Jean Hélion is considered today to be the precursor of the 1980’s figurative artists, after having been one of the major players in abstraction.
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Jean Hélion: from abstraction to figuration
Born in Couterne, in Normandy, Jean Hélion studied architecture in Paris.
From 1920, he moved towards the geometric abstraction movement associating with Mondrian, Léger and Calder.
In 1930 he founded the Abstraction-Creation group with Arp, Herbin, Delaunay, Gleizes, Kupka… After a first trip to the United States in 1932, Hélion became one of the major players in abstraction and exhibited in New York.
In 1939, he abandoned abstract compositions and turned towards figuration before joining the French Army.
On his return to the United States in 1942, his work was exhibited in the Paul Rosenberg Gallery and in the Peggy Guggenheim Gallery. He married Peggy’s daughter, Pegeen. But his evolution towards figuration upset the public who did not follow him in this figurative route.
His works became a wonder at everyday things and are an explosion of acid colours. The Renou and Colle, Louis Carré and Karl Flinker Galleries frequently exhibited his work. Many retrospectives paid homage to him such as in the Grand Palais in 1970 or Pompidou in 2004.
In 2011, Galerie de la Présidence dedicated an exhibition to Hélion ‘From abstraction to figuration (1912-1946)’ reuniting 50 watercolours.
He is considered today to be the precursor of the 1980’s figurative artists.
Jean Hélion was born in Normandy.
Abandoned architecture to dedicate himself to painting.
Hosted Torres-García, who helped him to discover modern painting.
Carried out his first geometric abstractions and his painting became a pure abstract art. Moved to Montparnasse. Alongside Arp, Giacometti, Calder and Mondrian whose he admired for his rigour. Met Van Doesburg, painter and founder of the De Stijl movement; with him he founded the group Concrete Art which became Abstraction-Creation in 1931. This group brought the best representatives of abstract art between the wars together: Arp, Herbin, Delaunay, Gleizes, Kupka, Valmier… Acquainted with Ozenfant, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp. Began writing ‘Les Carnets’: reflections on ‘technical, philosophical and artistic spirit’, that continued until 1984, and Maeght Publisher published in 1992 under the title Journal of a painter.
Exhibition in Gallery Pierre Loeb, Paris (then again in 1938). Met Christian Zervos, Director of the Cahiers d’Art Gallery. Befriended Mondrian, Arp and Giacometti. First stay in the United States. Married Jean Blair in Virginia.
Increasingly complex elements that he calls “balances” appear in his paintings. Second stay in the United States with Calder in New York and Virginia. A common inspiration is reflected in the ‘ Equilibres’ of Hélion and Calder’s “Mobiles”. Became one of the most important figures of abstraction and artistic life in New York. Had numerous personal exhibitions.
Met Pierre-Georges Bruguière, who remained a lifelong friend and support and who collected Helion, Arp and Giacometti, Léger and Miro. He was an eloquent theorist who wrote, published and gave conferences to legitimize abstract art. He was the leader of the second generation of abstract painters. As an influential publisher of avant-garde ideas, he was regularly consulted by the American and British museums as part of their purchases. Mondrian said: “Basically, you’re a naturalist”, and Meyer Shapiro, critical of clairvoyant art, added in 1936: “through abstract art, you are looking for a path that takes back you to nature.”
‘Equilibres’ gradually turned into ‘Figures’, abstract characters who heralded the return to figuration from 1939: cylindrical, spherical heads…
Exhibition in the Valentine Gallery, New York (then again in 1937-38).
Exhibition in the Museum of Art, San Francisco (then again in 1943 and 1946).
“Abstraction took the form of a collapse in a space,”
Final abstract composition ‘Fallen Figure’ (MNAM – Pompidou). “Abstraction took the form of a collapse in a space,” he wrote. This painting marked the end of his abstract painting. Painted his first figurative painting ” Au cycliste ” (MNAM – Pompidou) and the series of heads in hats (Emile – Edward – Charles). True to his convictions, he left the United States to take part in the war. Peggy Guggenheim bought his first painting.
