Monday, October 7, 2013

Jean Hélion: Apostate Abstractionist

Jean Hélion (1904-1987) gained artistic notoriety during the 1930s as an abstract painter. Then he threw that overboard in the early 1940s when abstract painting was in the process of becoming the dominant avant-garde style. That took intellectual and economic courage, because most of his contemporaries were heading in the opposite direction.

His Wikipedia entry is here and his obituary in The New York Times here, the latter indicating how he managed to escape captivity during World War 2, making it all the way from Stettin on the Baltic Sea to New York City. The two sources agree that one of his wives was Peggy Guggenheim's daughter Pegeen, but disagree as the his total number of wives.

Even though Hélion rejected abstraction, he remained Modernist in his depiction of representational subject matter. That is, he usually considerably simplified shapes, used flat areas of paint and distorted perceived colors. I go into a good detail of such practices in my e-book on art.


Photos of Hélion early in his career and later

Untitled No. 19 - 1933-34

Composition abstraite - 1934

Ile de France - 1935

L'homme à la cravate tordue - 1943

Nude with Loaves - 1952

Blue Roofs, Paris - 1958

Luxembourg Gardens, Indian Summer - 1960-61

Triptyque-du-dragon - 1967


Michael Neary said...

Thanks for your entry on Jean Helion. Having studied with Stanley Lewis and Leland Bell, I learned to love Helion as a student. I was recently an exhibitor in a group show at Southern Illinois University organized around Helions " Grand Luxembourg" which is owned by the university. Catalog is perusable at
I appreciate the fact that you've chosen works from a number of his stylistic periods and that you credit his contrarian position in relation to the prevailing currents. In the end he was well ahead of the eventual return of figuration. I would go as far as to say that in his various representational gambits, he pre-figures a number of the successive fashions of 60s thru 80s painting- pop, new realism, neo expressionism.
Thanks, Michael Neary

Donald Pittenger said...

Michael -- Thank you for your interesting observations and for reading this blog.