The French painter Jean Hélion was a leading figure in the world of abstract art during the 1930s. He created extraordinary geometrical compositions that balance pristine clarity with both a strong dynamism and a sense of unceasing transformation. He helped to found a significant 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. Hélion spent much of the 1930s shuttling back and forth across the Atlantic and between studios located in Paris, New York City, and Rockbridge Baths, Virginia. Much changed for Hélion at the end of the 1930s. He turned from pure abstraction and took up everyday themes, rendering these forms in a figurative style. This seemingly simple shift is more complicated than it might first appear. His abstract compositions had contained configurations of form that were ultimately converted into recognizable figures and objects. Simultaneously, the newer figurative pictures possessed strongly formal qualities. Hélion, therefore, complicates any simple opposition between notions of abstract art's detachment and realism's involvement in social immediacy.
This exhibition explores Hélion's evolution through and then away from abstract art. It includes eight significant paintings and a substantial number of works on paper—executed in watercolor, charcoal, and ink—whose fluid spontaneity complements the paintings' immaculate handling. This exhibition is drawn from a private collection, with an additional important loan from the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University in Roanoke. Matthew Affron will teach a seminar in the art department to accompany this exhibition.