, a strange, sombre, vanquished light; brightness reduced to powder: seeds or ashes?”

Hugo’s drawings were never intended for the eyes of the public. The first that most people knew of them was in 1888, three years after his death, when a selection of his pictures was exhibited at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris. During his lifetime they were the preserve of his friends and family (although lucky guests would sometimes receive a hand-drawn visiting card).

The darkness of many of the drawings and the random nature of their production was a direct reflection of his mental state. Added to the ailments of France that disturbed his mind was personal tragedy. In 1843 his pregnant daughter Léopoldine was boating on the Seine when she capsized and drowned. Her husband repeatedly dived in to save her but he too floundered and died in the attempt. Hugo heard of the disaster from a newspaper report and the shock led to a near decade-long hiatus in his writing career.

It was while in Jersey that he started attending seances in the hope of communicating with his dead daughter, and he claimed he had been able to summon her up (as well as Moses, Christ, Dante, Voltaire and Death itself). His interest in spiritualism also lay behind a fascination with the popular parlour game of Blotto, in which players tried, in verse, to interpret blots of ink (another keen player of Blotto was the young Hermann Rorschach). Although Hugo described some of his drawings as resulting from “moments of almost unconscious daydreaming” he would also intentionally open himself up to messages from his subconscious or the spirit world by drawing with his non-dominant hand while looking away from the paper.

Hugo’s “automatic drawing” pre-dated the surrealists by nearly half a century, and indeed the group’s leader André Breton, who was the lover of the former wife of Hugo’s great-grandson, declared that for all the sentimentality of the novels: “Victor Hugo is a surrealist when he is not stupid.” He bought several of Hugo’s drawings, as did Picasso and Jean Cocteau, while Van Gogh was another admirer and Eugène Delacroix was of the opinion that Hugo could have been one of the century’s great artists had he dedicated himself to the medium.

Whatever degree of autonomy Hugo granted to his drawing process, the crepuscular pictures that emerged are strange, unsettling and perfect examples of the dark strain of romanticism he helped develop. His son Charles thought the drawings recalled the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi but a kinship to Goya is perhaps closer. Ultimately though, they show how faithful he remained to his youthful disavowal of models, and they are his alone.

“Those who do not weep, do not see,” Hugo once wrote. He had wept, and through his drawings he sought to see what was insistent but not physically present.

[see also: The wonders of Albrecht Dürer’s world]

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This article appears in the 12 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The age of economic rage