PRINT September 1987


AT FIRST, THE INK DRAWINGS of Victor Hugo seem like minor, freakish mementos of a long and major literary career. That’s in part because one starts off with the assumption that Hugo’s visual art would belong more in a curiosity cabinet than in a museum—in fact one almost involuntarily expects it to be beside the real issues in art, visually un necessary in terms of art history, and incorporating no significant idea. But the curator Harald Szee mann knew otherwise. This summer at the Zurich Kunsthaus, in “Victor Hugo, 1802–1885: Phantasien in Tusche” (Victor Hugo, 1802–1885: Fantasies in ink), a highly focused, intensely contemporary exhibition of 68 of the 2,000 or so Hugo drawings extant, Szeemann demonstrated how critical a figure Hugo is. This is so especially in our time, because of how he catalyzes us into a conscious ness that the visual and the verbal, far from being exhausted and doomed–as post-Modernisrn, conceived as a kind of platitudinizing of them, implies–are still unfinished creative business, urgent business: to go beyond the still-oppressive classifiable and measurable, to break through rigid habits of reason and absolutized orders of control into uncodifiable yet strongly felt possibilities that orbit around what we call “the visionary.” These possibilities are represented by the seemingly inchoate, inarticulate, and permanently incoherent, which exist in the unexpected space under the trapdoor of the intelligible. This is the molten core of creativity, the place of “potential space,” as D. W. Winnicott names it, the space where mind and heart are one.

This amorphous molten core is astonishingly self- evident in Hugo’s drawings. They are its magma, they indicate that amorphousness can spontaneously erupt and generate life and ignite life, in effect blow the crust off it. Modernists discovered, in an open way, the terra incognita of amorphousness; terrified by their discovery, however, and profoundly ambivalent about it, they finally attempted to put it back in the strange place in the psyche from which it came. Stylizing it is one major way of accomplishing this second repression. Whenever arnorphousness appears to have been mastered in Modern art, to have been broken in, encoded, brought under unquestioned stylistic control, officialized, as it were, whenever it becomes all too readable, the “message” of apparent indecipherability is lost. Nonetheless, certain figures seem to maintain the amorphous, and all the potentially disintegrative risks inherent in it. We honor them for this because they offer us the deepest, most chaotic, and most potentially creative part of ourselves—our deepest reserve. Hugo is one of these figures.

Perhaps Hugo was ready to take the plunge into visual amorphousness because verbal clarity and intelligibility seemed especially insufficient to him when he was ousted from Paris into the political exile during which he made his most “suggestive” pictures. From 1851 to 1871 he lived outside France, first in Brussels and then in the Channel Islands, in what began as a forced banishment and continued as a self-imposed one from the rule of Napoleon III. He did not abandon words during these years, but he supplemented them with images. And in fact in his visual work it is as though he was still writing, but in another language. Exploring it, he discovered it as a tissue of indecipherable marks. Ordinarily, the conventions of language create intelligibility; Hugo was hardly a conventional writer, but in visualizing he was especially unconventional. Society sets a premium on the creation of meaning—in a sense, it is what civilization is about—and shuns its unraveling. But Hugo had been rejected by society, or at least by the society he knew. Disoriented by that rejection, he made his disorientation a revolt—he tried to disturb society as it had disturbed him.

In their iconography, Hugo’s pictures are consistent with elements of the Romantic canon—they find their subjects in “fantastic landscapes, irreal cities, castles in a sea of fog, gallows in the gray of dawn, the depths of the sea and its dangers, the elemental, the planetary,” as Szeemann remarks in his catalogue essay. Yet Hugo was an early experimenter with automatism, forming his images from “tachistic blots” which constantly, and increasingly as the work progressed, threaten to overwhelm the drawings’ ability to represent. His drawings begin by showing the dysfunctions of the conventions of meaning, and end by throwing a full-fledged display of unintelligibility in the face of the world. They are not just about revolt, however, but about spiritual growth. Hugo made of his physical exile a spiritual one. Perhaps his new status as an outsider forced him inside—forced him to turn inward, to explore the ungraspable depths of the self that had been rejected by social authority. In drawing, he entered an obscure, emotionally charged,asocial underworld of appearances. The wild, abstract character of some of his pictures indicates that Hugo came to experience the terra incognita of feeling as something to be compulsively explored in a medium that could articulate it directly, and that indicated it as an alternate reality full of mystery and fantasy.

