Homme au chapeau, 1943
Signed and dated verso 'Hélion va 43'
Oil on canvas
23 x 17 1/4 in, 58.4 x 43.8 cm
“A face demands a maximum of attention. It is the most intense part of creation and offers an endless interplay… It is more important to identify the model as a...
“A face demands a maximum of attention. It is the most intense part of creation and offers an endless interplay… It is more important to identify the model as a person than it is to show how this person defines the world that produced him. Art seeks the point in space where the obvious and the remote coincide”
Jean Hélion’s remarkable career took him from being a leading and successful abstract painter to a figurative one. In 1929 Hélion formed the group Art Concrete with Théo Van Doesburg, Otto Carlsund and Léon Tutundjian. The group focused upon non-objective geometry, creating works devoid of sensuality, drama and symbolism. However, his style shifted when he moved from Paris to the USA in 1932. There he was faced with a different kind of metropolis, brimming with the spectacle of daily life.
In 1939 Hélion created a series of works entitled 'Emile', 'Edouard' and 'Charles' which are pre-cursers to 'Homme au chapeau'. This series of anonymous yet enigmatic portraits are the earliest examples of Hélion’s new figurative style. However, shortly after creating the portraits World War II broke out and Hélion returned France to fight, only to be captured and interned at Szczecin within six months. Upon his escape in February 1942, Hélion found his way back to the USA and published the much lauded account of his war experiences ‘They Shall Not Have Me’ in 1943; the same year he created 'Homme au chapeau'.
The war changed the way in which Hélion painted. His post 1943 work became both idealised while also grounded in the humanity and simplicity of life. This new work has echoes of the geometric forms of his earlier paintings in the flat blocks of pure colour and strong black outlines used to create his timeless figures. The image of a man wearing a hat, a recurring motif in Hélion’s work, acts as a symbol of the everyman.
'Homme au chapeau' was acquired directly from the artist by the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize writer and collector John Ashbery, and remained in his collection until his death in 2017. John Ashbery described his first meeting with Hélion as “When I was in Paris, I went to see a show of his and wrote my name in the book, and we ended up becoming friends… I wrote an article about him when he had no real reputation in America, and he was pleased”.
Hélion’s works are in numerous major public collections including Tate, London; MoMA, New York; Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago; Kunsthalle, Hamburg; Peggy Guggenheim, Venice; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. Hélion has also been the focus of exhibitions at Museo Picasso, Barcelona; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; Armand Hammer Museum of Art, Los Angeles; Tate, Liverpool and during his lifetime at San Francisco Museum of Art (1937) and Gallery of Modern Art, New York (1964).
John Ashbery, New York (acquired directly from the artist)
New York, Spencer A. Samuels & Co., Ltd, 'Jean Hélion', 7 April - 22 May 1976, illus. no.8
New York, Kasmin Gallery, Works
from the Collection of John Ashbery, 1 November - 22 December 2018
This work is recorded in the 'Catalogue raisonné de l'oeuvre peint de Jean Hélion' online, no.876