Jean Hugo, painter in the war

Jean Hugo, painter in the war

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  • Ruined house in La Targette.

    HUGO Jean (1894 - 1984)

  • Champien landscape.

    HUGO Jean (1894 - 1984)

  • Ruins in Cantigny.

    HUGO Jean (1894 - 1984)

Ruined house in La Targette.

© ADAGP, Photo RMN-Grand Palais - G. Blot

© ADAGP, Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. G. Ojeda

© ADAGP, Photo RMN-Grand Palais - R. Ojeda

Publication date: October 2005

Historical context

Jean Hugo, a painter in war

If literature still occupies a prominent place in the rich documentation available to historians to account for the pains of the Great War, iconography is the subject of more and more studies. This painter, great-grandson of Victor Hugo, appears as a privileged witness: mobilized from September 4, 1914, wounded in 1915, he quickly returned to the combat zones until 1917 then was sent to Lorraine, to the US army; the route he is forced to follow gives him a complete overview of the theater of operations. He recounts these episodes himself in a book of memories, The gaze of memory, but his sketched sketches on the spot are at least as rich in information, both on the daily life of the soldiers and on the upset landscapes he traverses.

Image Analysis

A testimony on the destruction

It was in Artois, in mid-May 1915, that Sergeant Hugo became acquainted with fire. Encountering demoralized troops, who have just suffered terrible setbacks and are moving to the rear, he learns that almost all of the soldiers have been killed. In the trenches dug near the village of La Targette, the artist and the men under his command soon face horror themselves. A shell hits the troops, knocking Hugo to the ground and killing one. The black pencil drawing, titled Ruined house in La Targette, seems to show a lot of restraint: the stripping of the lines and the simplicity of the technique used place it at the antipodes of the grandiloquence generally required when it comes to showing the destruction and denouncing the barbarism of the enemy. The economy of means is all the more remarkable as the graphics indicate that the work was later reworked (probably in 1919).
In April 1916, promoted to second lieutenant, Jean Hugo was sent to Verdun. It was subjected to bombardments, regular attacks and counterattacks, and even, in May 1917, a few mutinies which it was asked to suppress. His unity being relieved in July of the same year, he passed through Champien, a village in Picardy, of which he made a sketch in pen and brown ink. With a lot of sobriety, there again, he evokes the houses ripped open by the Germans before their strategic withdrawal. In the same region, a year later, his impressions are quite simple: the pages of the notebook which show the ruins of Cantigny are limited to a smoky line, cut by a few crazy lines drawn by bare tree branches.


A particular iconography, of delicate reading

Mobilized until February 1919, Jean Hugo completed his service in the Palatinate and took advantage of long periods of free time to refine most of his drawings, some of which served as canvas for watercolors. In the landscapes of La Targette, Champien or Cantigny, the “simple” combination of curves and straight lines may want to leave an impression of stripping away. The crucial point is whether the language used is inherently expressive or whether it is a purely aesthetic essay. For obvious reasons the sketch taken on the spot, at the very moment of a bombardment or an exchange of gunfire, cannot be completed. One might think that the choice of devastated landscapes, modest houses which housed a whole flourishing peasant activity on the rich terroirs of northern France, is indicative of a state of mind. It is a question of keeping for oneself, because these documents are not a priori intended to be exhibited, the memory of melancholic episodes.
Having reached the age of maturity, Hugo seems to adopt a technique and an attitude that approach those of Cocteau and his entourage, the sophisticated milieu of painters, writers and composers who set the tone for the immediate aftermath. -war. If this vein, in which we denote an influence of cubism - the elegant construction of the compositions sometimes recalls the work of Roger de La Fresnaye -, remains without a future, the originality of Hugo's work leaves no doubt when we put it in perspective with other contemporary representations of destroyed villages or towns, for example those left by Bouchor, painter to the armed forces, whose workmanship is more academic.

  • War of 14-18
  • ruins
  • Cocteau (Jean)


Pierre VALLAUD, 14-18, World War I, volumes I and II, Paris, Fayard, 2004 Exhibition catalogJean Hugo, Drawings of the war years (1915 - 1919)Paris, editions RMN and Actes Sud, 1994.Mario ISNENGHIWorld War IParis-Florence, Casterman-Giunti, 1993.

To cite this article

Hervé CULTRU, "Jean Hugo, painter in war"

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