Jean Hélion, whose paintings and drawings are the subject of a resplendent retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, saw art as perpetual experimentation. From the hard-edged geometric abstractions with which he first established a reputation in the 1930s to the immense triptychs devoted to a Parisian street scene, a flea market, and the political upheavals of May 1968 that are his climactic achievements, Hélion was always testing the limits of what a painter could do. Despite his many shifts, there’s something cool and at times even chilly about his work: a deliberative power. The dramatic changes in the paintings of this artist, who died in 1987 at the age of eighty-three, suggest not the spirit of expressionist, anarchic, or romantic revolt so often associated with modern art but something closer to the analytical approach we associate with scientific investigation. While he never denied the inherent ambiguity of experience, he craved clarity above all else.

Writing in Le Monde just after the opening of the exhibition, Philippe Dagen, a critic and historian widely respected in the French art world, observed that Hélion’s work, with its complex combination of abstract and representational elements, might hold a particular appeal for audiences now, at a time when “most of the dogmatisms [Hélion] challenged are crumbling.” I’m not so sure. Hélion’s wide-ranging exploration of various ways of painting was powered by a scrupulous sense of distinctions. What some may regard as his eclecticism has little in common with the self-indulgence of the contemporary art world, where anything goes and artists mix and match abstract and representational elements rather casually, as if all that mattered were doing your own thing. Hélion approached the fundamentals of painting—how forms fit in a rectangle, how reality can be represented—with a philosophical precision, each structure or style a hypothesis to be tested and debated. It’s little wonder that he remains an imperfectly understood artist in Europe and a nearly unknown one in the United States.

Part of the challenge of Hélion’s work is that it can feel simultaneously conceptual and actual, an idea about life brought to life. That’s certainly true of Jugement dernier des choses (The Last Judgment of Things, 1978–1979), the vast triptych with which the retrospective reaches a glorious conclusion. This vision of a humble flea market, with people picking through old clothes and household goods, is realized with a supercharged synthesis of unbridled colors and calligraphic brushstrokes. Hélion’s careening lines, expansive shapes, and cacophonous orchestration of oranges, greens, yellows, and blues enlarge and sometimes even confound the simplest actions of a man trying on a pair of pants, a woman examining a painting, a couple deep in an embrace, and another man carrying away a bulky purchase. If this weren’t dissonance enough, the central panel of the triptych features two dressmaker’s dummies in flagrante, which adds a surreal dimension to the goings-on. Jugement dernier des choses is a new chapter in the explorations that Baudelaire celebrated in his essay about the painter of modern life, whose mandate was to reimagine the ordinary as something extraordinary.

Hélion embraced his times with uncommon avidity. He was in the thick of things in Paris in the 1930s, when the city was an international center for developments in abstract art. He established friendships with artists from all over Europe and the Americas, including Piet Mondrian, Wassily Kandinsky, Theo van Doesburg, Fernand Léger, Jean Arp, Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Robert and Sonia Delaunay, Alexander Calder, and Joaquín Torres-García. He celebrated pure abstraction and helped organize groups and periodicals that navigated the thrilling and sometimes maddening ideological discussions and disputes of those years. The gently curved shapes in his abstract paintings of the mid-1930s, each like a fragment of some silvery suit of armor, are gathered together in hovering constellations, the shimmering pageantry shadowed by the decade’s ever-darkening mood. In the late 1930s, he assembled these curved shapes with their delicately grayed tones into figure-like forms—what the French might refer to as a personnage. Hélion was turning away from the Platonic idealism of abstraction. In 1939 he began a series of male heads, stylized mugshots of the man in the street (one of which served as the poster for the retrospective and could be seen all over Paris).

Like many of the artists who embraced the high hopes we’ve come to associate with the modern movement, Hélion was eager to put his ideas into words. He produced a considerable number of essays and statements, some of them in English, a language he mastered with an ease and skill somewhat unusual among the French at the time. In 1936 he published in Axis, a leading journal of the English avant-garde, an essay in praise of the seventeenth-century French classical painter Nicolas Poussin. Hélion’s thinking was rich and complex, with a healthy skepticism about the theories that were already beginning to turn abstraction into orthodoxy. While to the end of his life he remained a great admirer of the austere achievements of Mondrian, Arp, and many others, by the mid-1930s he believed that “the modern movements have often been too near-sighted.” He worried about “the reduction of the conception” and “the emphasis upon the particularities of the execution.”


