First presentation of the famous French writer’s graphic oeuvre in a Vienna museum


The Leopold Museum is dedicating the first comprehensive exhibition in Austria to the pictorial oeuvre of the eminent writer Victor Hugo (Besançon1802–1885 Paris). A protagonist of French Romanticism and extraordinary homo politicus, Hugo was an important voice within the social fabric of France. Initially a conservative royalist and later a republican, Hugo remained an ardent European and a fervent opponent of the death penalty all his life. His opposition to the regime of the self-proclaimed Emperor Napoleon III led to his exile which lasted almost 20 years. From 1851 Hugo lived with his family as well as his lover and muse Juliette Drouet on the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey. When he returned to France in 1870, Victor Hugo was given a celebratory reception by the people of Paris. From 1881, while the artist was still alive, his birthday marked a republican state celebration.

The exhibition initiated by the Leopold Museum’s Director Hans-Peter Wipplinger affords visitors the opportunity to encounter an extraordinary artist whose world was shaped by nostalgia and progress in equal measure. The exquisite loans hail from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, the Maisons de Victor Hugo in Paris as well as from private collections, including the Munich Sammlung Klüser, among others.

Hans-Peter Wipplinger: “We are delighted to be able to present the first monographic exhibition of Victor Hugo’s oeuvre in a Vienna museum. Featuring some 60 eminent exhibits, the presentation at the Leopold Museum’s new Graphic Cabinet unites versatile human depictions, fantastical metamorphoses of buildings, rare lace imprints, as well as a whole range of various degrees of abstraction in the work of this exceptional artist.”

Hugo’s seminal novels, such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) and Les Misérables (1862) captivate a worldwide readership to this day, with screen adaptations and musicals having made these works accessible to a wide audience.The fact that Victor Hugo, who saw himself exclusively as an author, was also a passionate draftsman and painter is a surprising aspect of his oeuvre.Along with watercolors, the exhibition features select photographs from Hugo’s estate and additionally includes works by the French writer George Sand and the English painter of light William Turner.

Exhibition curator Ivan Ristić:“While William Turner made the material world appear as a concentration of light particles, Hugo conducted some of his painting experiments in almost complete darkness.” In his novel The Toilers of the Seathe author emphatically described the power of darkness: “The darkness of night is vertiginous. Those who plunge into it become submerged in it and struggle to survive. No fatigue is comparable to this study of the shadows. It is the study of an obliteration.”

In exile on the Channel Islands, Victor Hugo engaged in various activities. Impressive rock formations, breath-taking atmospheric moods, the activities of the fishermen as well as the boats navigating the coast inspired the artist to create gloomy sea- and riverscapes. The 1850s were also the period during which Hugo carried out some of his pioneering experiments on paper.A child of his times, Hugo participated in spiritualist séances. In 1855 and 1856 he created his dentelles, his prints of decorative lace patterns, in Guernsey. In conjunction with blot elements, these imprints of delicate lace dipped into ink resulted in depictions of sections of sky, letters or the faces of ghosts(spectres). Interactions with the new medium of photography were not uncommon. In his photographic studio installed at his house in Jersey he created some 350 prints together with his son Charles and the poet and photographer Auguste Vacquerie. In Hugo’s painterly works, we can see photographic influences especially in his stencil images, while monotypes experienced a renaissance not least in Hugo’s painterly oeuvre, his works often anticipating abstract painting.

Victor Hugo passionately experimented with various painting techniques: Daubing with paint, and at times using unconventional materials such as dust, Hugo created images of conjecture and vague possibilities, as Hans-Peter Wipplinger elucidates: “Daubing in sepia and availing himself of unorthodox scratching and smearing techniques, Hugo often left his creations to chance. Thus one could be justified in saying that in addition to the suggestiveness and precision of his texts, he managed to visually define infinity.”

Although Victor Hugo’s estate comprises more than 3,500 works on paper, he never appeared publicly as an artist, never participated in exhibitions and contributed only marginally to art criticism. The writer’s works on paper are often inhabited by whimsical creatures from the fringes of society. According to Hugo, the modern muse felt that not everything was humanly beautiful and that they would ask themselves if it was for man to correct God.

Victor Hugo’s drawingsat times surprise with their play on perspective, for instance when a gigantic mushroom viewed from below or a crowing rooster enter into the depictions. The drawing and painting poet was also interested in architecture. With somber and fairytale-like depictions of cathedrals and castles, Hugo conjured the spirits of a past whose precious relics he believed to be in danger.Hugo often depicted medieval buildings, partly ruined and often embedded into nocturnal scenes, as well as churches, bridges and half-timbered houses which he captured on paper and called souvenirs.

In his novel The Hunchback of Notre-DameHugo’s protagonist archdeacon Frollo refers to the danger posed by the proliferation of books to architecture.“The one will kill the other. The book will kill the building,” fearing that the “universal writing” made of stone would be ousted by a new form, one that is more convenient and less costly.

Curator Ivan Ristić: “A generational divide exists not only between people but also between the tools created by them. It is not surprising that the observation ‘The one will kill the other’ now enjoys wide popularity as a fashionable maxim in the field of media studies. The fact that a converse process is currently taking place, in which the flood of images is threatening to supersede the textual, was something that the 19th century author naturally could not have anticipated.”


Exhibition opening:

The opening ceremony on Thursday evening was attended by the Leopold Museum board members Elisabeth Leopold and Agnes Husslein-Arco, the collectors and lenders to the exhibition Verena and Bernd Klüser, the contributor to the Hugo catalogue Raphael Rosenberg, the curator and head of the Bruseum Roman Grabner, the Leopold Museum’s Managing Director Gabriele Langer, the theater maker Erwin Piplits (Odeon), Fritz Fischer, head of collections of the Kunstkammer and Schatzkammer of the Kunsthistorisches Museum,the collector Waltraud Leopold, the gallery owner Gabriele Wimmer (Galerie Ulysses), the artists Martha Jungwirth, Wolfgang Herzig, Marko Lulic, Constantin Luser, Werner Reiterer, Markus Schinwald, Walter Schmögner and Kai Walkowiak, the Klimt descendants Peter Zimpel and Gustav Huber, Christine Gironcoli, Michael Franz (Arts and Culture Division of the Federal Chancellery of Austria), the graphic designer Nele Steinborn, the CEO of AzW Karin Lux, the director of the Collegium Hungaricum Mag.Mária Molnár, the curators of the Theatermuseum Daniela Franke, Angela Sixt and Kurt Ifkovits, Gabriele Mauthe, head of the archives of the Austrian National Library, ORF cultural journalist Katja Gasser, Schiele descendant and entrepreneur Markus Führer (Gablitzer Privatbrauerei), Dorotheum expert Ursula Rohringer, and many others.

The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue published with Walther König publishers in German and English comprising 160 pages and approximately 100 illustrations. Available at the Leopold Museum Shop for 24.90 Euros.


Guided tours with the exhibition’s curatorIvan Ristić:

Thursday, 23rd Nov. 2017Donnerstag, 04.01.2018

Thursday, 21st Dec. 2017

Thursday, 4th Jan. 2018

at 6 pm

Guided tour / talk
“Double Talents: Curse or Blessing?”

Tour of the exhibition & panel discussion with exhibition curator Ivan Ristić and curator, writer and literary scholar Stefan Kutzenberger (Leopold Museum)

Friday, 17th Nov. 2017, 4 pm

As part of Vienna Art Week

The guided tour is free with a valid museum ticket.


Share and follow

  • Share on WhatsApp
  • Share on Tumblr
  • Teilen per E-Mail