Renowned as a poet, novelist, dramatist and critic, Victor Hugo was a figure of legendary proportions whose funeral procession through Paris in 1885 attracted more than 2 million devotees.

The preeminent French Romantic, Hugo also campaigned to alleviate the plight of the poor, to promote civil liberties as well as establish child-labor protection laws.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of this great man, a rare exhibition now showing at the Suntory Museum Tempozan, Osaka, pays homage to his cascade of writings, which began in adolescence. His drawings, accolades, successes and failures are as perishing in weight and abundance as their vision is inspiring. Other tales of Hugo’s prodigious powers encompass not only his gourmandizing, but also his colossal appetite for the opposite sex. This, after all, is the man who wrote: “The creaking of a trestle bed, is one of the sounds of paradise.”

Another fine line by Hugo, and one he very much put his life in the service of is: “Art for art’s sake may be fine, but art for the sake of progress is finer still.”

Hugo was not the literary type to hide in the shadows. He was a lifelong advocate of liberalism and a self-declared enemy of despotism.

In 1849, Hugo was elected as a representative to the Legislative Assembly, and his opening address as the president of the International Peace Conference held in Paris is the first recorded instance of a desire to establish The United States of Europe.

His speeches in 1849-50 are examples of a particularly profound humanity, condemning as they do poverty, dire prison conditions and the death penalty, while championing universal suffrage, press freedom and free and compulsory education. From this period there comes the first known use of the expression, “the right of the child ” — a theme that is prominent in his semi-historical 1862 novel, “Les Miserables” — a work that was put on the list of “Proscribed Readings” by Pope Pius IX

Romanticism was a far-reaching literary and artistic movement born of a waning faith in the optimism of the Age of Reason, brought on by upheavals, wars and revolutions in the first half of the 19th century. Beginning in Germany and England around 1790, and reaching France in the 1820s, Romanticism revolted against the late-18th-century Classical and Neo-Classical styles, which Hugo compared to the royal park at Versailles, as “well-leveled, well-pruned, well-raked and well-sanded.”

The jibe is a pointed one, because Classicism was almost always associated with the ruling classes and a uniform, state-commissioned or state-sanctioned “product.”

Imagination, emotion and a concept of the artist as a visionary were esteemed above the Enlightenment’s reliance on reason and logic. Romanticism was a self-proclaimed movement begun by artists and writers. As the first of its kind, it established a precedent for all later art movements in this respect.

In France, Hugo was Romanticism’s literary leader, due in no small part to his tremendous productivity which this exhibition, titled “Victor Hugo and the Romanticists” demonstrates admirably.

This exhibition — which has already shown at the Tokyo Fuji Art Museum — is thematically partitioned. The first section spans Hugo’s life and works from his early years through to his return to Paris from exile on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, where he took refuge for fear of recriminations following his hostile denunciations of Napoleon III and his December 1851 coup d’etat. The second part of the exhibition then fills in Hugo’s artistic background, covering his contemporaries in art and music with documentary-style displays to give the Parisian background.

In the first section, there are reams of documents and correspondence on display here from the Victor Hugo House of Literature outside Paris, as well as five national treasures of France — including the printers’ proofs for “Les Miserables,” “La Legende des Siecles” and “Les Contemplations.” However, caricatures by Honore Daumier and images like Benjamin Roubaud’s lithograph of Hugo leading the Romanticists of the day lighten the heavily literary nature of the exhibition, as do related objects, including a poster from a film adaptation of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” directed by Jean Delannoy in 1956 and starring Gina Lollobrigida and Anthony Quinn. Hugo is one of the world’s most adapted writers, and on the big screen these works go back almost as far as cinema itself, with perhaps the earliest being 1905’s “La Esmeralda,” from France, while Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s stage version of “Les Miserables” visited Tokyo last year.

In addition, the abundant portraiture on display here introduces the key players in the drama of Hugo’s life. There is a picture by Julie Duvidal de Montferrier of Hugo’s childhood sweetheart and wife, Adele Foucher, who, after eight years of marriage and five children, fell in love with a close friend of his. Here, too, is an early childhood picture by Louis Boulanger of Hugo’s daughter, Leopoldine, who, together with her husband and when she was pregnant, died shortly after their marriage in a boating accident on the Seine.

Hugo’s mistress, though not his only one, Juliette Drouet, is portrayed by Leon Noel. Drouet abandoned her acting career for Hugo and remained his companion and pseudo-secretary for 50 years through to her death in 1883.

Other works include sculptures by Rodin and a death mask of Hugo by Aime-Jules Dalou, as well as dozens of photographs of the author posed in various states between serenity and gruff anxiety. Hugo’s own distinctive drawings, evincing some of the eerily dramatic and picturesque affinities to the Romantic imagery of his day, are also featured.

The second part of the exhibition further teases out the Romantic penchant for deifying the creator, and takes two representatives in particular, the painter Eugene Delacroix, who was scornful in his later years of being called “the Victor Hugo of painting;” and the composer Hector Belioz — both of whom cultivated the persona of being misunderstood visionaries. Delacroix was well patronized, although he never achieved the financial success of his lesser contemporaries, such as Horace Vernet, represented here by his 1820 work “Tempest.” Delacroix’s early, masterpiece, “Virgin of the Harvest” (1819), is a centerpiece of the exhibition, and one that clearly shows his expressively loaded brushwork, as do other works here including portraits of Frederic Chopin and George Sand. Berlioz is portrayed in several portrait paintings, photographs, concert programs and scores.

Meanwhile, other musical components that broaden the Romantic musical sphere include pianos by Ignace J. Pleyel, saxophones by Adolphe Sax, and a piccolo violin by Antonio Stradivari.

Finally, the last section of the exhibition is given over to early photography with Paris, its architecture, boulevards and its personalities as the subjects — along with period costume pieces supplied by The Kyoto Costume Institute.

Summing up Victor Hugo’s life is probably best left to the man himself. For all his prodigious output, his last written words penned on May 19, 1885, three days before his death, were “Aimer, c’est agir (To love is to act).”

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