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He is free Jean Hélion
il-est-libre-jean-helion - ARTACTIF
June 2024 | Reading time: 27 Min | 0 Comment(s)

About the retrospective exhibition “Jean Hélion – La prose du monde”, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris until August 18.

One day discovering the discreet Hervé Bize art gallery in Nancy, located in the second building not far from the famous Place Stanislas, I was struck by the passion with which the gallery owner spoke to me about Jean Hélion (1904-1987). ). Which I immediately went to take a closer look at the works of art hanging on the walls of the neighboring museum of fine arts, to which I suddenly blamed myself for not having paid enough attention during my last visit. Indeed, Hervé Bize has been interested in the work of Jean Hélion for almost forty years. Shortly before opening his Nancy art gallery, in 1987 he was the author of one of the last texts published during Hélion's lifetime. And by resuming this writing work, with the help of the artist's family, he produced the monograph "Jean Hélion, Inventing the world as it really is", published in 2005 by Editions Cercle d'Art ( Let’s discover art collection). It was that year that the Hervé Bize gallery brought together an exceptional set of previously unpublished works on paper, mainly centered on the artist's last period (1974-1983), during which Hélion continued and revisited, in an astonishing workmanship, a bit like that of the last Picassos, all his major themes.

I now remember that this exhibition was held simultaneously with the retrospective marking the centenary of the artist's birth organized by the Musée National d'Art Moderne/Centre Pompidou in Paris. And I realize how much time has passed, but how much the intensity of the passion expressed by the gallery owner has been engraved in my memory. I then instinctively became attached to Jean Hélion, feeling the extent to which the art market had treated him unfairly on the pretext that he was unclassifiable. On the pretext that he had ultimately always been on the way, that he had never settled into the sterile comfort of an immutable painting. And above all that he had moved from abstraction to figuration, therefore unlike all the others! I was always happy to find his painting again throughout my wanderings, like in Vézelay one summer, at the Zervos museum nestled in the former house of Romain Rolland, where the canvases he had painted when he was losing his mind The sight shocked me.

Even if his works of art for sale have long had mixed success, due to their eclecticism perhaps causing some to doubt the sincerity of the artist, whereas in my opinion there is no artist more sincere than an artist who seeks... the works of Jean Hélion are kept in numerous museums, both in France and abroad: at the Museum of Fine Arts in Nancy, we saw it, but also at the Museum National d'Art Moderne, Center Georges Pompidou (Paris), at the Museum of Modern Art in Saint-Etienne, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Nantes, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Grenoble, at the Cantini Museum in Marseille, at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Strasbourg, at the Kunsthalle in Hamburg, at the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus in Munich, at the Tate Gallery in London, at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, at the IVAM in Valencia, at the National Art Museum and History of Luxembourg, at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, at the Museum of Art in Philadelphia, at the Art Institute of Chicago…

This is because with Hélion there ultimately remains an astonishing paradox: that of a painter whose many specialists agree to recognize an eminent role in 20th century art (he, like Giacometti, belongs to the generation following Picasso, Matisse and Léger) but which still remains unknown to the general public despite its importance and its singularity. As if, yes, definitely, he will always have been criticized for his ruptures in style, particularly that which had pushed him in 1935 to humanize his abstractions - he was until then with Mondrian one of the dominant figures of abstract art - and to gradually abandon, without denying it, non-figuration as it invaded the artistic scene from the end of the 1940s. Hélion then set out to reinvent a painting of the immediate, of the everyday, the equivalent of which could be found in the writings of Raymond Queneau and Francis Ponge, two of his friends who were among his defenders. Alberto Giacometti will one day confide to Francis Ponge: “Fascinated by the productions of this painter, I can only take my eyes off them with great difficulty. »

It is therefore high time that a retrospective is devoted to “Jean Hélion the misunderstood”, as Emmanuelle Lequeux titles her article for Beaux Arts Magazine. “He was the apostle of abstract art, but became a figurative painter, going against the dominant current and ideological battles. All his life, Jean Hélion (1904-1987) followed only one line, his own, as an eternal explorer of reality. » Finally he was a pioneer! Because who today would incriminate a painter who only follows his artistic intuition and declares that “it’s understanding that matters. Drawing to understand is something different from drawing to show. »

Following a chronological route, the exhibition “Jean Hélion, La prose du monde”, on view at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris until August 18, brings together more than 150 works of art (103 paintings, 50 drawings, notebooks as well as abundant documentation), rarely presented to the public, coming from major French and international institutions as well as numerous private collections.

“How can we explain such freedom? » asks the journalist from Beaux Arts Magazine. “From a very young age, Hélion never hesitated to change his skin. Born Jean Bichier in 1904, raised between Normandy and Amiens, he began his studies in chemistry just after the First World War, before launching into architecture, as an apprentice draftsman. At the Louvre, he educated his gaze, stopping on Rubens, Frans Hals and Rembrandt, analyzing the structured compositions of Poussin and Philippe de Champaigne. In the galleries he discovered Cézanne, Matisse and Derain. Here he is, a Sunday painter: he reveals his drawings at the Montmartre crust fair. He could have kept this thick, expressionist paste. »

But after this brief experience in Montmartre, he linked up with Théo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, moved towards geometric abstraction and participated in the Art Concret group as well as in the creation of the Abstraction-Création collective which brought together the best representatives of the abstract art between the two wars. Friend of Calder, Arp and Giacometti, he is also close to Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp with whom he became friends when he moved to the United States from 1934, and Victor Brauner.

In 1929, he began writing the Carnets, a reflection on painting that he continued until 1984. Jean Hélion was also close to the writers of his time: Francis Ponge, Raymond Queneau, René Char, André du Bouchet... and never ceases to associate them with his artistic journey. He then became one of the most important players in abstraction and an eminent figure in American artistic life, advisor to major collectors. However, from the mid-1930s, his forms came to life, prefiguring a return to the human figure. Faithful to his intuition, Jean Hélion then turned away from abstraction in 1939 at the time when it began to impose itself on the international scene, to become more interested in the human figure and “reality”. Because he feels too strongly the inhumanity that pours out his rage on the world.

When the Second World War broke out, Hélion knew that he would never be able to paint like before again. He joined the French army before being taken prisoner in 1940, and the story of his escape They Shall Not Have Me, published in 1943 and recently translated into French, became a bestseller.

Returning to Paris in 1946, even though he had in the meantime married Pegeen Vail, and had therefore become neither more nor less the son-in-law of the illustrious art collector Peggy Guggenheim, he struggled to find his place on the Parisian scene. No one rushes to buy works of art that do not exploit the popularity they had on the art market when their author was a hero of abstraction! He doesn't care. He continues to paint. He writes his “worldly prose”. At the end of his life, gradually losing his sight, his work deliberately interweaves the motifs that have always haunted him. His painting oscillates between derision and gravity (The Painter trampled by his model, 1983), dream and happy dazzlement.

Great revenge today for this seeker of truth who has always refused the confinement of dogma and chosen against all odds to perpetually question himself.


Valibri en RoulotteArticle written by Valibri in Roulotte

Illustration: The Man with the Red Cheek, 1943
Oil on canvas
Private collection
© ADAGP, Paris, 2024

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