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Matthew Josephson, "Jean Hélion: The Return from Abstract Art" The Minnesota Review, 1: 3 (April, 1961), 346-350

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In recollection he has said : `` Natural or man-made objects kept coming into my head , but I would suppress them sternly '' . Moreover , he organized the movement of his forms , within his rigorously shaped space , into highly complex equilibriums ; ; and used gradations of color value as well as sharply contrasting elementary colors .

The worthy Mondrian , seeing these pictures , said in a tone of kindly reproof : `` But you are really an artist of the naturalistic tradition '' ! ! Helion did not realize it at the time , but it was true .

His `` monumental '' abstraction , made up of smooth , metallic `` non-objects '' acting upon each other with great tension , won Helion much acclaim during the 'thirties . The play of novel lighting effects also entered into these compositions , whose controlled power and varied activity made them well worth meditating .

As Helion's work showed more and more nostalgia for the world of man and nature , the pure abstractionists expressed some disapproval ; ; but Leger , Arp , Lipchitz and Alexander Calder , at the time , gave him their blessing . His canvases nowadays bore titles frankly declaring them to be `` Figures In Space '' , or `` Blue Figure '' , or `` Pink Figure '' ; ; and they had ( vaguely ) heads and feet . Exhibited in shows in London in 1935 , and in New York the following year , the new , more elaborated abstracts were much favored in the circles of the modernists as three-dimentional dramas of great intellectual coherence . At this period the thirty-year old Helion was ranked `` as one of the mature leaders of the modern movement '' , according to Herbert Read , `` and in the direct line of descent from Cezanne , Seurat , Gris and Leger '' . In America , Meyer Schapiro observed that , unlike the Mondrian school , Helion `` sought a return path to the fullness of nature within the framework of abstract art '' .

It is notable that at this time he was writing with admiration of Cimabue's and Poussin's way of filling space . Abstract art was still the right path for him ; ; but , he held , instead of continuing as an `` art of reduction '' , it must grow , must make a place for the contributions of the Raphaels and Poussins as well as for those of the early cubists and Mondrian .

Later Helion wrote of this phase : `` For years I built for myself a subtle instrument of relationships -- colors and forms without a name . I played on it my secret songs , unexplained , passionate and peaceful '' .

But his own work was evolving further . The extreme limitations he sensed in all current abstract art made that seem to him increasingly arid and cold . He was engaged in constant experiments that searched for new directions . Where would it all lead ? ? He himself did not know , as he said in 1935 . But he was `` afraid of the future -- he would in fact welcome a way back to social integration , a functional art of some kind '' .

During the 1920's the Abstractionists , the German Bauhaus group of industrial designers , and the new architects all had the dream of some well ordered utopia , or welfare state , in which their neat and logical constructions might find their proper place . But whereas the postwar American abstractionists seem to Helion to be determined to `` escape '' from the real world , or simply to rebel against it , the ordered abstractions which he and his associates of the 1930's were painting embodied the hope of `` improving '' things . `` We were possessed by visions of a new civilization to come , very pure and elevated '' , he has said , `` in fact some ideal form of socialism such as we had dreamed of since the war of 1914-1918 '' .

Instead of this the 1930's witnessed a tragic economic depression , the rise of Fascist dictators in Europe , the wasting Civil War in Spain . Very much the political man , Helion felt himself deeply affected by the increasingly pessimistic atmosphere of France and all Europe , whose foundations seemed to him more and more shaky . In 1936 he decided to migrate to America . The Rooseveltian America was a haven of liberalism and progress and seemed to him to constitute the last best hope for civilization . Helion also hoped that America's mastery of technology and industrial efficiency would be accompanied by the production of new and beautiful art works . `` I arrived in the United States with the idea of establishing myself there more or less permanently and finding inspiration for new compositions '' .

In New York he was well received by what was then only a small brave band of non-figurative artists , including Alexander Calder , George K. L. Morris , De Kooning , Holty and a few others . After a year in a studio on Sheridan Square , having married an American girl who was a native of Virginia , Helion moved to a village in the Blue Ridge mountains , where he produced some of the most imposing of his abstract canvases .

The darkening world scene , at the time of the Munich Pact , continued to trouble his mind even in his remote Virginia studio . `` Fear possessed me , and the certainty of war '' , he has related . `` I truly smelled blood , death , heaps of corpses everywhere '' . In haste he labored to finish some last abstract paintings : a three-panel frieze , with a flying figure and a fallen figure ; ; a `` Double-Figure '' , which went to the Chicago Art Institute , and is considered by him the most successful of his abstracts ; ; and in early 1939 , a `` Fallen Figure '' of very ominous character , which concluded his abstract phase . `` I knew I was carrying on with abstraction to its very end -- for me '' , he said of the two years' output in Virginia . With those paintings of big constructions crashing down , he felt he could stop . They were , in effect his last testament to non-objective art .

He had taken out first papers for American citizenship ; ; but after war came to Europe , he decided to return to France , arriving there in January , 1940 . `` I hated the war '' , he said , `` but thought I ought to go because I was , perhaps , one of those who hadn't done enough to prevent it '' .

