Le plat pays qui (n’)est (pas) le mien

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier's stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier’s stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Another March, another trip to TEFAF and the Salon du Dessin (with a trip to Brussels to visit friends in the middle)… which goes some way to explaining why I’ve been rather silent here of late. So I’ll break the silence with one of my favourite works from both fairs, this extraordinary drawing by Victor Hugo.

Victor Hugo? Yes, he might be better known as the author of Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris, but there’s another side to his work, which he kept fairly private during his lifetime – darkly visionary drawings, mostly of mysterious buildings or crumbling ruins looming out of pools of wash and tangled webs of inky lines. Souvenir de Belgique is thought to date from between 1852-55, when he was living in exile on Guernsey, his sojourn in Belgium in the recent but rapidly receding past – a drawing not from life, but from memory and imagination. I’ve spent enough time on trains crossing Belgium over the last few weeks to feel that Hugo innately understood the flatness and bleakness of the landscape, as well as the melancholy and mystery: I have no idea whether Fernand Khnopff knew about this drawing (I’d guess not) but it looks and feels like a precursor to his own weird, misty visions of the Ardennes and of a dead Bruges.

Most of Hugo’s drawings are on a fairly modest scale, but Souvenir de Belgique is more ambitious, nearly a metre across including the frame. And you can’t not include the frame – it’s integral to the drawing. Hugo inscribed the title on it, signed it, and continued the drawing on it in the form of a strange red flower (hard to identify, but I think a poppy is likely, and would tie in nicely with the dreamlike quality of the drawing). But the most extraordinary thing about the frame sadly doesn’t come through in my less-than-wonderful photo.

The frame is made of pine, and it’s beaded with droplets of resin. They are of course long dried and hardened but under the lights on the stand, both in Maastricht and Paris, they still look wet, as if the planks are freshly cut and oozing resin, almost like – dare I say it – blood, or sweat, or tears.

Yes, it sounds a bit grisly, but I don’t imagine Hugo’s choice of wood can have been accidental. It makes the drawing seem alive (and grieving, or wounded, perhaps mortally) in a way no more conventional frame possibly could.

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