Victor Hugo’s posthumous reputation rests mainly upon his magnificent and dauntingly prodigious output as a man of letters – as a novelist, a poet, a playwright and essayist, whose greatest work, “Les Misérables”, was already being praised in his lifetime as one of the most important novels ever written. Hugo is also one of the great historical figures of his era. Born in an age of imperial glory, he lived through revolutions, uprisings and massacres and was an eye-witness and sometimes participant in the great political convulsions of his time. For all of these reasons he is often seen as the very incarnation of the French 19th century.
Hugo’s great literary reputation and historical significance has, however, tended to overshadow another aspect of his creativity – the fact he was a dedicated and gifted visual artist. A new and beautifully produced book, “Victor Hugo: The Dark Romanticist”, brings together over 60 works by Hugo drawn from a recent exhibition at the Leopold Museum in Vienna, together with a selection of essays by prominent art critics. It goes a long way towards restoring the importance of Hugo’s art, and makes a small but important contribution to understanding his vast ambition.
The most striking aspect of this book is that none of the artworks – mainly drawings and watercolours – is what you would expect if you only knew Hugo from his writings. As a novelist, he was never quite a realist – his books are too elliptical and fantastical. But he was a master at creating what Roland Barthes called “l’effet du réel”, the illusion of reality in literature. In contrast the main characteristic of the works reproduced here is their supernatural unreality.
This book is aptly sub-titled “The Dark Romantic”. The most persistent images are of ruined cathedrals and castles, while human figures are often bent and grotesque, or sometimes the kind of otherworldly daemons you might see in the works of William Blake and a whole generation of Romantic artists fascinated by the gothic and the medieval.
But there is also a very modern sensibility at work. The images are not just reproductions of older archetypes – so often the case with the Romantics – but are taken directly from Hugo’s own dreams or nightmares, or other forms of hallucinatory, visionary experience. Hugo had a pronounced interest in occultism and attended the kind of spiritualist séances which were fashionable in Paris the 1850s. He documented his experiences at these events and believed that he could channel spirits, which helped him produce his art.
This is a very 20th century way for an artist to operate – an early if primitive attempt at producing the kind of “automatic art” that was so prized in the 1920s and 1930s by the Surrealists, who would allow their hands to move randomly across the page, driven by the subconscious alone. It was this idea that provided for them the missing link between art and psychoanalysis. This is why many of the works here are terrifying in a way that, like the best Surrealist images, still remains mysterious and inexplicable. Two clear examples are “Skull-Headed Devil” from 1873 and “Laces and Ghosts” from 1855, which could easily be mistaken for early etchings by Max Ernst.
It is this aspect of Hugo’s art which explains why he appears in André Breton’s “First Surrealist Manifesto” of 1924, in a pantheon of Surrealist heroes which also includes the Marquis de Sade, Edgar Allen Poe and Baudelaire. Breton had no time for Hugo’s writings; he especially despised what he called his “literary sentimentality” and conventional prose style. But he admired Hugo’s artistic methods, which emphasised the role of “chance” and included scratching, smearing, experimenting in sepia and allowing images to emerge from the materials as well as from the artist’s imagination. This is what Breton meant when he said that “Hugo is Surrealist when he isn’t stupid” – that, in other words, Hugo the writer was far inferior, and therefore far more “stupid” than Hugo the proto-Surrealist.
Hugo himself could be diffident about his art and clearly saw it as a secondary activity. But it was no mere hobby: he took it seriously, and, more to the point, was taken seriously by his distinguished artist friends. They included Eugène Delacroix, who said that if Hugo had chosen to become a painter rather than a writer he would have been one of the greatest of the century, and the poet and critic Théophile Gautier, who noted, in one of the first articles ever written on Hugo’s art, that “if he were not a poet, Victor Hugo would be a painter of the first rank. He excels at mixing in his wild and sombre fantasies the chiaroscuro of Goya with the terrifying architectural effects of a Piranesi.”
What this book reveals is not just the truth of Delacroix’s and Gautier’s view, but also that Hugo transcended his time. A visionary artist, he unlocked his unconscious mind and became, if not a prophet of 20th-century art, then a precursor of it.
Victor Hugo: The Dark Romanticist (Walther König) is out now