Victor Hugo is somewhat something of an Island celebrity and tourist attraction. He lived in Guernsey from 1855 while in exile from France. Previously he was a member of the French peerage and prominent politician, from a wealthy family. He went back to France in 1870. He is said to have written Les Miserables and the Toilers of the Sea whilst in Guernsey.
Event: Hugo, Visions of Exile – Location: Guernsey Museum at Candie 22 June 2018 – 16 September 2018
Event Website: www.museums.gov.gg/article/157853/Hugo-Visions-of-Exile
Exhibition Rationale: “Victor Hugo’s writings are known throughout the world. Novels such as Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame made him a legend in his own lifetime. What many people are not aware of is his skill as an artist. He produced over 3,000 drawings, mostly using the very ink he would write his novels and poetry with. As well as being an extraordinary draughtsman Hugo was fearlessly experimental in his drawings. Added to the ink would be coffee grounds and soot, as well as imprints of lace and stencils. The intensity and emotion in these drawings grew during Hugo’s exile in the Channel Islands. First in Jersey between 1852 and 1855, and then moving to Guernsey where he lived at his home, Hauteville House, until 1870.” (https://www.visitguernsey.com/event/hugo-visions-exile)
“The exhibition ‘Visions of Exile’ at Guernsey Museum displays many of these groundbreaking drawings which were kept hidden from public gaze by Hugo, sharing only with his family and friends. The drawings have been generously loaned to the Museum from two major French institutions, Maisons de Victor Hugo and the Bibliothèque nationale de France and supported by Canaccord.”(https://www.visitguernsey.com/event/hugo-visions-exile)
Date and time of my visit: Thursday 16th August 2018 at 1pm
The exhibition of Victor Hugo’s drawings is held within the Guernsey Museum. The museum is a building with six gallery spaces, one learning room (the Discovery Room), a lecture theatre with capacity for 66 people, a cafe and a museum gift shop. Entrance to the exhibits is through the gift shop, the cafe can be accessed separately. Four of the gallery spaces hold permanent exhibitions showing (1) archeological finds and information about early man in Guernsey, (2) Guernsey witchcraft and folklore, (3) treasures donated from benefactors that lived locally, (5) and a fine art (painting) exhibit with around 200 paintings mainly from local artists dating from classical to contemporary. There are also a small amount of works on loan, currently a Damien Hirst and a Yayoi Kusama. The remaining galleries hold temporary exhibits. All these spaces interlink and it would be difficult to go into one exhibit without attention being drawn to other rooms.
Because it is almost impossible not to look at this eclectic collection of the most weird and wonderful it would be difficult to separate this out from the experience of seeing the Hugo drawings. Particularly taxidermy, there are a lot of stuffed birds which creates a definite Hitchcock vibe to one particular corner. Bits of rusty machine parts left by the Germans when they left in 1945, a skip that was used to renovate an old monument on the common. A miniature of a restoration gentleman. Some old religious relics and a gold covered bible, and the mummified cats often found in the walls of old houses (witchcraft). A spell book and a live stream video installation.
This was my introduction to the Hugo exhibition, and I entered the gallery of illustrations with a mind full of witchcraft, WW2 invasion stories, ancient peoples and monuments and stuffed birds. A particularly dark mindset to adopt before entering the exhibition I had come to see.
Also in my mind was the marketing and advertising for the show that I had researched just before going to the exhibition. These images have been on the side of busses and in local magazines and newspapers. The story of the drawings arriving in Guernsey were reported on the local news. The world’s largest private yacht visited Guernsey from Norway with cruise passengers and a special cruise passenger event was organised. There was an international conference and youtube clips showing researchers talking about the importance of the Hugo works. A private view organised by the show sponsor, the private offshore bank Canaccord Genuity Wealth Management, which was a well documented affair. So I was also mindful of this summer’s hype and aware that I viewed this quite negatively and did not want this to affect my experience of the exhibition.
Entering the gallery I was overwhelmed by how dark it was. These are some photos of the lighting. It was more than subdued, it was dark. The room was lit from spots suspended from the roof which created dramatic pockets of light. The shape of the room is octagonal with two entrance/exit doors which are on opposite walls. The other six walls were display walls and had been painted white. Within the room were a number tall wide temporary walls that were painted brown which can only have helped to darken the space. These walls created smaller display spaces within the octagon, but this also created barriers, small dark booths, sharp corners and some difficulties navigating the room. There was no natural light in the space and the air conditioning had made the temperature cool. It had been raining on my walk to the gallery so my damp clothes, combined with the ambient temperature, made me chilly. There were no specific exhibition sounds or presentations running, the only sounds were of other visitors to the gallery. There were around twelve other visitors to the exhibition which made the space quite crowded and occasionally made it difficult to view some of the work on show.
This link is to the exhibition catalogue: http://www.museums.gov.gg/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=114610&p=0
In terms of a local bank sponsored exhibition the show was pleasingly well put together. The drawings had been grouped in context, for instance political cartoons, pictures of the sea, Toilers of the Sea illustrations, Jersey landscapes, Guernsey landscapes amongst others. There were also many drawings on show that illustrated the a breadth of work from whimsical sketches and material tests to draftsman like drawings of ships. It was certainly a comprehensive retrospective. The curators made use of all the space had to offer, and instead of trying to brighten the sunlight less space, they darkened it for atmosphere. The lighting definitely set the tone for the exhibition and I think intended to quieten and unnerve the visitors. The exhibition is a success in that it achieved what it et out to do, which was to showcase the drawings of Victor Hugo and highlight his skills as a visual artist.
What was a little alarming was the claim that Victor Hugo was an abstract artist before abstraction existed.
“Hugo would use … paper folding techniques … creating ink marked mirror images, as well as applying random ink marks (taches) using various unconventional methods. Hugo used these blots and accidental marks within many of his landscapes from the 1840s, but it was during his exile that he allowed many of the marks to remain unaltered. Hugo did not feel the need to incorporate these taches and stains into recognisable forms but allowed them just to ‘be’, creating abstraction in its purest form.” (Excerpt from the Exhibition Catalogue: http://www.museums.gov.gg/CHttpHandler.ashx?id=114610&p=0)
I looked into this a little to see if there was any research to validate the claim and I found an interesting article from the Tate in 2011 which mentions Hugo’s use of mark making during seances with ouija boards and a pencil to make continuous line drawings while in contact with the dead including his daughter, Galileo, Voltaire, Moses, Christ and Death, amongst others. The article goes on to say that he used this free mark making whilst in exile in the Channel Islands and incorporated them into his figurative landscape and character drawings. Andre Breton had an affair with Hugo’s granddaughter who introduced him to these pictures and he shared them with the Surrealists as they were interest in automatic drawing. Breton is quoted as saying, “‘Victor Hugo is a Surrealist when he is not stupid,” as the Surrealists could not abide his writing and went on to say the Hugo’s seances were “productions… of astounding naivete”. ( Turner, C, The Deliberate Accident in Art – Blots, Tate Etc. Issue 21: Spring 2011, 01.01.2011 https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/deliberate-accident-art)
I think I was correct to trust my instinct to be cautious about a statement suggesting Hugo is an abstract artist ‘before abstraction’.