Jean Hélion
Year, Birthplace 1904, France
Year, Place of death 1987, France
From humble beginnings, Jean Hélion was seventeen when he decided to move to Paris. His first visit to the Louvre made such an impression on him that he made the decision to become a painter. He began to frequent galleries and discovered modern art. He showed his first works at the Marché aux Puces in Montmartre. In 1924 he gave up his technical drawing job in an architecture office to dedicate himself exclusively to painting. That same year he discovered abstract art and formed links with Otto Freundlich. His involvement with abstraction deepened after meeting Joaquín Torres-García (who took him in for two months in 1926) and then the Dutch theoretician and abstract painter Theo van Doesburg. He also met Hans Arp, Antoine Pevsner and Georges Vantongerloo in 1929, the year of his first abstract paintings. In 1930, together with Van Doesburg, Otto Carlsund and Léon Tutundjian, Jean Hélion founded the group Art Concret, giving new impetus to the journal De Stijl, which had until then been in decline. At this point, he declared that a painting had no other meaning than that of itself. April that year saw the first and only edition of the journal Art Concret, which included his article ‘Les Problèmes de l’Art Concret, art et mathématiques’. Soon afterwards, he met Piet Mondrian, and his studio became part of the avant-garde scene and was a meeting place for Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Hans Arp, Mondrian, Fernand Léger and Alberto Giacometti. In 1931, together with Arp, Albert Gleizes, Auguste Herbin, Georges Valmier, Robert Delaunay, František Kupka, Tutundjian and van Doesburg, Hélion was involved in forming the group Abstaction-Création, which was created as a challenge to Michel Seuphor’s group Cercle et Carré. He was given responsibility for the first edition of the group’s journal, in which he published the text ‘À solder’. At this stage Hélion, Fernand Léger, Seuphor, Julio González, Amédée Ozenfant and Jean Gorin were at the centre of Paris abstractionism. His painting evolved from Tensions orthogonales [Orthogonal Tensions], which shared similarities with works by Van Doesburg and Mondrian, to Tensions circulaires [Circular Tensions] and Premières courbes [First Curves]. In 1932, he held his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Pierre Loeb in Paris. That same year he visited the United States, where he returned frequently over the following years, forming many relationships in New York artistic circles and becoming a prime proponent of abstract art. In 1934 he left the Abstraction-Création group due to theoretical disagreements: Hélion believed that the end of the road had been reached for abstraction with Carré blanc [White Square] and that it was time to investigate an inverse path from abstraction towards figurativism. To the surprise of his numerous fans and critics, his painting gradually evolved, returning to focus on the subject. His last abstract compositions date from 1939, the same year as works like Figure tombée [Fallen Figure], which had cylindrical forms and truncated cones in the style of Léger, showing the different parts of the human body. Hélion’s second phase, from 1939 to 1985, is characterised by a series of studies around the theme of studio nudes, the flea market, pumpkins, lobsters, stairways, bread, hats, umbrellas, market barrows, shop windows and the street. He was the only twentieth-century painter who made this reverse journey, which frequently led to his being misunderstood by his contemporaries. AC