Composition abstraite, 1936
b. 1904, Couterne, France
d. 1987, Paris, France
Jean Hélion played a key role in bringing European abstraction to American shores. Born in 1904, Hélion abandoned his chemistry studies at university to become an apprentice to an architect in Paris. It was while he was apprenticing that Hélion first began to paint. In 1926, when Hélion was twenty-two years old, he first met the Uruguayan artist Joaquín Torres-Garcia. Torres-Garcia, who was living in Paris at the time, introduced the young Hélion to Cubism, and also collaborated with him on the avant-garde magazine L’Acte. Jean Hélion soon became a prominent member of the Parisian art circles, exhibiting in the 1927 Salon des Indépendants.
In the 1930’s, Hélion moved to the United States and married an American woman who, in an odd twist of fate, shared his first name: Jean Blair. But in 1940, compelled by Europe’s suffering, Hélion returned to France to fight in World War II. He was captured by the Nazis and interned in a prisoner of war camp near Poland. He miraculously escaped and, once back in the United States, recounted the event in his 1943 wartime memoir They Shall Not Have Me. Like many artists who experienced the war first-hand, both Hélion and his art were profoundly changed by what he had experienced. His works became more figurative as he attempted to grapple with bleak reality. As he said during an interview with Time magazine, ''A man who has been locked up for a few years knows the value of reality. What can you communicate but the problematic meaning of the world?''