PRINT December 2013

Branden W. Joseph

Victor Hugo, Ruines de Gros-Nez, ou l’Ogive (Ruins of Grosnez, or the Ogive), 1854–55, ink and charcoal on paper, 13 3/4 x 8 5/8".

THE FIRST WORK ENCOUNTERED in the exhibition “Entrée des médiums: Spiritisme et art de Hugo à Breton” was Honoré Daumier’s lithographic suite La Fluidomanie, 1853, which satirizes the vogue for the paranormal phenomenon of table turning. Ascending the staircase of the Maison de Victor Hugo, past Daumier’s biting caricatures of attempts to make furniture spin, dance, and talk, brought to mind Karl Marx’s allusion to the craze in his evocation of a table that, as a commodity, “stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to begin dancing of its own free will.”1 The virtual juxta-position of Daumier’s irony and Marx’s analysis proved an ideal introduction to an exhibition that approached nineteenth-century occultism and its artistic legacies from a determinately skeptical and secular perspective.

The exhibition’s first half centered on the Hugo family, whose members came to reside in 1852 as exiles at No. 3 Marine Terrace on the Isle of Jersey off the Normandy coast, as a result of Victor Hugo’s opposition to Napoleon III.2 The practice of using a table to communicate with the spirit world was imported to the island in September 1853 by the author Delphine de Girardin. The first successful séance supposedly contacted a figure named Ame Soror, in whom Auguste Vacquerie, an associate of the Hugo family, “recognized” the spirit of Victor’s daughter Léopoldine, who had drowned a decade earlier, shortly after her nineteenth birthday. Thus began a two-year period in which the family communicated, primarily via the mediumistic skill of Victor’s son Charles, with an array of notable personalities including Moses, Christ, Aristotle, Rousseau, Shakespeare, Joan of Arc, and Napoleon, as well as with such allegorical figures as Tragedy, Comedy, Death, and the Ocean. Although portions of the story are well known, the exhibition staged its unfolding—including Léopoldine’s possible reappearance as the spirit Vestra and the post-séance homicidal mania that drove future communard and eccentric inventor Jules Allix to attack Vacquerie—with all the suspense of a mystery novel.

While the séances at Marine Terrace drew upon the Hugo family’s personal trauma (sparked by contact with a daughter doubly lost, first to death and then to exile, as her grave was in France), they also responded to the historical traumas of the Revolution of 1848, the subsequent installation of Napoleon III’s reactionary Second Empire, and the wider economic upheavals of the Industrial Revolution. In the aftermath of the previous decade’s battles, spiritism not only promised reunification with deceased loved ones but also offered a point of contact between polarized classes, as members of the bourgeoisie welcomed proletarian mediums into their salons. As emphasized by curators Gérard Audinet and Jérôme Godeau, the spiritism of the second half of the nineteenth century actually conformed to many of the era’s progressive values. Not only did the “somnambulant tables” represent a popular and democratic substitute for religion, they also followed scientific protocol by replacing blind faith with what seemed to be eyewitness observation of demonstrable effects.3 Furthermore, the tables were meritocratic—regardless of background, those most able to make them spin or talk rose to prominence—and thus served as partial recompense for industrial mechanization’s increasing displacement of a similar order of skilled knowledge or savoir faire. By firmly embedding its subject within such a matrix of social, economic, and historical factors, the exhibition (and beautifully designed catalogue) explored paranormal phenomena as a conduit to cultural insight. In so doing, it suggested a model for approaching the interest in such developments as spiritualist photography, influence machines, UFO sightings, and alternative religions in the work of contemporary artists like Mike Kelley, Zoe Beloff, Tony Oursler (grandson of a psychic debunker4), and Jim Shaw.

Guided by André Breton’s essays “Entrée des médiums” (The Mediums Enter) and “Le Message automatique,” the exhibition’s second half traced Surrealism’s engagement with a number of paranormally inflected artistic practices. Highlights included the fantastical engravings of Victorien Sardou (depicting the elaborate palaces—some on Mars, others on Jupiter—of the spirits of Swedenborg, Mozart, Christ, and others), trance drawings by mediums Léon Petitjean and Catherine-Élise Müller (aka Hélène Smith), the famous photographs, replete with ectoplasm, of séances conducted by Marthe Béraud (aka Eva C.), and the plaster molds of hands and feet supposedly materialized out of thin air by the medium Franek Kluski. This part of the show concluded with a concise selection of automatist works by Surrealists Robert Desnos, André Masson, Yves Tanguy, and Breton’s paramour and muse Nadja. (Or, rather, it should have concluded there: The exhibition’s sole misstep was including the uninspiring drawings of contemporary French medium Philippe Deloison.)

View of “Entrée des médiums: Spiritisme et art de Hugo à Breton,” 2013, Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris. Foreground: Jean-Baptiste Auguste Clésinger, Madame Émile de Girardin (Delphine Gay), 1804–55. Photo: Pierre Antoine.

