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L’Homme Qui Peint (The Man Who Painted).

September 29, 2009

Bonnat, 1879.

Towards the end of the 19th Century in Paris, major changes were taking place. Napoleon III had recently been overthrown after the Franco-Prussian War and the Third Republic was emerging. Amongst all this, the death of Victor Hugo in 1885 caused a furore. The Pantheon, originally dedicated to St. Genevieve, was secularized for the last time to become Hugo’s last resting place. The funeral was the largest seen in France.  Although rain fell during the night and there was every indication in the early morning of more rain, hundreds of thousands of people were abroad at daybreak, crowding the streets and boulevards through which the great procession was to move. Hugo’s coffin was displayed under the Arc d’Triomphe overnight and in the surrounding streets outrageous debauchery was displayed. Many children were conceived that night. Hugo, a known womanizer, would have been pleased.

To trace Hugo’s life is, in a way, like tracing the culture of France. His star rose during his teenage years as he won prize after prize for his academic poetry. During the 1820s and 30s, he became known as a playwright, but his big break came after writing Hernani in 1830.  After Hernani which became notorious for fistfights which broke out amongst the audience, he was watched and his works recieved with much acclaim. Fast forwarding some years to  1852, Hugo has been exiled for his opposition to Napoléon III and his defamatory pamphlet ‘Napoléon le Petit’ is being smuggled by the caseload back to France. Pigeons are being trained to carry pages of Napoléon le-Petit to Paris and Hugophilia is rife throughout the country. It is during this period of exile in Guernsey that Hugo picks up a new hobby: art.

Hugo’s art is remiscent of his literary style. It’s moody and atmospheric and the subject matter is mostly ruins and the sea. It was once said (paraphrased)  that Hugo’s work should be read with a mind that percieves itself to be standing on the cliffside facing the sea while a storm moves into the land.  Certainly his style- call it Baroque, Romantic, what you will- comes out in full force in his paintings.  It’s curious to think of Hugo experimenting like a contemporary artist, but experiment he certainly did.  In a letter, he writes ‘I’m very happy and very proud that you should choose to think kindly of what I call my pen-and-ink drawings. I’ve ended up mixing in pencil, charcoal, sepia, coal dust, soot and all sorts of bizarre concoctions which manage to convey more or less what I have in view, and above all in mind. It keeps me amused …’

In Graham Robb’s excellent biography of Hugo, he suggested that he even went so far as to use human faeces as a medium. Perhaps fortunately, the works that used organic media have not stood the test of time and are no longer with us.

Above is Shakespeare’s house sketched during a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon.   His talent falls somewhat short, however, when he turns his hand to the portrayal of humanity. Again, his art mirrors his writing. This is his portrayal of L’Homme Qui Rit (The Man Who Laughed) and it’s a rather wonderful piece. The novel follows the fortunes of ‘The Man Who Laughed’, whose face was deformed into a permanently laughing expression. “In the balance of God, all inanimate creation weighs less than an idiot. / Laughter. / Who knows if that flash of joy in this sad soul full of darkness is not worth in the eyes of the Lord the eternal sunshine on the eternal towers of Marboré?

Les Travailleurs du Mer (The Toilers of the Sea) tells the story of a young lad who, to win the heart of a lady, sets out to save a ship from the clutches of a giant sea creature (pieuvre). The illustration below shows Hugo’s portrayal of the King of Auxcriniers.

The site where I found this says that Hugo took some pieces from the Egyptian God Bes to make up this monster. I actually took a photo of this very God during my visit to the Louvre last month:

The resemblance is there.

You can see more at http://expositions.bnf.fr/hugo/index.htm .

The Art Renewal Centre gives us this:

Pen and brown ink, brush and black ink, black chalk, and watercolor over graphite on brown paper.  I think this one is probably my favourite of his works, it’s so exuberant.

More Hugo here:

http://www.artcyclopedia.com/artists/hugo_victor.html

http://www.artseensoho.com/Art/DRAWINGCENTER/hugo98/hugo2.html

Hugo’s work isn’t amazing in itself. He’s not a particularly accomplished draughtsman and his drawings aren’t technically fantastic. I look at them in the light of his literary works- it’s another look into the man’s psyche from a different angle. If you understand this vibe, you’ll understand what Romantic writing is all about. The closest we have today is probably Tim Burton who also uses both writing and art as tools to get closer to his aesthetic. I suppose nowadays you’d call it fantasy painting, but to me it’s just illustration, a way of entering reality through another doorway.

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