Hélion admired Poussin for defining what he referred to as “the maximum of a picture.” This artist, whose work had since the nineteenth century sometimes been dismissed as academic, struck Hélion as more challenging than his detractors and maybe even some of his admirers imagined. Poussin, Hélion insisted, was able to reveal “the infinity that can be got in a picture,” with smaller and larger elements joined together to achieve a visual intricacy all too often described with “the usually cheaply used word ‘unity.’” (This comment may have been directed at the gospel of “significant form” preached at the time by Clive Bell, a commanding figure among English artists and intellectuals.) Poussin achieved what Hélion referred to as a “double rhythm.” He gave each part of the painting—a figure, an object, a building, a tree—its own unique rhythmic authority. But at the same time Poussin was gathering together these wonderfully diverse elements in a whole that was more than the sum of its parts, with aspects of this or that figure, object, building, or tree joined in an overarching rhythm. The result was a totality that didn’t deny the integrity of the individual elements. This double rhythm, a weaving together and unifying of “substance and thought,” still fascinated Hélion decades later, when he defined his own kind of maximalism in Jugement dernier des choses and a number of other major paintings.

In the 1930s Hélion spent time in the United States, where he advised the pioneering collector Albert Gallatin as he put together a collection that was initially displayed in Greenwich Village as the Museum of Living Art and eventually became part of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s holdings. He was excited, as so many were, by political and social developments in the Soviet Union, but a visit there left him with reservations about the Marxist experiment, which he discussed in an interview in Partisan Review. For a time he was married to an American he had met in Paris and found himself painting in Virginia. With the beginning of World War II he returned to France to fight, was captured by the Germans, eventually escaped from a German prison ship, and managed to make his way back to the United States, where he published in English a memoir of his incarceration, They Shall Not Have Me, which became a best seller. At the end of the war Hélion returned to Paris, where he settled in an apartment and studio near the Luxembourg Gardens and, for a time, a house in the town of Bigeonnette, near Chartres, where he produced some of his largest paintings.

It has often been said that it was Hélion’s experiences during World War II that turned him from abstraction to representation. But he was painting the figure before the war, and he never—or at least only very briefly—saw abstraction in the same way as Mondrian, for whom it was the utopian resolution of a conflict between the real and the ideal that had preoccupied artists for centuries. In the late 1930s Hélion was already worrying that followers of Mondrian might not “permit much further evolution.” “I incline,” he said, “towards a form of modern painting that makes possible the use of the qualities of the ancient painters together with the most recent discoveries.”

In À rebours (On the Contrary, 1947), a painting that many of Hélion’s admirers regard as summing up his pictorial predicament, the artist—a sort of self-portrait—stands at the center of the canvas, to his left a female nude and to his right one of his own abstract paintings. This is an allegory, with the painter’s commanding position and somewhat perplexed expression suggesting a distant echo of Annibale Carracci’s The Choice of Hercules (1596), although it would be too much to associate Hélion’s choice between abstraction and representation with Hercules’ between Virtue and Vice. By rendering the nude female model, the painter himself, and one of his own abstract compositions with the same pale palette and incisive black outlines, Hélion seems to be suggesting that the differences between various ways of painting can be exaggerated. What at first appears a disunity gives way to some deeper unity.


There are wonders to be discovered everywhere in what is the most complete exhibition ever devoted to Hélion’s work. The paintings, accompanied by a generous selection of works on paper and an interesting assortment of documentary material, fit beautifully in the big, open galleries of the Musée d’Art Moderne that some remember from years ago as a little shabby—the building dates to the 1937 World’s Fair—but that have been refreshed and now have a wonderful bold feeling.

By the time museumgoers reach the work of the late 1940s or early 1950s, even those unfamiliar with Hélion’s paintings will find themselves intrigued and maybe even enchanted by a repertoire of objects, images, and situations that keep reappearing. They will begin to realize that what might at first have seemed ordinary is metaphoric, symbolic, talismanic. Hélion was obsessed with umbrellas, pumpkins, hats, shoes, newspapers, musical instruments, mannequins, and skulls. He loved to paint sidewalks, shop windows, and park benches, along with men and women at work and at play. He seemed to have a special affection for the bits of flotsam and jetsam that he noticed on the city pavement or in the unswept corner of a room. Hélion was tirelessly, rapaciously attentive. Those of us who love his work admire the different kinds of attention that he could bring to the same object; the hat or umbrella that in the work of the 1940s was treated in a crisp, flat, rather stylized way was reimagined in the 1950s with a brushy, almost impressionistic complication of lights and shades, and then in the 1960s reimagined yet again, with bold brushwork and aggressive colors. To paint reality involved perpetually transforming reality.