As a prisoner, he escaped from a camp in Pomerania.
Moved to the United States. Wrote the story of his captivity and his escape, ‘They shall not have me’ (best seller).
He had many exhibitions in the United States, including the most prestigious in the Art of this Century gallery created by Peggy Guggenheim in New York, which presented European artists: Ernst, Léger, Mondrian… Painted his first “The Man with an Umbrella” and “Defence of”. A new version of Men in hats. Met Pegeen (daughter of Peggy Guggenheim) whom he married in 1945.
Painted people and daily life: lighters, smoking, girls with blond hair, umbrella bearers, hailers… Several exhibitions at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery in New York. The return to figuration was completely misunderstood by a public that was excited about the New York School of painters. The first modern American painters exhibited with Pollock, Kooning, Rothko, Motherwell… Baltimore Museum of Fine art exhibition.
Returned permanently to France. His new themes: nudes close-up, couple with the umbrella…
Painted “A countdown”, a major work (MNAM-Pompidou), a key canvas which summed up his earlier and future approach: day labourers, a sewer, models, pumpkins,… the symbolism of disturbing objects. Exhibition at Renou and Colle Gallery, Paris.
Period called “after nature”: chrysanthemums, breads …
“What am I going to paint? Quite simply: the life of my time ”
“What am I going to paint? Quite simply: the life of my time ” he wrote. Painted ‘The workshop’, very realistic. Bought a house on Belle-Ile.
Many portraits of his wife, Pegeen. Stayed on Belle-Ile, where he went regularly to work. Separated from Pegeen. Painted “The Great Luxembourg”.
Became interested in musical instruments and the roofs of Paris. Exhibition at Gallery Louis Carré, Paris (1979, 1987, and 1990 then). Bought a home at Bigeonnette, near Chartres, a property with a large workshop.
Married Jacqueline Ventadour. Frequented the ‘Halles’ area of Paris and painted “Monument for a butcher”.
Exhibition Gallery Yvon Lambert, Paris: thirty years of drawings. Exposition at the Gallery of Modern Art, New York.
The Leicester Gallery, London.
Painted “Triptych of the Dragon”, an analysis of the street with all the characters from his past. Interested in the Cirque d’hiver.
Painted “Triptych of May” (MNAM-Pompidou), based on the events of May 1968. From this date, his palette illuminated and became
more colourful and contrasting. His painting expressed freedom.
“One hundred paintings 1928-1970” exhibition, Grand Palais, Paris. “40 years of drawings, 1930-1970” exhibition organized by the national Centre of Contemporary Art, Paris.
Painted cabbage from his garden of Bigeonnette.
Painted “Triptych of the market’: stalls, merchants,…” The beginning of an intense collaboration with the Karl Flinker Gallery, which would last until 1985 (exhibitions). Publication of Daniel Abadie’s book: Helion or the force of things.
“Triptych of November 11” exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Belle-Ile, painted: lobsters, fishmongers. Painted: street works, passers-by, urinals…
Painted “Serious Parody at the easel”. Exhibition National Museum, Athens. Paintings and drawings 1929-1979, Museum of Art and industry, Saint-Etienne and Strasbourg, Modern Art Museum.
40 years of drawings: traveling exhibition in Europe organized by the MNAM-Pompidou.
Hélion Retrospective, Palace of fine arts, Beijing, Shanghai, Nanchang.
Paintings 1929-1987, National Museum of History and Art, Luxembourg.
Jean Hélion, abstraction, and daily mythology, Städtische Lenbachhaus Gallery Munich, retrospective Museum of Modern Art of the city of Paris, Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.
Homage to Jean HELION , Fondation Peggy Guggenheim, Venice.
He became blind in the last years of his life and died in Paris.
Philippe Dagen’s book ‘Helion’ was published.
Jean Hélion, MNAM-Pompidou, Museu Picasso Barcelona, National Academy Museum New York.
Shanghai Art Museum presented Helion alongside Warhol and Baselitz in the World Exposition in Shanghai.
Paris, Galerie de la Présidence, from abstraction to figuration (1926-1946), exhibition of fifty watercolours.