Victor Hugo, orientalist
Best known for his novels on Parisian themes, the nineteenth-century French author Victor Hugo also wrote on the orient, as a recent exhibition explains. David Tresilian caught the final days
Victor Hugo, probably the most famous French writer of the 19th century, has made a spectacular comeback in recent years, thanks to Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame and the international hit musical Les Misérables, both of which are based on his novels. Yet, striking though Hugo's present fame may be, it is still nothing compared to that which he enjoyed during his own lifetime, this originally royalist author becoming the conscience of French republicanism over the course of a more than 60- year career.
Hugo excelled in all the major genres of his time, and in addition to being one of France's best-known novelists, he was also a considerable dramatist and poet. Like his novels, Hugo's poetic works have not always responded well to critical examination, with later practitioners objecting to their sprawling, rollicking style much as the fastidious Anglo-American novelist Henry James objected to the "baggy monsters" penned by his predecessor Charles Dickens.
Yet, Hugo's poetry played an important role in the development of 19th-century French taste, and it seems to have expressed the sensibility of the time. Nowhere is this more the case than in Hugo's early collection Les Orientales, published in 1829 when its author was just 27 years old, which is currently the subject of an intriguing exhibition at the Maison de Victor Hugo in the Place des Vosges in Paris.
As well as drawing on the European fascination with the orient of the time, Hugo remarking in his preface that this "has become a sort of general preoccupation" for Europeans of his generation, the poems collected in Les Orientales also provided a repertoire of oriental attitudes that could be mined by contemporary and later painters, among them pre-eminently Delacroix. The collection acted as a manifesto for romanticism in French poetry, as powerful in its way as the famous preface setting out his artistic ideas that Hugo had attached to his play Cromwell a few years before.
Hugo lived in an apartment in the Place des Vosges, now one of the most-desirable addresses in Paris, from the early 1830s until his exile some 20 years later following the 1848 Revolution and the coup d'état of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte that ended France's second experiment with republicanism and inaugurated the second empire.
Today, Hugo's apartment is a museum, and on a recent visit it was popular with camera-laden tourists and well-behaved French schoolchildren. The first-floor exhibition space, immediately below the apartment that was once the home of the Hugo family, provides an ideal venue for outings of Hugo-related materials, and the present exhibition certainly sends one back to Hugo's work with renewed enthusiasm, as well as with renewed interest in the by now possibly rather well-worn theme of early 19th-century European orientalism.
Hugo, it turns out, was as orientalist as his compatriots. Having never visited the orient himself, making do with southern Spain, the poems making up Les Orientales have a bookish feel. Hugo cobbled them together out of press reports on the Greek war of independence against the then Ottoman Empire, which had rumbled on through the 1820s attracting the support of many European writers, bits of the English poet Lord Byron's popular oriental tales and rumours reaching Paris of Middle Eastern harems and odalisques. Yet, as with everything Hugo did, he did it with extraordinary energy and single- mindedness. It is hard to imagine Byron adding footnotes and notes on sources to his oriental poems, as Hugo did to Les Orientales.
The exhibition contains six rooms, and the first three are given over to materials that provide contexts for Hugo's poems. Some hundred objects have been brought together for the show, including paintings on oriental themes by many of the great names of the time, among them Géricault and Delacroix. Lesser painters are represented by works drawn from museums across France, and there are copies of printed works on the orient that Hugo read while writing his poems, including Chateaubriand's L'Itinéraire de Paris à Jérusalem, a particularly important source, as well as lesser-known materials.
Les Orientales begins with a sequence of poems on the Greek war of independence, and Hugo followed Byron's efforts in support of the Greek cause. When the European powers intervened in 1827 on the Greek side, defeating the Egyptian-Ottoman navy in the Battle of Navarino and driving Ibrahim Pasha, son of the Egyptian viceroy Mohamed Ali, out of the Peloponnese, the writing was on the wall for Ottoman attempts to retain the empire's Greek territories.
In Les Orientales Hugo celebrates these events, praising Europe's humanitarian intervention against the "butcher" Ibrahim Pasha. Following the defeat at Navarino, Hugo says, Ottoman massacres carried out against the Greeks have been avenged, these having earlier roused him to write Les Têtes du sérail, a poem consisting of a set of Greek voices crying out to be saved by intervention of the European powers from the bloodthirsty Ottomans.
This aspect of the collection gives it a martial cast and provides the first of Hugo's oriental figures in the shape of the war-like Turks. Delacroix captured the mood in his Scène des massacres de Scio: familles grecques attendant la mort, exhibited at the 1824 salon and now in the Louvre. In the exhibition itself, the warlike mood is evoked in paintings by Ary Scheffer, Guérin, Girodet-Trioson, Delacroix and Géricault, mostly showing battle scenes or oriental types. There are images of Ottoman soldiers by Delacroix and Géricault and portrait studies of individuals by Gericault, Guérin and Girodet-Trioson, the latter producing a striking, heavy-lidded Portrait de Mustapha in 1819.
