Jean Hélion was born Jean Bichier on 21 April 1904, in Couterne, France. He initially studied engineering and architecture in Lille before moving to Paris in 1921, where he worked as an apprentice for an architect. Hélion began painting that year, focussing largely on impasto portraits and still-lifes. A collector, Georges Bine, took an interest in Hélion’s work in 1925, and the artist was subsequently able to devote himself entirely to painting. In 1926, Hélion met Joaquín Torres-García, a Uruguayan artist, who introduced him to Cubism. He would exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants for the first time in 1928 and by the following year had fully embraced a non-figurative style. Around this time, Hélion became acquainted with Jean Arp, Piet Mondrian, and Antoine Pevsner. Most importantly, he met Théo van Doesburg, with whom he would co-found the group Art Concret. This would expand to become Abstraction-Création in 1930.
In 1931, Hélion would travel across Europe and visit the Soviet Union. He would have his first solo exhibition in 1932 at Galerie Pierre, Paris, and visit New York for the first time. Hélion would visit New York for a second time in 1934, when he met Jacques Lipchitz, Joan Miró, and Ben Nicholson. He settled in the US in 1936, the same year he had a successful first exhibition at the Galerie des Cahiers d’Art, Paris. During the 1930s, Hélion became a key protagonist in French non-objective painting, creating sophisticated compositions of curved planes and block forms layered against backgrounds of flat colour. Whilst Hélion would describe his forms as autonomous ‘figures’ from 1934, it was not until 1939 that he decisively broke with abstraction and produced his first figurative painting in a decade, Au cycliste, 1939 (Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris), in a style akin to Fernand Léger’s.
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Hélion enlisted in the French army. He was taken prisoner and interned first in Pomerania, then Stettin, before escaping in 1942 and making his way to the US via France. A memoir detailing his experience, titled They Shall Not Have Me, was published in 1943, the same year he had solo exhibitions at the Arts Club of Chicago and Peggy Guggenheim’s Art of This Century, New York. Hélion returned to France in 1946, and continued to exhibit in both France and the US for the rest of his career. His style remained figurative, with still-lifes and nude figures particularly common subjects throughout the 1950s, and in the 1960s he began painting in acrylic, when he also depicted several street scenes. Hélion died on 27 October 1987, in Paris.
Hélion’s work can be found in the following selected international collections: the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Art Institute of Chicago; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo; Philadelphia Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA); the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Venice; Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris; the Tate Collection, London.
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