In their urgency to become direct transcriptions of his churning condition, Hugo’s drawings become a refutation of representation—a denial of its adequacy, even of its possibility. Like August Strindberg, who turned to visual means at a crucial moment of stress (for Strindberg a moment that suggested the inadequacy of verbal means to master his “madness”), Hugo discovered the peculiar freedom, full of suffering, at the root of art.

One would have thought that our long familiarity with “hallucinatory” drawings in this century would make their 19th-century forebears in Hugo’s work seem stale. But even though, as Szeernann notes, some of the Surrealists and early Tachists found an ancestry for their work in the automatist techniques of Hugo’s drawings, his pictures at their best have a power so pure, so unadulterated by the serving of any esthetic cause, that they overwhelm us with the clarity and the intensity of their energy. Each drawing is so concentrated that it cannot but engage the spectator’s deepest sense of self. The mysterious, moving force of these works is in the end the force of what Szeemann calls their “mediumistic mornent.” It was on the island of Jersey, where the first of the wilder drawings were made, that Hugo first attempted to levitate tables, that is, to demonstrate the power of unconscious mind over matter. Hugo’s fantasy images, as Szeemann says, burst out of the unconscious, as though fantasy, too, were an act of levitating the world—and of recreating it.

One of the exhibition’s most revealing works was an image of the title page of Hugo’s novel Les Travailleurs de la mer (The toilers of the sea, 1866). Hugo shows his name, three-dimensional in large letters, being obliterated against rocky cliffs, such as those he rendered in numerous depictions of the cliffs of Dover. It is not simply that Hugo’s public name is being effaced here, as it was in life. In being effaced by nature, the name is being returned to language in general, which, like nature itself, is bound up with the mystery of the impossible-to-name self. The ink with which Hugo drew is the same medium with which he wrote. (In another anticipation of later ideas, he also, as Szeemann notes, used mixed media—ashes, coffee, earth, metal filings.) Ink is the material of writing, supposedly the space of the deliberate cultivation and cherishing of meaning; writing physically overcomes the material rawness, the contingency, lurking in the ink. In Hugo’s drawings, on the other hand, ink reasserts itself. Instead of submitting to the intelligibility demanded by writing, it spreads in blots and floods of uncontrollable fluidity. Rather than drown, Hugo spontaneously swims in this sea, as though he were destined to.

Szeemann quotes Hugo’s preface to Les Travailleurs de la mer, which talks of the fight against elemental nature as one of the major forms of humanity’s struggle against fate. The sense of the struggle against fate that Hugo reveals in his drawings most often emerges through suffering. Suffering can dissolve meaning: Hugo suffered the loss of his good name, home, and country, and exile showed him that no name is unconditionally prestigious and enduring, that language’s powers of persuasion are limited, that even the clearest language can become indecipherable. Every structure of meaning can eventually be swamped by an unknowable fate. Over and over again in his drawings Hugo shows small frail ships seemingly about to be overcome by the sea. A man hangs from a gallows against the gloomy infinity of the sky, or is swallowed up by the leviathan. In Le Rêve (The dream, 1865), an arm, the fragment of an unshown body, stretches out an agonizingly open-fingered hand writhing at the end of it, as though struggling to reach something also unseen. The fragment is like a visual scream—does the alarm of the hand signal that the unseen figure will awaken from the dream or be unable to climb out of it?