Not everything Hélion did succeeded. That was in the nature of his experimental method. Some of the extreme simplifications and stylizations that he brought to his studies of figures, city streets, and still lifes in the 1940s become oppressive; the cleverly curvilinear treatment of certain forms leaves nothing to the imagination, the schematic design foreclosing what ought to be a pictorial experience. The work of the 1950s and early 1960s, when Hélion turned first to a sharp-focus realism and later to more painterly, atmospheric effects, sometimes lacks the intellectual playfulness that is such a pleasure in so many of his compositions. But I wouldn’t want to do without Le Goûter (Afternoon Tea, 1953), an interior rendered with the insistence of a sixteenth-century Flemish master, in which the late afternoon meal doubles as the revelation of a love affair, with the two teacups, the cut bread, the open tin of fish, and the bottle of wine accompanied by the dishabille of a high heel, a woman’s slip, and a pair of pants. I also wouldn’t want to miss the light touch and sweet, soft colors that he brought to his studies of Parisian rooftops.

Hélion made his essential contribution to twentieth-century art when he pushed his instinctive maximalism to the limit in paintings of urban life. There are the three enormous triptychs from the 1960s and 1970s, and there is also, from around 1950, an extraordinary series of paintings of men reclining on the ground juxtaposed with other men who are reading newspapers as well as male mannequins on display in shop windows. I can’t think of anything produced in the past seventy-five years that can top Hélion’s Baudelairean vision of urban experience; the only works that exert a similar power are Balthus’s Le Passage du Commerce Saint-André (1952–1954), R.B. Kitaj’s Cecil Court, London W.C.2 (The Refugees) (1983–1984), and Alberto Giacometti’s series of lithographs Paris sans fin (which he was working on at the time of his death in 1966).

In the cycle of melancholy paintings from around 1950 that culminated in Grande mannequinerie (The Great Mannequin Display, 1951), Hélion was at his most Baudelairean. The previous dozen or more years had been a time of trauma in the metropolitan centers that had shaped his social, cultural, and intellectual life since he first arrived in Paris in the 1920s. In New York he had witnessed the poverty and dislocations of the Depression. He had seen Paris under Nazi rule and then, after the war, he had lived through the challenges that accompanied Europe’s gradual recovery. With Grande mannequinerie, painted in a sharp orchestration of acidic greens, blues, oranges, and browns, Hélion was memorializing all the difficulty and strangeness of those times. Reclining on the narrow strip of sidewalk is a sleeping man. His disheveled appearance—a rumpled brown sweater, a foot missing a shoe—suggests homelessness, but his strong features and lean body might as easily be those of a bohemian dreamer. Above him, in the shop window, are two male mannequins in elegant, tight-fitting suit jackets and ties, their animated hand gestures and wide-open eyes suggesting a life absent from the sleeping man—and yet they’re only half-men, their torsos mounted on little metal stands. Hélion treats every aspect of the painting with equal decisiveness, including an umbrella leaning in a doorway, a fedora displayed in the shop window, little bits of signage on the windows (“TEL. 1”; “ET FILS”), the cracks in the sidewalk, and some tiny scraps of paper fallen from a notice pasted on a wall.

Grande mannequinerie (The Great Mannequin Display); painting by Jean Hélion

Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris/© Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Jean Hélion: Grande mannequinerie (The Great Mannequin Display), 1951

This is the allegorical city, the city as a dream. In the title of at least one of the paintings in this series Hélion referred to the sleeping man as a gisant, the term for the recumbent sculpted figures on the tombs of medieval and Renaissance royalty. Hélion once told me that his sleeping figures were poets. They might well be the ghosts of Baudelaire, who in the poem “Le Cygne” saluted the city he loved. “Paris changes!” he exclaimed, much as Hélion might have as he contemplated the city that he’d known for some thirty years.

But nothing in my sadness
Has moved! New palaces, scaffoldings, blocks,
Old suburbs, everything becomes an allegory for me.

The greatness of Grande mannequinerie is in the freedom of the allegory, the extent to which memory and immediacy become one. We may be inclined to associate Hélion’s preternaturally animated mannequins with the Surrealists’ interest in dummies and dolls of all kinds, but the dramatic confrontation that Hélion creates here between the recumbent man and the mannequins is so utterly original that precedents become irrelevant. He achieves what Baudelaire was suggesting: an allegory without fixed meaning. Hélion might also have been thinking of Gustave Courbet’s The Painter’s Studio (1854–1855), which the painter referred to as a “real allegory,” and in which Baudelaire can be seen at the right, intent on what he’s reading. The man asleep on the sidewalk in Hélion’s painting is a reimagining of the figure of the flaneur, the detached observer of the city streets, his wanderings merging with his dreams. His two feet—one shod, the other bare—leave him forever between public and private experience, waking and dreaming.

