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Tracy Danison, Paris correspondent

Jean Hélion: talking pictures for graphic narrative [By Tracy Danison]

1.6HélionJean Hélion "Edouard" (1939). Clovis Vail © Photo Jean-Louis Losi
© ADAGP, Paris, 2024

A retrospective exhibition on the painter Jean Hélion at Musée d’Art moderne de Paris called La Prose du monde opened a few weeks back.

Visually, casually, it begins with a monumental triptych recalling the events of May, 1968,  Choses vues en mai (1969), hung on the back wall of the foyer. The piece is in what you might call “graphic novel” style: a panel of intriguing “moments” rather than defined “events” – think of the visual intention that unites Jiro Taniguchi’s A Distant Neighborhood, Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis.

In Hélions’s painting, I am drawn to contemplation of a N° 69 bus-stop pillar, busted in two. I have taken, take to this day, that bus and often. I study the moments around the busted pillar, try to understand what touched Hélion in these moments, am touched myself – there’s memory and more, mystery?, in it. I decide there is something Hélion doesn’t grasp about the two women protesters – neither Marianne, nor copine.

4.14Hélion Jean Hélion, "La jeune fille et le mort" (1957
).Photo © Jean-Louis Losi © ADAGP, Paris, 2024

Hélion’s social circumstances make me think of Ferdinand Bardamu, the contemporary, anxious, petit bourgeois hero of Céline’s Death on the Installment Plan.

Born Jean Bichier in 1904 in rural Normandy, Hélion’s father was a taxi driver who had, for “reasons unknown”, changed his name from “Hélion” to “Bichier”. His mother was a dressmaker (or took in sewing).

Then, there’s a certain ellipsis in biographical details that puts me in mind of Ben Katchor’s Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer. For reasons unknown, baby Jean was left to be nurtured in Normandy by his – maternal? paternal? – grandmother. His parents were from? emigrated to? Amiens (just?). Anyway, in 1912, Jean joined them there. He was eight years old. From 1914 to 1918, Amiens, which is on the Somme river, effectively, the Western Front, was shelled, occupied and liberated several times.

Young Hélion left the battered city in 1920, at 16.

First, he signed/was signed up? for an “industrial school” in Lille. Then dropped out to work as a medicine-preparer for a pharmacy – not a job for uneducated dumb-heads, but apprenticeship, not skilled labor. Then, sometime between all this and 1922, “on the recommendation of a friend”, Jean Bichier went to Paris. He found a job as an architect’s draughtsman, skilled work. Also, presumably, somewhere between 1920 and his arrival in Paris, he had a “first wife”, a woman, also a teenager?, from?, called Andrée Jouart, and, on 29 December 1922, she had a son, Jean’s first child, called Jean-Jacques Bichier, began? painting portraits and landscapes and was meeting other painters.

5.5Hélion - copieJean Hélion "Figure tombée" (1939
). Photo © Centre Pompidou © ADAGP, Paris, 2024

In 1925, when Jean was 21, the art seller and patron Georges Bine launched the architect-draughtsman-cum-new father’s career after they met at the then-new Montmartre all-comers picture market Foire aux Croûtes. Bine advised Jean to change his family name back to Hélion; the association with “Helios” is obvious for an aspiring painter in the age of expression; in 1923, Marie Curie had coined "hélion" to designate the hydrogen nucleus; hélion also has a Biblical etymology and aristocratic connotations.

Whether he was able to make a living painting or remained an architect’s draughtsman, by 1929, Jean Hélion had become an active disciple of abstract, especially, cubist, painting, participating in the creation of the single issue Art Concret and the famous Abstraction-Création collective. He made friends with painters Théo van Doesburg and Piet Mondrian, become part of the group of trending artists that included Alexandre Calder, Hans Arp, Alberto Giacometti, Max Ernst, Marcel Duchamp and Victor Brauner.