In June , 1940 , Sergeant Helion , with a company of reserve troops waiting to go into battle , was sketching the hills south of the Loire River , when the war suddenly rolled in upon him . Its first apparition was a long , gloomy column of refugees riding in farm wagons , or pushing prams . His company then carried out a confused retreating movement until it was surrounded by the Germans , a few days before France capitulated . After a sort of death march during four days without food , Helion and his comrades were shipped by cattle-car to a labor camp at an estate farm in East Germany . A year later they were removed to a Stalag in the harbor of Stettin . At the time of his capture Helion had on his person a sketchbook he had bought at Woolworth's in New York . When he was stripped , deloused and numbered by his guards , his much-thumbed sketchbook was seized and thrown on a pile of prisoners' goods to be confiscated . `` It was then I knew that they were making war against Man , the individual within ! ! -- who questioned things when given orders '' .

At Stettin the university-educated artist , who had studied German , was chosen to serve as interpreter and clerk in the office of the Stalag commander . In secret he also acted as a member of the prisoners' Central Committee , which plotted sabotage , planned a few escapes , and maintained a hidden control over the wretched French slave-laborers .

In the Stalag , Helion came to know and love his comrades , most of them plain folk , who , in their extremity , showed true courage and ran great risks to help each other . How much they esteemed him is shown by the fact that their underground committee selected him as one of the few who would be helped to escape . In the prison camp's Black Market civilian clothes were quietly bought and forged papers were devised for him ; ; during long weeks the plan for his flight was rehearsed .

Every morning contingents of prisoners would be sent out to labor in nearby factories . One evening , while a volley-ball game was being played in the yard among the prisoners remaining there , a simulated melee was staged -- just as the gates were opened to admit other prisoners returning from work . As Helion wrote afterward : ``

Their sentry followed . Four hands were stretched toward me by my comrades behind me . Marquet held my briefcase ; ; Finot held a wallet with my money and papers ; ; Moineau and David held nothing but their fingers . They felt rough and kind and warm . At this moment the volley-ball hit the ground . Duclos ran toward Desprez with fists raised . The guards all rushed up to intervene ''

Shedding his prison cloak , Helion shot through the gates , now clad in civilian garments and with the passport of a Flemish worker . Riding trains , hitching hikes on trucks across Germany , slipping through guarded frontiers with the help of secret guides , he eventually reached Vichy France , and , by the winter of 1943 , was back in Virginia . He wrote : ``

To escape from a prison camp required a very special state of mind ; ; not only loathing of captivity , but a faith , a hope that is even stronger . I left behind me brave men , whom captivity had robbed of all hope . They too loved their families , longed for their villages : yet lacked the faith that drove one to dare the fearful chance of escape '' .

It was a time of revelations for him . Even the most rational of men , under great stress , may be transported by a new faith and behave like mystics . Helion knew that he owed his freedom as much to the self-sacrifice of his fellow-men in Arbeitskommando 13 , , Stettin , as to his own fierce will and love of life . After that , he declared , `` to return to freedom was to fall to one's knees before the real world and adore it '' . In prison he had been able to sketch nothing but figures from life , his guards , his companions in misery . Now all his desires centered on `` rediscovering and singing of the prosaic and yet beautiful world of men and objects so long barred from me by a barbed wire fence '' . And , he added : `` During the many months in prison camp , all abstract images vanished from my mind '' .

Before leaving for America , he happened to see his old friend Jean Arp and confided to him his new resolutions . Arp protested : `` But it is impossible ! ! Everything in the way of representation has already been done by the old masters '' . Helion , however , clung to the belief that `` in escaping from the Stalag I had also escaped from Abstraction '' .

While convalescing in his Virginia home he wrote a book recording his prison experiences and escape , entitled : They Shall Not Have Me Published originally in ( Helion's ) English by Dutton & Co. of New York , in 1943 , the book was received by the press as a work of astonishing literary power and one of the most realistic accounts of World War 2 , from the French side . It was very widely read , too ; ; and the author , who seemed the embodiment of France's rising spirit of resistance to her conquerors , was much complimented for his daring military action . But when he showed his new figurative pictures to his artist friends of the abstract camp , they paid him no compliments and drew long faces .

Between 1944 and 1947 Helion had a series of one-man shows -- at the Paul Rosenberg Gallery in New York and in Paris -- of his new realistic pictures . They reincarnated the figures of human beings banished from his canvases since the 1920's . These new pictures focussed on the familiar and commonplace objects that he had heard the men in his prison camp talking about as the things they missed most , hence associated with the sense of lost freedom : the cafe at the corner , the newspaper kiosk , the girls in doorways and windows along the street , the golden-crusted French bread they lacked , the cigarettes denied them . One of the pictures was of a man with hat drawn over his face ceremoniously lighting a cigarette ; ; others were of men doffing their hats to each other , carrying umbrellas with pomp , reading newspapers , or simply showing loaves of bread spread out .