In the quarter-century after Grande mannequinerie Hélion explored the life of the city again and again. There is a large painting of figures in the Luxembourg Gardens, a series of works about butchers and butcher shops, groups of paintings devoted to people going in and out of the metro or gathered around a bookstall, and the three monumental triptychs, each close to thirty feet long: Triptyque du Dragon (The Rue du Dragon Triptych, 1967), Choses vues en mai (Things Seen in May, 1969; see illustration on page 18), and Jugement dernier des choses. When Hélion was working on Triptyque du Dragon, which depicts an ordinary afternoon on a little street on the Left Bank, he couldn’t have known that the upheavals of May 1968 would precipitate a second triptych, this one devoted to Paris as a site of protest. Together the two compose a vast diptych, a juxtaposition of the regular and altogether irregular dynamics of city life, although unfortunately at the Musée d’Art Moderne they aren’t shown together; Triptyque du Dragon is in the exhibition itself and Choses vues en mai is in the lobby.

Hélion was already thinking about how to approach the challenges of a complex figure composition thirty years earlier, when he discussed Poussin’s Eliezer and Rebecca (1648) in his essay for Axis. He began by focusing on the sphere on the top of a pilaster in the painting. From there he moved to the “almost spheric” vase at Rebecca’s foot, then to “another vase more lengthened,” and then to a woman pouring water “from a fourth vase into a bigger one,” all the while suggesting how forms unfold and unfurl, so that one discovers

another degree of transformation of the original sphere, another attitude of vase, other dimensions, another opposition between height and width, between a mass and its surrounding space.

Hélion brought that same thrilling rhythmic impulse—that sense of an unfolding pictorial drama—to Triptyque du Dragon and Choses vues en mai. In both paintings the essential element is a curving line or form, by turns convex and concave, from which he was able to construct a man’s jacket, an arm, a woman’s buttocks, a hat, a bicycle, an umbrella open or closed, a baguette, a café tabletop, a head, a banner, a flame, a flag. Each element, while distinct, is part of the larger pattern. And because the pattern is so complex, the elements remain interlocked but unstable—as unstable as life itself. Hélion celebrates hands, faces, and entire figures with curving, swinging brushstrokes. He emphasizes not anatomy or physiognomy but gesture and momentum: the dance of life.

Hélion is celebrating the richness of urban experience. Triptyque du Dragon, dominated by cloudy blues that drift into purples and greens, is about day-to-day experience in an open society: the glass of wine at the café, the shops selling clothing or paintings, the musician performing along the street, the fun of riding a bike, a couple of lovers in an impassioned embrace, the blind man with his cane deftly navigating the sidewalk, and the workman down in a manhole whose maintenance and repairs keep the city humming. Choses vues en mai, with its dramatic, discordant orchestration of reds, oranges, blues, and blacks, is about the city in disruption and the protests that Hélion, like many French intellectuals with memories of the radical 1930s, embraced to some degree, their old passions rekindled by a younger generation demanding a better world. In both paintings Paris is a city of youth, or at least a city animated by youthful curiosity and avidity. Speaking of the protesters in May 1968, Hélion praised their “fresh, broad spirit, far in advance of what we expected.”

Hélion’s Choses vues en mai echoes Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, conceived after the artist had witnessed the upheavals of the July 1830 revolution in Paris, which stirred him, although to the extent that his politics can be discerned he was in some ways a conservative. Like Delacroix, Hélion probably conceived of Choses vues en mai not so much as a polemic as a celebration of human yearnings and desires. (There is a good essay by Éric de Chassey about Hélion’s politics in the exhibition catalog.) Hélion wrote of the triptych, “In my painting I do not demonstrate my ideas, but rather my desires, or my pleasure.” He said that an artist’s place “is neither at the Elysée or in the Kremlin, but in the street, theater of life, for all.” In the 1980s, after many of the hopes of the 1960s had soured, I asked Hélion what his feelings now were about the events of May 1968, and he responded, “It is good to upset things once in a while and see what’s underneath.” To upset things but not destroy them—that was always his idea, whether looking for a better way to organize a society or a new way to paint.

