click to read Morris’s interview with Helion: Jean Helion: Abstract Painter. Volume 4, issue 5, April 1938 — pages 33-42.
FOLLOWING on from Trilling’s critique and vindication of Dos Passos’s American Epic–USA– we return to the Modernism of ABSTRACT ART with George L.K. Morris’s portfolio of pieces by Jean Hélion, who was in 1938 a young and enthusiastic member of the French Abstract painting movement. Hélion had been an architecture student, then started painting, and in 1925 turned to abstraction after meeting Otto Freundlich, a German abstractionist.
At the time of his written interview with Morris, Hélion was married and living in the USA, spending time in both NYC and Virginia with his first wife, Jean Blair. Looking at the work Hélion had created by 1938, and its distance from the 21st century, it is easy to see the influence of Mondrian and Leger.
He was an enthusiastic participant in the description and new philosophy of abstraction, joining in with the group Art Concert and writing for Cahiers d’Arts. He expressed an affinity for Baudelaire’s Modernism. In his replies to Morris’s questions, Hélion talks most directly about the processes of making art; but he also shows himself willing to think and talk about Soviet art and politics.
For Hélion, abstract art was firmly attached to the politics of the 1920s and 1930s. But by 1938, I think it must have been, he had started to begin his turn away from abstraction and toward a return to figurative painting. For Hélion his change of purpose was tied to the Moscow Trials of 1938-8: “It was in 1936, during the famous trials that saw the disappearance of at least ten of my friends, the very ones who had guided me towards Communism…like Mandelstam…that my Communist faith disintegrated…it was when I stopped being Communist that I stopped being abstract.” (Jean Helion, Memoire de la Chambre Jaune, 1994. )
Morris asks: When you visited the Soviet Union, did you find indications that a strong plastic expression might emerge from its system of society?
“If all I saw of propaganda was poor, it is probably because the best painters declined to do it [in the Soviet Union, which JH had visited in 1931]. For the immediate future, I cannot see why we should hope that the public would turn suddenly toward us, even in Russia, when our attitude is so dry, when the way toward non-representative painting proves so hard to find.” Two years on from the start of the Trials, Hélion is not willing to be optimistic about the future: as for the Abstract painters, “If foreign art should be shown, some people will quickly find their way to it. It will be a minority, gifted, free-minded, among the very best, disregarding origin and profession. But what the power of those amateurs will be is something that cannot be foreseen securely. Let us not dream. A form of art as highly concentrated as that which we are trying to make everywhere, appeals to the smaller part of the public. Better hopes concern only a future too far to consider.”
Hélion returned to France in 1940 and joined the armed forces, and in 1939, he created a figurative work, Au Cyclist, which set him on new paths of painting.
In 1943, after the War, Hélion met and married Pegeen Guggenheim, the daughter of another proponent of Modernism, Peggy Guggenheim. Peggy Guggenheim had shown work by Hélion, which is how Pegeen met him. They married secretly in 1944, had three children and divorced in 1956. Pegeen had an unstable and unhappy life as Peggy’s daughter, but she was a buoyant painter:
Jean Hélion in the 1940s.
” Pegeen in her Atelier.”
In his later years, Hélion became something of a hero to a new generation of painters in France,who emulated his ‘revolutionary’ art, while eschewing propaganda. And among American painters, Roy Lichtenstein cited Hélion as an influence.
Jean Hélion in his later years.
Here we have another element of Partisan Review’s interest in European Modernism. Hélion was, indeed, a critical figure in the growth of Abstraction, and in 1938, a growing critic of Stalinism. What the PR intellectuals thought of Hélion’s rejection of abstraction as inextricable fromhis rejection of Stalinism, I have still to find out.
If you go to the Guggenheim Museum in NYC — there are many Hélion paintings to see. click to see more: Jean Helion