THE world may know him as a master of words, but Victor Hugo was also remarkably adept at creating visual images. Poets Charles Baudelaire and Th'eophile Gautier both felt he was a first-class artist. Gautier wrote, ``If Victor Hugo were not a poet, he would be a top-notch painter: In fierce and somber fantasies, he excels in blending the chiaroscuro of Goya with the architectural terror of Piranesi.''
Baudelaire was no less enthusiastic when he exalted ``the magnificent imagination that flows through Victor Hugo's drawings like mysteries in the sky.''
And Hugo himself indicated the depth of his commitment to drawing when he confided to a friend late in life, ``I would have liked to be, indeed I should have been, a second Rembrandt.''
Although we'll never know how important an artist Hugo might have been had he devoted himself exclusively to painting, we are able to get some indication of his talent, thanks to an extraordinary exhibition here.
The evidence takes the form of 25 ink-and-wash drawings that serve as the centerpiece of ``Victor Hugo and the Romantic Vision,'' the Jan Krugier Gallery's major exhibition of the spring season. These range from tiny, brooding landscape studies to medium-sized, boldly dashed-off works that can be interpreted as either Expressionist landscapes or abstractions.
These sensitive and spirited works on paper are interspersed among 58 other excellent examples of the draftsman's art by such masters as Rembrandt, Goya, Claude Lorrain, Turner, Delacroix, Gericault, and Redon. And to top it off, there are outstanding pieces by, among others, Jackson Pollock, Mark Tobey, and Wolfgang Wols.
How does Hugo measure up in such company? Surprisingly well, especially in matters of sensibility, imagination, and boldness of approach. From all indications, he had a modest talent but a remarkably passionate and true one.
Although his ink-and-wash drawings set the mood of this excellent exhibition, they do not establish him as its star. That honor goes to Claude Lorrain for his great crayon, pen, and brown ink landscape study of 1635-40, ``Composition paysage,'' one of this artist's magnificent renderings of nature. It is worth a trip to the gallery all by itself.
Close behind come Rembrandt's bold and beautifully simplified ``Three Women at the Entrance of a House'' of about 1639; Goya's dramatic 1824-27 rendering of a madman, ``Loco (Calabozo);'' Delacroix's delightful study of a man on horseback, ``La ballade 'ecossaise;'' and Rodolphe Bresdin's brilliant pen-and-ink drawing of trees, ``Groupe d'arbres sur les rochers.''
Hugo's ``La Tour de St. Rombault de Malines, au centre d'une ville imaginaire,'' his largest and most impressive work on view, however, is easily the match for several of the other drawings by painters with substantial reputations hanging nearby.
Many of Hugo's images are small, dark and brooding, with dramatic castles, mountains, and small-town towers and steeples silhouetted against turbulent skies. Several refer to a trip he took down the Rhine in 1840, where he saw a number of highly romantic views that haunted him for the rest of his life. Quite a number verge on the somber, and reveal their special qualities only upon very close inspection. They need to be held to be savored for their exquisite tonal relationships, sensitively differentiated textures, and highly refined draftsmanship.
A few depict miniature worlds; others appear totally improvised; and one, ``Plan`ete,'' is a luminous and mysterious wash drawing that anticipates some of Redon's haunting images, as well as Surrealism and science-fiction illustration.
This first-rate exhibition, a connoisseur's delight, continues at the Jan Krugier Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, through July 27.