EXHIBITION: Victor Hugo’s drawings at the Hammer in LA


Stones to Stains: The Drawings of Victor Hugo
Through Dec 30, 2018
@ the Hammer, Los Angeles

This exhibition sheds new light on Hugo’s experimental and enigmatic practice as a draftsman and includes over 75 drawings and photographs spanning the duration of his career.

Victor Hugo, the other definition of “Contemporary”

Victor Hugo (1802-1885) was not only the playwright, novelist and political activist of the nineteenth century in France, he also developed the most innovative and experimental visual art on paper.

Of course the definition of “contemporary art” is the art made today. But the other definition that underlies the art of today is that ability to show experimental and innovative ways to do art. It can be through the technique, the concept or both.

Victor Hugo’s passion in drawing came first from his numerous travels with his Mistress. As he was missing his children so much he sent to them letters with many writing details to which he added little drawings of the places he liked. He did it to his friends too. No one taught him how to draw, how to use the different techniques with ink, charcoal or graphite. So, he did it his way with freedom. In that way we see a lot of similarities with the artists from Los Angeles. Experiment with no fear is a sort of Mantra in Los Angeles. So did Victor Hugo, but in the nineteenth century and in France!


Every single drawing Victor Hugo drew was innovative. Everything found at his fingertips became a medium or a tool. He named himself those experiments “petites indisciplines”. He used not only inks, charcoal or graphite, he used coffee or tea in order to obtain different tones of browns, different transparencies. He used soot to obtain a deeper black, ashes for different greys, burnt onion, toothpaste, blackberries juice and so on. It’s almost endless and every time surprising. Again this was not the way his fellow artists used to draw, we are in the Nineteenth century. Victor Hugo used not only traditional tools like pencils, he used quill pens and the feather itself or directly his fingers, or rags.

Victor Hugo, Taches avec empreintes de doigts (Abstract composition with fingerprints), ca. 1864‒65 – Brown ink and wash on paper. 10 1/4 × 7 11/16 in. (26 × 19.5 cm). Bibliothèque nationale de France. NAF 13345, fol. 28 © Bibliothèque nationale de France


If Victor Hugo drew very detailed architectural scenes with a rigorous attention to the perspective, most of the time he liked to go far beyond. Little items became large on his drawings (cf the Burg) like seen through a magnifier. That ability to pay attention to a single detail led him to draw abstract. A piece of rock could become a powerful abstract made of different tone of greys, blacks and browns.

Victor Hugo developed also some kind of automatic writing that will be used a years later with the Surrealists. The Surrealists also took from him that idea to put a world on the front of a drawing. Doesn’t that ring a bell to you? Ed Ruscha indeed…

Victor Hugo (1802-1885). “Souvenir”. Drawing. Paris


So many ideas and concepts from Victor Hugo relate to the contemporary art we know from the artists of Los Angeles. That exhibition was meant to be here in LA, Ann Philbin, Director at the Hammer knew it.

Beatrice Chassepot, Los Angeles, September the 29th, 2018


More images: https://hammer.ucla.edu/exhibitions/2018/stones-to-stains-the-drawings-of-victor-hugo/#gallery_bc0af8a22534e364a6eea5b01f8d90a74bdaa4e1

Maison Victor Hugo: http://www.maisonsvictorhugo.paris.fr/fr/musee-collections/collections/hugo-ses-dessins

BNF: http://data.bnf.fr/fr/11907966/victor_hugo/#rdt310-11907966