In this period also, Hélion began work on his Carnets, notes on painting, and kept it up until 1984, and makes life-long friendships with such writers of his time as Raymond Queneau and René Char. In 1934, he divorced? His “first” wife, married an American woman and emigrated to the US, where he became a well-known apostle of abstraction, divorced and married again later and managed to get the attention of collectors and patrons such as the Guggenheim family.

2.13 Hélion - copieJean Hélion
”L’Atelier” (1953). Photo Courtesy Applicat-Prazan © ADAGP, Paris, 2024


Looking at Hélion's life story through the paradigm medium of Ferdinand Bardamu, I think it’s probable that until his emigration, Hélion, then 30, was still an apprentice, researching the science of visual representation with some of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful actors ever to sculpt and paint. His passage to “figurative” painting was likely no passage at all but rather a synthesis of what he’d learned about painting in the years since he’d set out to paint. When he began (if he’d actually ever stopped) doing figurative work in the mid- late- 1930s, he’d have been just over 30, was integrating what he’d learned into his painting.

And, when I look at it, Hélion’s painting does represent something unique, a different approach to painting and to narrative, too.

Looking back at his work as I finished the exhibition, in my mind’s eye I see Ferdinand Bardamu doing the preparatory work for Pop Art, pulling together the visual theories and knowledge developed by painters in the wake of photography, using the social and technical economy of a skilled draughtsman to build a base for … I don’t know … for a visual language key for the age of consumption… for something like Disney, Warhol … Lichtenstein… Then for Julius Knipl,  Persepolis … for the inverted bestiary that is Juan Canales Diaz’ and Juanjo Guarnido’s Blacksad … [ … and God knows how many contemporary artists who are building on the heritage and who are not getting seen and experienced because art museums serve the interests of established collectors/collections, “results”-oriented administrators and normative bien pensants clog up their spaces with retrospectives of “modern” centenarians and sesquicentenaries…]

6.11Hélion copieJean Hélion, “Grande mannequinerie” (1951). Photo © ADAGP, Paris, 2024


Thinking the man and his painting notable for winkling out the esthetic of the prosaic – a drunk sacked out on the sidewalk, a gutted pumpkin a kitchen shelf, a fedora on a head – Musée d’art moderne curators have called the Hélion exhibition La Prose du monde.

But that signifies too much ordinary nostalgia, not enough true memory  – … the-banker-never-wears-a-mac-in-the-pouring-rain… very-strange, Penny Lane sort of stuff. It’s a nice title, but evokes much less than what actually meets the eye once a body’s engaged their noggin and looked around at Hélion’s work.

Fabrice Hergott, director of the museum, put the sense of it better in his remarks to the opening day crowd: the exhibition answers to a demand of contemporary artists who have been influenced by his work, though he didn’t specify what or how.

There’s just more to Hélion than a place in the past or his particular way with visual representation. He figured out, it seems to me, a way to do a new type of visual storytelling, a pictural approach to feelings and emotions that goes well beyond illustrating a legend, a story, a punch line. First off, there’s a consistent way of using light and shadow on the geometries of human space/place/envelope/figure. Then, for Hélion, it’s not a scene and legend or even genre around one of the old figurations-typologies that count as it does count for any number of comic or tragic cartoons over the ages, say, for Velasquez or the Brueghels or for Sketches by Boz or Charlie Hebdo or Bringing Up Father. Rather, Hélion’s pictural story is told by its mise en scène: images that have a tot more glyph than figure, images that don’t so much illustrate or represent or comment stories as tell them. Real things, not analogies or metaphors for a story told outside the frame.

And Hélion’s achievement is a real achievement of the modern era, because, as with movement art, visual art has long been subsumed by its accompanying narrative – it’s a civilizational thing, I reckon. So, it’s no small thing to get the visual “talking” for itself the way Hélion did, the way graphic novelists have done after him.

____

“La prose du monde”, a retrospective of the work of Jean Hélion (1904-1987) is on show from 22 March to 18 August, 2024 at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris. Curator: Sophie Krebs


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