The most captivating portion of “Entrée des médiums,” however, remained the section concerned with the Hugo family and the issues of authorship, anxiety, and influence that played out at Marine Terrace. Throughout the two-year episode of the speaking tables, Victor Hugo remained skeptical of the séance’s communication with the hereafter. As a result, he set out to interrogate the visiting apparitions, whose painstakingly dictated prose (spelled out letter by letter by means of coded tapping) often uncannily resembled his own and even reiterated ideas he had expressed years before. “Out of fear of being taken as a simple epigone,” notes Godeau, Hugo intently questioned and challenged these ghosts, one of whom (the spirit of Drama) all but commanded his return to poetry.5

Most of these otherworldly interactions transpired via the intercession of Charles, whom the exhibition placed at center stage, even going so far as to reattribute the “authorship” of some spiritualist drawings from father to son. Charles’s ostensible access to the spirit world allowed him temporarily to escape his father’s immense literary shadow and paved the way for his 1856 novel Le Cochon de saint Antoine, a fanciful tale that echoed, perhaps inadvertently, the prose arising from the séances.6 Charles’s proficiency with the speaking tables not only aroused the admiration of a father who had considered him indolent, but literally turned the tables on their relationship; during the séances, the great Victor Hugo was frequently relegated to the role of silent and patient transcriber of his son’s dictation. As the exhibition revealed, this contest over authorship and priority continued into both men’s visual production via the interplay between Charles’s haunting, atmospheric photographs of the bluffs and ruins surrounding Marine Terrace and Victor’s similarly brooding pen-and-ink drawings of the same subjects. Both sets of work convey the dramatic loneliness of life on the island, while other photographs by Charles seem to engulf his father’s portraits in hand-drawn embellishments or immense, translucent, photogrammed foliage.

In outlining the devious, if unconscious, vengeance visited by Charles upon his father, “Entrée des médiums” touched upon the larger epistemological stakes of what Michel Foucault described as the “truth-event.”7 For the “truth” of what took place on the Isle of Jersey cannot be judged solely according to scientific criteria—pace a long line of institutions such as the Institut Métapsychique International (IMI), from which the exhibition received loans and to which it devoted a chapter of the catalogue. It also calls to be judged on the basis of the contest joined between son and father, specifically on the question of whether Charles would succeed in convincing his father of the veracity of the paranormal occurrences and messages he channeled. Charles’s joust with the table (whether he would be able to make it speak or not) took place within the context and conditions of the joust with the father, who would be made to believe or not and in believing would cede, if momentarily, his power and position over the son and with it the means of expression, language, and voice.

In this struggle between father and son that cannot properly be termed Oedipal (Freud’s diagnosis in any case being some years away), we find a confrontation between what Foucault termed “two series in the Western history of truth”:

The series of constant, constituted, demonstrated, discovered truth, and then a different series of the truth which does not belong to the order of what is, but to the order of what happens, a truth, therefore, which is not given in the form of discovery, but in the form of the event, a truth which is not found but aroused and hunted down. . . . It is not a truth that is given through the mediation of instruments, but a truth provoked by rituals, captured by ruses, seized according to occasions.8

This second order of truth—as ritual, test, or event—proves insurrectionary and quite possibly dangerous, rising up against the institution and power of the father and revealing unruly affinities with revolutionary impulses running from 1848 to 1968, as well as with fascism’s political deployment of the irrational.9 A harbinger of what Foucault calls “the scandal in making will and desire emerge outside knowledge, as Nietzsche and Freud have done,” the story recounted by “Entrée des médiums” gets to the very heart of the Surrealist project: its wrestling with fascism over rationality and irrationality, knowledge, power, and desire.10 As such, it suggests that what Walter Benjamin once dismissed as “the humid backroom of spiritualism” is more important than generally acknowledged for understanding the stakes of what he famously lauded as Surrealism’s “revolutionary energies.”11

Branden W. Joseph is Frank Gallipoli Professor of modern and contemporary art at Columbia University.

Charles Hugo, Marine Terrace, 1853–54, salt print, 2 5/8 x 3 7/8".


1. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, A Critique of Political Economy, trans. Ben Fowkes, (New York: Penguin, 1976), 163–64. The term dancing tables can be found in Félix Roubaud, La Danse des tables, phénomènes physiologiques démontrés (Paris: Librairie nouvelle, 1853).

2. See Gérard Audinet et al., Entrée des médiums, Spiritisme et art de Hugo à Breton, exh. cat. (Paris: Maison de Victor Hugo, 2012).

3. For the term somnambulant tables, see Justinus Kerner, Die Somnambülen Tische (Stuttgart: Ebner and Seubert, 1853).

4. See Samri Frikell [Fulton Oursler], Spirit Mediums Exposed (New York: New Metropolitan Fiction, 1930).

5. Jérôme Goudeau, “Esprit de famille,” in Entrée des médiums, 40.

6. Charles Hugo, Le Cochon de saint Antoine (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1865).

7. Michel Foucault, Psychiatric Power: Lectures at the Collège de France, 19731974, ed. Jacques Lagrange, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Picador, 2006), 237.

8. Ibid., 237.

9. The miraculous phenomenon of the tables allowed Charles Hugo to follow the dictate of the famous May 1968 graffiti: “Take your desires for reality.”

10. Foucault, Lectures on the Will to Know: Lectures at the Collège de France 19701971 with Oedipal Knowledge, ed. Daniel Defert, trans. Graham Burchell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 17.

11. Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Selected Writings, vol. 2: 19271934, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 209–10.