'The Chaotic Brush'

photo: mirror interior, hugo house

If you like a lot of home decor, you will love Victor Hugo's home because it has enough for several homes.

The Other Victor Hugo - At Home

Paris:- Wednesday, 11. October 2000:- I imagine there are people in Paris who have carefully cultivated relations that enable them to get invitations to a lot of museum and gallery openings, for the free food and drinks.

I have not exactly 'carefully cultivated' any relations, but I do get some of these invitations. Many of them are for times when I can't go; but this new season seems to be marked by a change from the nearly universal day of Thursday and time of 18:30, to a wide variety of weekdays and times.

It happened that I got two invitations to go to Victor Hugo's house today. The fancier invitation is for the inauguration of the 'Du Chaos Dans le Pinceau' exhibition, from 17:00 to 21:00; and the plainer invitation is for a 'café' at 14:30.

The latter is about the time of day I can really use a free café. This is why I ride up the escalator out of the métro at Saint-Paul a little before café-time, to find a seriously blue sky with big puff-ball clouds hanging over the Marais.

Some people like the Marais when it is grey and gloomy and sometimes I like it this way too, but there are times when bright light etches the details of this old part of Paris in such a way that dim impressions seem second-rate.

Wow! It is great, in other words. The Rue de Rivoli starts in front of the Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis church, where the Rue Saint-Antoine ends; and the church is sooty blue.

Is it? I am on the sunny side, about where the Hôtel de Sully is, when I remember to look back towards the church - has it been renovated? - but the slight right curve where the Rue Saint-Antoine runs into Rivoli and François-Miron, hides it.

Light is slicing like a sword into the Rue dephoto: expo chaos dans le pinceau Birague, which leads to the Place des Vosges. I am seriously thinking of abandoning the café in favor of catching a glowing blue and chalky, slate and brick Marais.

The exhibition space are like a holiday from the house's extraordinary decor.

But there is no substitute for free café, even if visiting Victor's house is the price to pay for it. Right at this moment, under the arcades of the Place des Vosges, I don't even know if Victor's place is worth a visit because this is the first time I've been invited to visit it.

His street door is nothing special, even if it is 388 years old. Right inside, in the entry, it is possible to see that this house - first owned by Arnaud in 1606, although the whole place wasn't inaugurated until 1612 - has not been renovated much in the 200-odd years until Victor moved in; nor not much since then.

As a classified monument, it is not a dump. It is neat and tidy, in an early 17th century style that has not been remodeled in any way. On the first landing, the press ladies accept my invitation, and tell me the café is waiting on the floor above.

The name of the exhibition is an extract from 'Les Misérables.' However this exhibition concerns Victor Hugo's graphic talents - which were never exhibited during his lifetime - and most of which were willed to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, until the eventual existence of the 'Bibliothèque des Etats-Unis d'Europe.'

The other organizers of this exhibition are the Maison de Victor Hugo, both here and Hautville House on Guernsey, and the Thyssen-Bournemisza Museum of Madrid.

Its conservator Tomàs Llornes had the idea of taking the Venice exhibition of 1993 onephoto: salle chinoise step further - and the Madrid version of this exhibition has proceeded this 'home-town' version.

Works shown here are also from other private and public collections, and together represent some 4,000 pieces done by Hugo.

A part of the 'Chinese Room,' all of which was inspired by Victor Hugo in his spare time.

Not content to be a simple sketcher, Victor Hugo did everything with everything, on everything, and in every style; including cubism, frottages, grattages, surrealist prints, abstracts, spots and drippings - long before there were cubists or surrealists. Hugo was the rootstalk - 'le rhizome' - of much of 20th century art, even though he died in 1885.

Hugo designed pieces of furniture, and conceived of the decoration of whole rooms, such as the 'chinese' one on the second floor of the house here.

This, and all the art works - and here are some never shown before - were done by Victor Hugo 'for fun,' between books, for amusement. Some of the ideas for details in the books were sketched in ink beforehand.

He worried that 'they would cease to be designs as soon as they had pretensions to be them.' To Baudelaire, he wrote in 1860 that his designs were, 'clumsily thrown on paper by a simple man who had a lot of other things to do.'

Many of these unsimple things are shown on the first floor with the sun more shining than not on the Place des Vosges outside. The second floor has the exotic 'chinese room' from Hautville House, and the various other rooms were also decorated by Hugo.

Before you start to think that this exhibition may feature the part-time doodles of a full-time writer, you should stop thinking this. While Victor Hugo chose to write carefully constructed stories, in his free time he let his imagination run wild - in all directions, with all materials, with all subjects of interest - everything! - and thus 'chaotic brush' is apt.

Many artists get into 'grooves' - where they do what is expected of them for a public that expects them to do what is expected; and this can be kind of a trap. Since Hugo didn't have to defend any public status of 'artist' he could, and did do, what he wanted.

The sheer scope of this is stunning; from rapid india ink sketches, to furniture. He exercised the 'freedom' artists are supposed to have, but seldom have license to do. In this exhibition, expect the unusual.

In a larger one of the rooms there is a buffet laid out on a table and it is from this that I get my café. Everything else is undisturbed, so I must be the first freeloader.

I do not find the semi-secret back exit that Hugo used for various private excursions, but I do climb up to the fourth floor to see if the toilets are authentic 17th century. The stairway is, but these conveniences are more recent additions.

One of the museum's guards who has come all the way up is pretty winded. He says he does it six or seven times a day and that there are 110 steps.photo: cocktail treats

The apartment Hugo lived in with his wife and four children on the second floor is fairly large. When the place was built, there was a royal order that the 'houses' were not to be sub-divided; and since the museum was opened in 1902 it has been whole again.

To go with the café, extraordinary swizzle-sticks.

There is also a story about one of the early lady tenants, a duel fought, and the assassination of another Coligny more or less under the gaze of those who thought it perfectly acceptable combat.

This is another story for some other time. Today's story - and exhibition - is mainly about Victor Hugo who would have been more in place - for ideas - in our soon-to-be 21st century than in his own 19th.

"Du Chaos Dans le Pinceau..."
Exhibition, Victor Hugo, Dessins, until Sunday 7. January; from Tuesday to Sunday; from 10:00 to 17:40. At the Maison de Victor Hugo, 6. Place des Vosges, Paris 4. Métro: Saint-Paul or Bastille. InfoTel.: 01 42 72 10 16. Catalogue, 412 pages, 295 francs.

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