Hugo’s Galloping Horse (19th Cent.)

Victor Hugo, best known for novels like Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, made more than 3,500 drawings. Though he never painted nor exhibited publicly, his work was widely shared among members of his cultural circle. Eugène Delacroix thought that, if he had not been a writer, Hugo would have become one of the greatest French artists of the nineteenth century. With a mystical turn-of-mind and an interest in Spirtualism, Hugo anticipated techniques later used by Surrealists like Max Ernst and Kurt Schwitters. Some of his drawings, 60 years before Wassily Kandinsky made the first non-representational painting, are entirely abstract or seem to be.1

In this drawing Hugo has depicted a horse with a wide open eye and a foreleg stretched to the corner. Its reins hang loose. As I often explain, a stretched limb in visual art, more usually an arm, has long been symbolic of an artist's brush-arm extended towards the canvas even when, as in this case, the artist was not a painter. Nevertheless, like a hand or arm, the equine leg here is a symbol of his craft. Fortunately, like many artists, Hugo left additional features to help viewers like us confirm his meaning.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Hugo, Galloping Horse (undated). Ink on paper. Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris.

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Hugo the draughtsman was known for his love of rebuses and letter-play. His home in exile is said to have included "signatures and monograms integrated into wall designs, some discreetly, some ostentatiously, and often with humor."2 The example at left from his home in Guernsey includes a V and a H, for Victor Hugo, in the black shadow of the acrobat. Similar use of his initials has been recognized in at least three large drawings though he did so, as I can show, far more commonly than that.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Hugo, Acrobat (1863) Wood panel engraved by burning and colored. Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris.

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In this drawing Hugo's two initials are subtly incorporated into the bridle on the horse's head, as shown in the diagram.3 We are thus led to conclude that the animal is Hugo's alter ego. He could have seen other artists merge their name or initials in a similar manner in dozens of works from the Renaissance onwards.













 

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail and diagram of Hugo's Galloping Horse

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The horse's hoof, meanwhile, nearly touches the artist's initialed signature. It is also linked literally and symbolically in a straight line to its startled eye, an equine feature known to the ancient Greeks as the blemma Gorgon.4 Thereby associated with Medusa, the staring eye signifies insight and visual perception.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Hugo, Galloping Horse (undated)

Click image to enlarge.

It is little known that horses often represent the artist's animal nature, passions and sub-conscious. The controlling rider, when there is one, is the artist's rational, conscious mind. Hugo, deeply interested in the sub-conscious, has depicted a galloping horse whose reins hang loose thereby suggesting that he has given free rein (note the metaphor in language too) to his imagination. Perhaps the lesson here is that you should pay attention to how depicted objects are used linguistically because art is largely metaphorical and metaphor in visual language is the object itself. 

More Works by Hugo

Notes:

1. Danielle Molinari, Victor Hugo: Visions Graphiques (Paris Musées) 2010, pp. 4, 9-15

2. Molinari, ibid., p. 18

3. The loose reins of the horse below its head can be read as the upside-down V instead of the smaller one indicated in the diagram.

4. Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Sussex: The Harvester Press) 1978, p. 190

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