Ouija Boards and Ink Blots: How Victor Hugo Conjured Modern Art
Hugo's drawings are Rorschach blots—figuratively and sometimes almost literally. With hindsight it's tempting to read them as precursors to Odilon Redon's weirdo-noir; Surrealist automatic drawing; Rorschach blots (and Warhol's Rorschach paintings); Merrild's and Pollock's drips; Jess' collages; Ruscha's stains. But in fact outliers like Hugo and af Klint demonstrate how art history resists being packed into neat, linear narratives. Hugo had (invented) his own predecessors. There's a lot of Alexander Cozens, a dash of Rimpa school.
|Victor Hugo, The Casquets Lighthouse, 1866|
|Victor Hugo, Stains, c. 1875|
|Victor Hugo, Stains, c. 1852–59|
"Once paper, pen, and inkwell have been brought to the table, [he] sits down and—without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception—sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand… little by little, the entire composition will emerge from the blank paper with the precision and clarity of a photographic negative subjected to the chemical preparation that brings out the picture. That done, the draftsman will ask for a cup and will finish off his landscape with a light shower of black coffee. The result is an unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the etchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi."
|Victor Hugo, Hanged Man, 1854|
Sometimes Hugo drew while looking away from the page, a gimmick later adopted by Rodin. He did stains of soot, coal dust, and coffee grounds, like Ruscha. He allegedly used his own blood—the blood of the poet he was—as in the Eleanor Antin Blood of a Poet Box.
|Victor Hugo, Stains, c. 1870-71|
In terms of influence, the most intriguing work in the Hammer show may be the one owned by Picasso. It's an inky abstraction with an aleatoric devil's head. It's not much like a Picasso, even allowing that the "devil" anticipates a minotaur. Still, it shows how one generation's art becomes the jumping-off point for another's.
|Victor Hugo, Head of a Devil, c. 1864-69|
|Andy Warhol, Rorschach, 1984|
|Hilma af Klint, untitled paintings|