Jean Hélion’s journey through abstraction at the Fralin Museum of Art

"Composition, 1934" is one of the works on exhibit in Jean Hélion: "Reality and Abstraction." “Composition, 1934” is one of the works on exhibit in Jean Hélion: “Reality and Abstraction.”

“Jean Hélion: Reality and Abstraction,” currently on view at UVA’s Fralin Museum of Art presents a small, yet rich collection of this under-appreciated artist’s work. The eight paintings and numerous works on paper are both handsome works of art and revealing souvenirs from Hélion’s artistic journey “through and then away from abstract art.”

Curated by Matthew Affron, associate professor, McIntire Department of Art, the exhibition provides an excellent showcase of [French artist, Jean] Hélion’s strong compositional sense. Whether working in oil on canvas, or watercolor, charcoal, and ink on paper, his abstract shapes have real authority. In his oils, Hélion uses alternating flat areas of color with volumetric modeling that recalls the work of Fernand Léger. Deftly arranged on the picture plane, these shapes achieve Hélion’s ideal of “a surface fully organized and optically integrated.” This compositional skill continues in Hélion’s representational work where the unexpected placement of figures and objects in space adds drama and interest. Hélion uses a striking combination of cool and warm tones in his paintings. His works on paper rely on strong lines with subtle smudges and washes of watercolor and gouache.

In 1939 Hélion began to move toward the representational, focusing on three subjects: the human head, still life on tables and street scenes. The Fralin show has three superb examples: a wonderful side view of a man in a boater and red tie, “Study 214;” a dynamic table and umbrella “Still Life with Umbrella,” boasting bold black outlines; and “Study 194,” a small visually charged scene of three men.

Hélion lived a most interesting life. Born in Normandy in 1904, he moved to Paris as a young man to work as an architectural draughtsman. He turned his hand to painting reputedly after being inspired by the Poussins and de Champaignes he saw in the Louvre. His father was a pharmacist and Hélion had initially studied chemistry, intending to follow in his footsteps. Both architecture and science seem to play a role in his abstractions, which veer between bold orthogonal shapes and more fluid biomorphic ones.

In 1926, Hélion was introduced to Cubism by Uruguayan artist, Joaquín Torres García, and the following year his work was included in the Salon des Indépendants. He would soon move beyond Cubism to embrace pure abstraction, becoming a leading proponent of nonobjective painting, active in Art Concret along with Theo van Doesburg, and Abstraction-Création, with Jean Arp.

Hélion was a founding member of the American Abstract Artists group, which included Josef Albers and Willem de Kooning. He first traveled to the United States in 1932 where he exhibited his work and acted for a time as an intermediary between galleries, artists, and collectors. He married Richmond, Virginia native, Jean Blair, and divided his time between a farm in Rockbridge Baths, New York, and Paris.

In 1940, Hélion returned to France to fight the Nazis, abandoning his plan to become a U.S. citizen. His account of being captured, held as a prisoner of war, and eventual escape, They Shall Not Have Me, was a bestseller. It’s unclear what happened to his first marriage, but he met Pegeen Vail Guggenheim (Peggy Guggenheim’s daughter) in New York in 1943, and they married in 1946 and moved to France where Hélion would remain for the rest of his life.

Hélion’s continued transition into a figurative style angered many in the art world, including his art patron mother-in-law. But it seems that Hélion had found his voice: Though I only had a monograph to go by, his graphically strong paintings from the ’40s and ’50s featuring everyday themes are full of energy, expression, and even joyousness. Hélion dabbled briefly in a more fully realized representational and painterly style in the ’50s before embracing, in his later years, a lyrical figurative-abstract hybrid.

“Jean Hélion: Reality and Abstraction”/Through December 16/UVA’s Fralin Museum of Art 


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