Behind events in the Balkans lay memories of France's other main oriental involvement of the time, which was Napoleon's ill-fated Egyptian expedition some 20 years before. While this had done nothing to harm English power in the eastern Mediterranean, as Napoleon had hoped that it might, it had led to regime change in Egypt itself and to the further detachment of the country from Ottoman control under the new ruling dynasty established by Mohamed Ali.
The poems in Les Orientales are saturated in Egyptian imagery, with Hugo imagining Ottoman defeat in the war against the Greeks as seen from Cairo. His Cri de guerre du Mufti attempts to put words into the mouths of the Egyptian figures seen in orientalist paintings, while La Douleur du pacha reproduces the orientalist commonplace of a world rendered impotent and powerless in the face of superior European arms and technology.
The Chanson des pirates is a jolly romp, though one inspired more by tales of piracy off the coasts of Algeria than by anything that was happening in Egypt. Such tales were used to justify the French invasion of the country in 1830. La Captive is an affecting, operatic piece, purportedly conveying the sentiments of a young European woman sold into slavery by Algerian pirates. Both poems were apparently wildly popular, and they gave rise to many adaptations. Delacroix's Pirates africains enlevant une jeune femme, exhibited at the 1853 salon and now in the Louvre, seems to be inspired by Hugo's pirate verses, while a whole series of languid odalisques and harem scenes took off from Hugo's young female prisoner.
While the Orientales exhibition inevitably retraces Napoleon's footsteps in Egypt, digging up various artifacts of the time, it mostly looks forward to the fall-out from later European and French interventions, including those in Greece and Algeria. Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, the record of a trip the painter made to Algiers following the French invasion, has not been moved from its usual location in the Louvre for the exhibition. But Chassériau's harem scenes are in evidence, including Intérieur de harem ou Femme mauresque sortant du bain au sérail, an imaginative piece built on North African defeat in the war with France.
There are numerous, perhaps too numerous, images of vaguely oriental odalisques and harem women on show, some of them directly inspired by poems by Hugo. Among the latter are versions of La Captive by Chassériau and of Sara la baigneuse, another poem by Hugo, by obscure late 19th-century academic painters.
The Maison de Victor Hugo's Orientales exhibition comes with a characteristically sumptuous catalogue, this time rather unfortunately over-designed to match the format of the original 1829 edition of Hugo's poems. It contains some fascinating background material on the poems and the period from which they come by various academic authors.
In his contribution, Franck Laurent has interesting things to say about the ways in which the orient acted to renovate the French poetry of the time, going hand-in-hand with Hugo's romantic programme for the arts and the search for new subject matter and forms. According to Vincent Gille, in a later essay, while Hugo's interest in the orient should be seen in the context of the growth in oriental studies taking place in Europe at the time, the L'école spéciale des langues orientales, the first European school specialising in the teaching of oriental languages, having been set up by the Convention in 1795, much of what passed as oriental in the paintings of the period may have had as much relation to the real orient as Disney versions of Victor Hugo have to the author of Notre-Dame de Paris.
Much of it was oriental bric-à-brac found in Paris junk shops and pressed into service to provide suitable props for young painters unable or unwilling to visit the orient for themselves. In an 1824 journal entry, for example, Delacroix describes a visit to "Monsieur Auguste" in the rue des Matyrs off Pigalle, where he found a treasure-house of oriental costumes and weaponry, better than anything to be found in his rival Géricault's pictures, which could be pressed into service for orientalist paintings.
On a more sombre note, it seems that a mass of Middle Eastern mercenaries and various other hangers-on had also found themselves shipwrecked in Paris following the collapse of the grande armée. Unemployed and desperate for work, many of these men were only too willing to pose as extras in orientalist paintings, Géricault apparently picking up his oriental models in the streets of Batignolles, a poorer district of northern Paris, and constructing his version of the orient in the studio.
Without wanting to insist too much on the frontier between the two, such stories, Gille writes, raise the question of what was real and what was imagined in the period's depictions of the orient.
While Hugo himself never traveled to the orient, he seems to have read everything he could about it, including German translations of Arab and Persian poetry, duly noted in his notes to Les Orientales. Others, however, did travel eastwards at the time, and of these Gille says that they "left with a combination of things already seen and read about in their heads. As authentic as their later travel writings might seem, in fact they were put together from notes taken in situ and things read about in books."
"Collages, borrowings, new uses for real events, legends, stories or traditional motifs -- the system was built out of a wide range of materials. In the same way that dreams of the orient were put together out of elements taken from reality, the orient itself was constructed out of other imagined, or real, orients, it didn't much matter which, all of them put together as need be."
Les Orientales, Maison de Victor Hugo, 6 place des Vosges, Paris, until 4 July