The French painter Jean Hélion made his name as an abstract painter. Throughout the 1930s, he created extraordinary geometrical compositions that balance pristine clarity with both a strongly dynamic feeling and a sense of unceasing transformation. But by the end of the decade, Hélion turned in a different direction and began to paint worldly subjects in a realistic style.
The University of Virginia's Fralin Museum of Art explores Hélion's evolution in "Jean Hélion: Reality and Abstraction." The exhibit, curated by art history professor Matthew Affron of the College of Arts & Sciences, who is also the museum's curator of modern art, runs from Aug. 31 through Dec. 16.
Hélion helped found an international artists' group called "Abstraction-Création" in Paris, participated in many important exhibitions in Europe, and forged connections with modern art circles in the United States. He spent much of the 1930s shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic and between studios located in Paris, New York City, and Rockbridge Baths, Va.
His evolution is more complicated than it might first appear, Affron said. "The abstract compositions had contained configurations of form, which were ultimately converted into recognizable figures and objects. And the newer figurative pictures possessed strongly formal qualities. Hélion complicates any simple opposition between notions of abstract art's detachment and realism's involvement in social immediacy."
The exhibition includes eight paintings and a substantial number of works on paper – executed in watercolor, gouache and ink – whose fluid spontaneity complements the paintings' immaculate handling. This exhibition is drawn from a private collection, with an additional loan from the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University in Roanoke.
Affron will teach a seminar to accompany this exhibition. He will give a Special Gallery Talk on Oct. 27, from 2 to 3 p.m. and a Lunchtime Talk on Dec. 11, from noon to 1 p.m.
In conjunction with the exhibit, painter and art writer Deborah Rosenthal will give a special lecture, "The Artist in Society: Jean Hélion, painter, writer, prisoner," on Oct. 11, at 5:30 p.m. in Campbell Hall, room 153. The talk is free and open to the public.
Museum programming is made possible by the support of The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.
The exhibition is made possible through the support of The Fralin Museum of Art Volunteer Board, B. Herbert Lee ’48 Endowed Fund, Albemarle Magazine, Ivy Publications LLC's Charlottesville Welcome Book and The Hook.
— By Jane Ford