Although this is the second major museum exhibition devoted to Hélion’s work in Paris in the past twenty years, even in France his reputation remains ambiguous, a situation that Fabrice Hergott, the director of the Musée d’Art Moderne, confronts in the catalog. Hergott complains that in the past generation a standardization of exhibition policies and practices in museums around the world has made it difficult to find a place for an artist who in some respects remains uncategorizable. While Hélion’s paintings are in major collections, especially in Europe, it’s not easy to situate him in the genealogies and typologies of twentieth-century art. Hergott makes an astute distinction: Hélion isn’t so much a “marginal” figure—the work has a scale and a range that defy marginality—as “a curiously decentered figure.”

Sophie Krebs, the lead curator, has done much to recenter Hélion—and grant him the place he deserves in twentieth-century art. But the entire team involved with the exhibition, at least from the evidence of the catalog, has demonstrated an intellectual insularity that would have dismayed Hélion, a transatlantic figure who has always had a small but passionately devoted following in the United States. A catalog essay focuses on Hélion’s relationship in 1930s Paris with Calder, one of a number of American artists with whom he was friends, but acknowledges only glancingly the enduring nature of their friendship, which continued until Calder’s death in 1976. Meyer Schapiro’s interest in Hélion is mentioned; he wrote a preface for an exhibition in 1940. And that’s about all that the Musée d’Art Moderne catalog has to tell us about what has been an ongoing American enthusiasm for Hélion’s work. I find this lapse or oversight—I don’t know quite what to call it—especially frustrating when I turn back to the catalog of the Hélion retrospective that opened at the Centre Pompidou in 2004, which includes abundant material from American writers.

The organizers of the current exhibition may have felt that considering the many collections of Hélion’s writings and critical and scholarly studies of his work now available in French there was no need to bother much with American sources. Perhaps they concluded that it was best to leave the United States out of the picture, given that the one American account of recent years that’s cited at any length—in the final essay in the catalog—is a rampagingly negative review of an Hélion exhibition that Roberta Smith published in The New York Times in 2005. I had almost forgotten about that strange piece of writing, in which Hélion was described as “a brilliant sponge, but one whose command of brush, composition and color enabled him to lift his synthesis of other artists’ ideas above humdrum derivativeness.” At the time it seemed as if the vehemence of Smith’s prose was fueled by something more than her rejection of Hélion’s view of artistic freedom. She seemed to want to cast doubt on the attitudes and aspirations of his American admirers, who saw in this man who understood both Mondrian and Poussin not slick tricks but profound experiments.

Among those admirers was the poet John Ashbery, who in 1964 translated a selection of Hélion’s writings for the magazine Art and Literature and who wrote about Hélion on at least five occasions, including “Jean Hélion Paints a Picture,” a substantial essay reprinted in Reported Sightings (1989), a collection of his art criticism. Hélion’s admirers have included a couple of generations of American painters, among them Leland Bell, who championed his work in articles published in the 1950s and 1960s, and Deborah Rosenthal, who edited and introduced the first collection of Hélion’s writings in English, Double Rhythm: Writings About Painting (2017). My own Paris Without End (1988) may still be the only book in any language in which Hélion’s achievement is presented on an equal footing with those of Balthus, Giacometti, Braque, Léger, and other masters of what used to be called the School of Paris.

The neglect of Hélion’s American admirers is especially ironic, because the artist’s transatlantic interests and impulses reflected the same determination to break out of fixed patterns that shaped his complex feelings about abstract and representational art. For Ashbery, who knew Hélion from the years when he lived in Paris, his career, with all its twists and trajectories, epitomized the unpredictable and incalculable possibilities of the modern imagination. It may be that Ashbery sensed in Hélion the same creative permissiveness that Americans from the time of Gertrude Stein and Hemingway had felt in the Parisian ambience. Ashbery believed Hélion had “invented a new kind of description, poetic without being rhapsodic, which treats the outside of things as though it were their soul.” He saw in Hélion’s work a modern, let’s-try-it spirit that defies standardization.

After Ashbery’s death some of his ashes were scattered in places that had been important to him, one of which was Hélion’s studio near the Luxembourg Gardens, where the young American poet had spent many happy hours. The little ceremony that took place in December 2017 near the site of the studio reaffirmed a Franco-American friendship that was also the friendship of a great poet and a great painter. In his Norton Lectures, which he titled Other Traditions (2000), Ashbery spoke about poets who, although distant from what many regarded as the mainstream, had meant much to him. This poet who was always alert to the search for a tradition beyond the mainline traditions saw that possibility in Hélion. At the Musée d’Art Moderne de Paris, Hélion is the leader of another tradition, one that at least for the present defies definition. Leaving this great show I knew that his place is assured. What exactly that place is we can’t yet say.