Jean Hélion (1904-1987), had a long career full of adventures, (4) marriages, and life in the thirties and forties in America. Alain Margaron, who has patiently collected his paintings from different members of his family, is showing a little known decade of his works, forty canvases painted between 1955 and 1966. What struck me is the variety of styles, between abstraction and figuration, even though the palette of colors has similarities. There are geometrical Paris roofs seen from his apartment of rue Michelet, lyrical waves and rocks in Belle-Ile-en-mer, where he acquired a house in 1953, a large cabbage and an extraordinary self portrait as well as a meeting of 1968 militants.
Jean Hélion married two Americans, Jean Blair from Virginia in 1932 and Pegeen, the daughter of Peggy Guggenheim and had a successful career in the US from the 1930’s onwards. He was abstract then and developed theories on paintings which were very much followed. “Only Marcel Duchamp had as much influence as he did in contributing to large American modern art collections and to the creation of art magazines”, says Alfred Pacquement in 2004, in the catalog of his exhibition on Hélion at Centre Pompidou. He came back to fight in France and was made prisoner by the Germans until he escaped in 1942. He managed to return to the New York and met married Pegeen Vail Guggenheim in 1943. It was an intense moment of his career and US museums now own some of his works from this period.
When he came back to Paris in 1946, and returned to “figuration”, he was rejected in both countries and suffered a general indifference from the public and the critics. But he was always admired by poets Yves Bonnefoy and René Char, Raymond Queneau and Francis Ponge as well as by Balthus and Alberto Giacometti. This is when he was married to his fourth wife, Jacqueline Ventadour, who greatly helped Alain Margaron in finding his American relations to locate his works.
The son of a dressmaker and a taxi driver, he had started life being a writer and a poet after having studied chemistry and architecture… Only in 1922, did he start painting after discovering Poussin and Philippe de Champaigne at the Louvre.
Jean Hélion became blind a few years before dying but he always kept painting. Jacques Derrida wrote about drawing in his book “Mémoires d’aveugle”: “drawing is blind… but a blind man can be a “voyant”, he sometimes has a vocation of being a visionary”. And there is a modernity in Hélion’s drawings and paintings which is visible in this show of the newly refurbished gallery of rue du Perche. The calm atmosphere of beige furniture and carpet, enhances the bright colors and the stark lines of the paintings.
The three artichokes of 1964 and the cabbage in a maid’s room of 1960, are among my favorite with the brabant, 1957, this funny looking charue used to plow the fields in Belle-Ile. When I went to see the show on the first day, many paintings had already been sold which was very jolly inner times of austerity. The series of roofs of Paris play with architecture and abstraction and are very obsessional. Later in 1965, a painting of “Accordeon for two pedestrians” contains music and movement as well as a 2CV car and a cabbage again! A whole world to itself.
So make sure to see this exhibition at Galerie Alain Margaron in the Marais. It is very uplifting and there are still a few works to be acquired. Until April 5, 5 rue des Perche.
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