Valentine Hugo 26 March 1897-1968
Valentine Hugo was a French artist, theatre and costume designer, author, illustrator and radio broadcaster. She is still sometimes remembered in France and is not as forgotten elsewhere as some of the other 31 women, though where Valentine is mentioned she is usually tagged on at the end of a list of surrealist artists, all men. She painted portraits of a number of them; her best known painting is probably her 1934 portrait of Picasso, staring with dark intensity from between the horns of a symbolic bull.
She was born Valentine Marie Augustine Gross in the seaside town of Boulogne and died 1968 in Paris. Her mother was Zèlie Dèmelin Gross and father Auguste Gross, who was a musician and as a child Valentine developed a love for music and theatre as well as art. She studied art and her first claim to fame was in 1913 when an exhibition of her ballet drawings adorned the foyer of the of the Champs-Elysèes Theatre on the opening night of The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky’s hugely controversial ballet.
In 1919 she married fellow artist Jean Hugo, who she worked with on designs for a ballet by Jean Cocteau. Jean Hugo was the grandson of author Victor Hugo; this is one of the few facts which most articles on Valentine seem to know, ignoring the other fact - that their marriage did not last. Valentine continued to work largely in the theatre in Paris, with Eric Satie and Jean Cocteau amongst others.In 1928 she met the Surrealists and became involved in their group activities, a number of collaborative Cadavre Exquis drawings are in collections in Europe and the USA. Though both Andre Breton and Paul Eulard were briefly her lovers, she seems to have been the first women to be acknowledged by them all as an artist, not merely a muse.
Valentine Hugo created surrealist objects and became the most important illustrator of Surrealist texts and poetry, particularly that of Eulard. She and Marie-Berthe Ernst were the first women to show their work in a Surrealist exhibition, at Galerie Pierre Colle in June 1933 and her work was included in all of the main surrealist exhibitions from then until 1938, including shows in New York, though this never earned her the same recognition or financial reward as her male colleagues.Valentine was part of the publishing group, Editions Surrèaliste, where some of the surrealists clubbed together to self-publish their own books. Many were made from luxurious materials and a number contained what others might have regarded as pornography, the surrealists regarded these books as ‘objects of passion.’ These were only sold to subscribers so were not subject to censorship.
In 1940 she began her career as a broadcaster on Radio-Mondial and though this was cut short by the German invasion of France, she returned to radio in the 1950s. Her friendships with the surrealists continued after the war, though she no longer exhibited with them. Her greatest friend Pauland Eulard is said to have had her drawing, Le Harfang des Neiges (the Snowy Owls) over his bed when he died in 1952. She remained known for her illustrative work. By then she had illustrated books by Victor Hugo, Lautréamont, Breton, Rimbaud and Archim d’Arnim, as well as Eulard.Poor health and money problems led to Valentine Hugo becoming reclusive late in her life, she nonetheless outlived many of her wealthier surrealist friends. In 1977 Valentine Hugo received a major retrospective at the Centre Thibaud de Champagne in Troyes, France. In the 21st century the significance of Valentine’s career is becoming gradually recognised, as interest grows in the surrealist women artists. She is recognised as the major illustrator of the poems of Eulard and her work has been included in a number of exhibitions since the millennium.
Whitney Chadwick, Women artists & the Surrealist movement 1993, Thames & Hudson
Gloria Orenstein ‘Women of Surrealism’, the Feminist Art Journal, spring 1973
Comments and further information about Valentine Hugo are very welcome.
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