This uncertainty in Le Rêve as to whether the figure will awaken or remain submerged in the dream, like the uncertainty as to whether the sea will swamp the ship, or whether there is any escape from the bowels of the leviathan, symbolizes Hugo’s sense of the enigmatic character of articulation, a character more evident through the visual than the verbal. Clearly for Hugo the imagistic language of dreams makes the enigmatic character of expression particularly evident. But expression does not reveal its full secretiveness unless the dream is dissolved in the maw of unintelligibility. Hugo accomplishes such dissolution through visual art.

Taken as a whole, Hugo’s drawings show us the processes of dissolving, unintelligibility, and intelligibility. In what Szeemann calls Hugo’s “tachistic” drawings, the unintelligible is most prominent. These works seem most Modernistic. In his Aesthetic Theory (1969) Theodor W. Adomo wrote, “As the work (under the auspices of modernism) posits unintelligibility as expression, increasingly destroying its intelligible mornent, the traditional hierarchy of understanding is shattered.” This positing is itself an act of creativity, opening the way for new possibilities of relativistic intelligibility, or for constructions of understanding that deny the absoluteness of any prehension. Cubism as well as Expressionism, Minimalism as well as Surrealism, in their different ways, are examples of attempts at such constructions. Hugo was one of the first artists to immerse himself in the chaos of the amorphous—which makes such constructions possible—and to extract its secret: it is among the primary means through which the self can express the pain it feels in the struggle against fate.

Hugo’s drawings show him depressed by the recognition of death. In exile, Hugo was in effect living through another death; on this island he was dead to the world, and no doubt realized he would actually die, perhaps all too soon. His drawings show him counteracting his poisonous despair with the antidote of omnipotence: he plays God with the world, in pictures of it that seem simultaneously to destroy and to create it. This striking grandiosity in Hugo’s drawings conveys perhaps the grandest of grand illusions that humanity creates in its struggle with fate: the illusion that time is reversible and space collapsible. To overcome time and space is to overcome fate. The grandiosity of Hugo’s fantasy permits him symbolically to accomplish this miracle. At their most tachistic, his drawings drop us into the timeless, spaceless scene. From that perspective, reality is simply another form of fantasy, as Hugo’s drawings, showing the real in an irreal, hallucinatory way, make clear.

Hugo came to all this through enormous dissatisfaction with the world. Such dissatisfaction is quintessentially Romantic. It is also Romantic to repudiate the facade of intelligibility carefully maintained by those in charge of the world and supported by their language and conventions. But this is also a form of survival. Perhaps uncompromising aggression is necessary: perhaps the depths can only be articulated under the aegis of aggression, as though only aggression against the world can mobilize the strength to plumb the depths, to withstand and harness their pressure as well as their enigma and even unreadability. In a kind of visual onomatopoeia, an ambivalent chiaroscuro erupting in climaxes of violence, Hugo’s drawings are ambiguously regenerative and degenerative, celebratory and revengeful.

In listening to the siren song of unintelligibility, Hugo did not go mad, did not crack up, because he seems to have listened unafraid, perceiving its musicality, rhapsodically embracing rather than resisting its ambivalences. Through that embrace he articulated and creatively transformed his own conflicted condition into potential space. Encountering certain unintelligible emotional tones in himself, he survived this sea of stormy ambivalences by identifying with it, in effect accepting its inevitability in a preternatural way. He had become one with his Rorschach sea, which had originally been the ordinary sea that confirmed his exile. Today, Hugo has the double immortality of having created extraordinary intelligibility and extraordinary unintelligibility. He shows us what it really means to be an “artist,” beyond any medium.

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is a professor of art history and philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. and the editor of Art Criticism. He contributes regularly to Artforum.

“Victor Hugo, 1802–1885: Phantasien in Tusche” showed at the Kunsthaus lunch from June 5 to August 23. This essay’s quotations of Harald Szeemann’s catalogue text for the show are translated from the German by the author. The painting by August Strandberg was shown in “August Strindberg: Schilderijen uit Zweedse Collecties” at the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh, Amsterdam, from February 1 to April 12 this year.

The image in this article’s title is Hugo’s Bateau duns la tempête, ca. 1860–65.