Alain Margaron letter > Tribute to Jean Hélion 1/4

Tribute to Jean Hélion 1/4

Jean Hélion, Autoportrait, 1953, charcoal and oil on canvas, 55.9 x 45.7 cm


One cannot understand the coherence and originality of Hélion’s work (1904-1987), his contribution to 20th Century, art without taking a long look at his paintings, seeing and re-seeing them to find their leading theme, the complexity of their construction and their many significances. 

My great fortune is the chance to have lived daily with his paintings and drawings over a long period of time, since Hélion is the first artist I bought as a young amateur. These works have magnetized the major moments of my life, and his relationship to things and people remain for me strong attachments to reality, as benchmarks, even when I worked in banking and communication.

Hélion teaches us to see “things” themselves and not their wrappings or their reproduction. If the Americans long rejected him until his later years, it’s because he not only deviated from abstraction, but also its main figurative alternative, “pop” in the larger sense.

Today, especially after two months of lockdown, his attachment to life and his attention to little things, to gestures, to all the spectacles of daily life could well replace the center of an art history that we rewrite regularly.

I love all his periods, and in spite of all the provocation which surrounded his return to figurative painting, I scarcely see a break between them.  His works provide me with an almost sensual visual pleasure, and at the same time the desire to decode the construction, the symbols, and their many meanings. They help to keep us alive.

He wrote:  “Art is a way of living: to accomplish the dual being that we carry:  the sensual, perched on our shoulders like a she-devil:  and the mental whose ideas stretch like hairs as far as the horizon.”

His works call for a dual reflection on life, intimate and social, and on the role of painting.

Didier Ottinger wrote in the catalogue for the major exhibition consecrated to him at the Pompidou center in 2004:  Hélion is one of the rare artists since Manet for whom painting must have a sense, something to tell us.