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Stones to Stains: Drawings by Victor Hugo

This exhibition sheds new light on Hugo’s experimental and enigmatic practice as a draftsman and includes over 75 drawings and photographs spanning the duration of his career.

Poet, novelist, playwright and critic Victor Hugo (1802–1885) was a preeminent figure in the social, political, and cultural life of nineteenth century France. One of the greatest writers of all time, he was also an accomplished draftsman and produced a lesser known but remarkable body of works on paper. Hugo’s drawing practice was largely a private endeavor and although over three thousand sheets by him survive today, they were rarely seen in public during his lifetime. Many were produced during his extended exile on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey between 1852 and 1870. The sole American museum exhibition devoted to his graphic work to date was organized by the Drawing Center in New York in 1998. The Hammer Museum’s exhibition will reconsider Hugo’s experimental and enigmatic practice as a visual artist for a new generation of audiences in America.

The title of the exhibition, “Stones to Stains,” alludes to the development of the artist’s idiosyncratic form of draftsmanship and its relationship to the transformative properties of water. With its ceding and receding movement, the violence of its waves or the inexorable flow of drops, the persistence of water eventually erases or envelops all in its path, including the seemingly unassailable density of stone. In Hugo’s ink and wash drawings, we witness a phenomenon similar to that of water’s effect on stone. Throughout his life Hugo consistently showed an interest in architectural forms, both natural and man-made, yet his drawings vacillate between the depiction of landscapes and architecture and the rendering of abstract forms and taches (stains). Hugo’s spontaneous approach and receptiveness to the myriad possibilities of medium and materials characterize these drawings. He often relinquished his compositions to chance by soaking or turning the paper, allowing the ink to pool into spontaneous shapes. He also added to the complexity of his compositions with the use of stencil and collage, and by making impressions of various materials such as lace or his own fingertips.