Friday, June 8, 2012

Les Misérables-Victor Hugo, the painter

On the plane coming home from our Alaska trip, I sat next to a young man who was reading "Les Misérables" by Victor Hugo written in 1862.  Intrigued, I asked him how he liked it.  I remembered reading it in high school and feeling overwhelmed by the hopeless lives of the poor in eighteenth century France.  He said that he loved it and that it was his mother's favorite book, so I decided to re-read it.  However, time has a way of interfering with the best intentions!  I have yet to pick up a copy because of preparations for the upcoming "Harry Potter, Chamber of Secrets Camp".

But last evening, friends invited us to join them for the 25 anniversary tour of the musical

Les Misérables 

 It was visually stunning!  Scenic designer, John Napier, uses projections of paintings inspired by some of Victor Hugo's paintings as backdrops for many of the scenes.  Victor Hugo was a painter? How, in my art history classes did I miss that?  


"While facts and psychological nuances are lost and even the plot is often relegated to a program synopsis, the thematic spirit of the original is preserved. Sequence after sequence speaks of Hugo's compassion for society's outcasts and his faith in God's offer of redemption. When the poor Fantine is reduced to ''making money in her sleep,'' her downtrodden fellow prostitutes are apotheosized in golden light as their predatory clients circle in menacing shadows. When the story's action moves from the provinces to Paris, two hulking wooden piles of domestic bric-a-brac converge to form an abstract representation of a mean slum, bordered on every side by the shuttered windows of a city coldly shunning its poor. In a subsequent and dazzling transition, the towers tilt to form an enormous barricade. Later still, the barricade twirls in mournful silence to become a charnel house -''Guernica'' re-imagined as a Dada sculpture - crammed with the splayed corpses of a revolution that failed.
Except for that uprising's red flag,

Mr. Napier's designs, all encased in a dark, beclouded prison of a proscenium, are drained of color. ''Les Miserables'' may be lavish, but its palette, like its noblest characters, is down-to-earth - dirty browns and cobblestone grays, streaked by Mr. Hersey with the smoky light that filters down to the bottom of the economic heap.

The proletarian simplicity of the design's style masks an incredible amount of theatrical sophistication. In one three-dimensional zoom-lens effect, Valjean's resolution of a crisis of conscience is accompanied by the sudden materialization of the courtroom where the moral question raised in his song (''Who Am I?'') must be answered in deed. ''Les Miserables'' eventually takes us from the stars where inspector Javert sets his metaphysical perorations to the gurgling sewers inhabited by the parasitic innkeeper, Thenardier - and in one instance even simulates a character's suicidal fall through much of that height."  By Frank Rich, New York Times.
From the Musical

One of my Castles in Spain, Victor Hugo Via
Victor Hugo, "The Vision Ship," 1864-65. Pen, brown ink, and reserves on cream paper, 7 9/16 x 10 1/6 in.  Via

Vision of Notre Dame-Victor Hugo

Looking for more information about Victor Hugo, I went to Wikipedia and found the following.
"Hugo produced more than 4000 drawings. Originally pursued as a casual hobby, drawing became more important to Hugo shortly before his exile, when he made the decision to stop writing in order to devote himself to politics. Drawing became his exclusive creative outlet during the period 1848–1851.
Hugo worked only on paper, and on a small scale; usually in dark brown or black pen-and-ink wash, sometimes with touches of white, and rarely with color. The surviving drawings are surprisingly accomplished and "modern" in their style and execution, foreshadowing the experimental techniques of Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism.
He would not hesitate to use his children's stencils, ink blots, puddles and stains, lace impressions, "pliage" or folding (i.e. Rorschach blots), "grattage" or rubbing, often using the charcoal from match sticks or his fingers instead of pen or brush. Sometimes he would even toss in coffee or soot to get the effects he wanted. It is reported that Hugo often drew with his left hand or without looking at the page, or during Spiritualist séances, in order to access his unconscious mind, a concept only later popularized by Sigmund Freud.
Hugo kept his artwork out of the public eye, fearing it would overshadow his literary work. However, he enjoyed sharing his drawings with his family and friends, often in the form of ornately handmade calling cards, many of which were given as gifts to visitors when he was in political exile. Some of his work was shown to, and appreciated by, contemporary artists such as Van Gogh and Delacroix; the latter expressed the opinion that if Hugo had decided to become a painter instead of a writer, he would have outshone the artists of their century."

As a young girl, I think I read "Les Miserable" as a love story set in a certain time and place.  Inspired by this wonderful adaption of the musical, older, I think I will re-read it as a transformation study.  Lives transformed by revolution, by injustice, by survival, and by God.

So next week, when I return from camp, I will head to the bookstore.  Who wants to read it as well?  If you are in Albuquerque, we could have coffee and talk about it.


  1. Do you rent these drops out?

    1. Sorry, I do not. These were part of a touring production of Les Miserables. Found the photos on the internet. Perhaps you could get in touch with John Napier to find out how he projected these images of Victor Hugo's painting for the sets.


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