the art of ballOOn-painting

by uwe kurz

Victor Marie Hugo (1802-1885)

Victor HugoNovelist, poet, and dramatist, the most important of French Romantic writers. Also he was interested in drawing, using the chance element.


Victor Hugo was born in Besançon as the son of a army general, who taught young Victor to admire Napoleon as a hero. After the separation of his parents, he was raised and educated in Paris by his mother, where the family settled when Hugo was two. His mother's lover, General Victor Lahorie, her husband's former Commandin Officer, was executed for plotting against Napoleon in 1812.
   From 1815 to 1818 Hugo attended the lycée Louis-le Grand in Paris. He began in early adolescence to write verse tragedies and poetry, and translated Virgil. In 1819 he founded with his brothers a review, the Conservateur Littéraire. Inspired by the example of the statesman and author François René Chateaubriand, Hugo published his first collection of poems, ODES ET POÉSIES DIVERSES. It gained him a royal pension from Louis XVIII. As a novelist Hugo made his debut with HAN D'ISLANDE (1823). The style of Sir Walter Scott labelled several of his works, among them BUG-JARGAL (1826).
   In 1822 Hugo married Adèle Foucher (d. 1868), who was the daughter of an officer at the ministry of war. His brother went insane on his wedding day - partly because losing his rivalry for Adele - and spent the rest of his life in an institution. In the 1820s Hugo come in touch with liberal writers, but his political stand wavered from side to side. In 1825 he cursed the memory of Napoleon but a few years later he started to speak of the glory that was bound up to the name of Napoleon. Hugo's foreword for his play CROMWELL (1827), a manifesto for a new drama, started a debate between French Classicism and Romanticism. However, Hugo was not a rebel, and not directly involved in the campaign against the bourgeois, but he influenced deeply the Romantic movement and the formulation of its values in France.
   Hugo gained a wider fame with his play HERNANI (1830) and with his famous historical work NOTRE-DAME DE PARIS which became an instant success. Since its appearance in 1831 the story has became part of the popular culture. The novel, set in 15th century Paris, tells a moving story of a gypsy girl Esmeralda and the deformed bell ringer, Quasimodo, who loves her. Esmeralda aroses passion in Claude Frollo, an evil priest, who discovers that she favors Captain Phoebus. Frollo stabs the captain and Esmeralda is accused of the crime. Quasimodo attempts to shelter Esmeralda in the cathedral. Frollo finds her and when Frollo is rejected by Esmeralda, he leaves her to the executioners. In his despair Quasimodo catches the priest, throws him from the cathedral tower, and disappears. Later two skeletons are found in Esmeralda's tomb - that of a hunchback embracing that of a woman.
   In the 1830s Hugo published several volumes of lyric poetry, which were inspired by Juliette Drouet, an actress with whom Hugo had a liaison until her death in 1882. Hugo's lyrical style was rich, intense and full of powerful sounds and rhythms, and although it followed the bourgeois popular taste of the period it also had bitter personal tones. Among his most ambitious works was an epic poem, 'Et nox facta est,' (And There Was Night), a study of Satan's fall. The poem was never completed. The latin title refers to the biblical lines »and there was light«. But when Milton's Satan had in his revolt tragic, cosmic grandeur, Hugo brings forth the feeling terror - the devil is a bat flying from his eternal prison, crying his revenge: »He shall have the blue sky, the black sky is mine.«
   In his later life Hugo became involved in politics as a supporter of the republican form of government. After three unsuccessful attempts, Hugo was elected in 1841 to the Académie Francaise. This triump was shadowed by the death of Hugo's daughter Léopoldine in 1843. In a poem, 'Tomorrow, At Daybreak', written on the fourth anniversary of her death, Hugo depicted his walk to the place where she was buried:

I shall not look on the gold of evening falling
Nor on the sails descending distant towards Harfleur,
And when I come, shall lay upon your grave
A bouquet of green holly and of flowering briar.

It took a decade before Hugo published again books. He devoted himself to politics, advocating social justice. After the 1848 revolution, with the formation of the Second Republic, Hugo was elected to the Constitutional Assembly and to the Legislative Assembly.
When the coup d'état by Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III) took place in 1851, Hugo believed his life to be in danger. He fled to Brussels and then to Jersey and Guernsey in the English Channel. In a poem, 'Memory of the Night of the Fourth,' focusing on the overthrown of the Second Republic and the death of a young child, killed by bullets, Hugo wrote about the new emperor:

Ah mother, you don't understand politics.
Monsieur Napoleon, that's his real name,
Is poor and a prince; loves palaces;
Likes to have horses, valets, money
For his gaming, his table, his bedroom,
His hunts, and he maintains
Family, church and society,
He wants Saint-Clod, rose-carpeted in summer,
So prefects and mayors can respect him.
That's why it has to be this way: old grandmothers
With their poor gray fingers shaking with age
Must sew in winding-sheets children of seven.

Hugo's partly voluntary exile lasted 20 years. During this time he wrote at Hauteville House some his best works, including LES CHÂTIMENTS (1853) and Les Misérables (1862), an epic story about social injustice. 
   The political upheaval in France and the proclamation of the Third Republic made Hugo return to France. Napoleon III fell from power and in 1870 Hugo witnessed the siege of Paris. During the period of the Paris Commune, Hugo lived in Brussels, from where he was expelled for sheltering defeated revolutionaries. After a short time refuge in Luxemburg, he returned to Paris and was elected senator. - Hugo died in Paris on May 22, 1885. He was given a national funeral, attended by two million people, and buried in the Panthéon.


Uwe Kurz


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SHADOWS OF A HAND - The Drawings of Victor Hugo

One favorite technique of Hugo's was to develop a drawing from an ink-blot or from stains (taches). He exploited the chance element in a visionary way, by finding a recognizable form in the formless, and drawing it out.

Once paper, pen-and-ink-well have been brought to the table, Victor Hugo sits down and without making a preliminary sketch, without any apparent preconception, sets about drawing with an extraordinarily sure hand not the landscape as a whole but any old detail. He will begin his forest with the branch of a tree, his town with a gable, his gable with a weathervane, and 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 a unexpected and powerful drawing that is often strange, always personal, and recalls the sketchings of Rembrandt and Piranesi.
(Charles Hugo)

What Hugo was searching for in these drawings were signs that would stimulate his imagination and suggest directions for his pen. Hugo interpreted these foldings, not for psychological purposes like the Swiss physician Hermann Rorschach with his famous tests introduced in 1921, but like a seer. He developed the symmetry, discerned resemblances, discovered figures and carried out all kinds of permutations. Reversal (or, better still, reversability), metamorphoses and fusion were themes so firmly rooted in Hugo's praxis that one commonly finds in his compositions a landscape reflected in water or a figure that reads equally well either way up.


reference: Florian Rodari
translated by Uwe Kurz

I am 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 between two verses.
(Victor Hugo in a letter to Baudelaire, April 29, 1860
translated by Uwe Kurz)


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