Jean Helion (French, 1904-1987) Composition abstraite (Painted in Paris in 1934)

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Lot 7AR
Jean Helion
(French, 1904-1987)
Composition abstraite

Sold for £ 122,500 (US$ 159,239) inc. premium
Jean Helion (1904-1987)
Composition abstraite
signed, inscribed and dated 'haut Top Jean Hélion Paris 34' (verso); signed, inscribed and dated 'Top Hélion 34' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
27 x 35cm (10 5/8 x 13 3/4in).
Painted in Paris in 1934


  • The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Madame Jacqueline Hélion. This work will be included in the online catalogue raisonné of the paintings of Jean Hélion currently being prepared.

    Cyril S. Reddihough Esq. Collection.

    A solicitor by profession, Cyril S. Reddihough was an early admirer of the paintings of Cézanne, Picasso and Matisse and a keen amateur artist himself. In 1926, Reddihough visited Ben and Winifred Nicholson and found himself 'completely flattened' by the 'poetic quality' of what he saw. That first meeting led to a relationship that would last the entirety of Reddihough's life, and from which he would build one of the finest collections of Nicholson's work in private hands. His collection was comprised not only of Nicholson's work but that of many of the great names of British and Continental Abstraction and Modernism: Henry Moore, Christopher Wood, Jean Hélion and Henri Hayden to name but a few.

    From Hayden's 1919 Nature morte, one of the artist's most fully-realized cubist compositions, to Jean Hélion's extraordinary canvas from 1934, the works that Reddihough selected represent the development of Abstraction from its earliest conception to its fullest maturity. He also had a passionate interest in the Naïve painters, collecting the work of Alfred Wallis (to whom he had been introduced by Nicholson) and Henri Le Douanier Rousseau. This group of works from his collection comes to auction for the first time, and stands as a testament to Reddihough's commitment to the art that he so loved.

    Painted in 1934, Composition abstraite, is an accomplished example from the most celebrated period of Jean Hélion's oeuvre. In 1931, along with Theo van Doesburg, Hélion founded the seminal Abstract-Création movement in Paris. This progressive group sought to champion abstract, non-representational ideals within painting, yet to move beyond the rigorous formal directives of Neo-plasticism as practised by the adherents of De Stijl and the short lived Art Concret group (of which Hélion had formerly been a leading member). The Abstract-Création movement proved highly popular, quickly attaining over four hundred members along with many leading abstract artists of the day, including Wassily Kandsinsky, Auguste Herbin and Jean Arp.

    By the mid-1930s Hélion had developed an abstract style that was uniquely his own, though he continued to maintain a debt of respect and gratitude to Piet Mondrian, whom he later described as owing the 'foundations' of his painting. Not satisfied by the strict geometry of his prior Orthogonal compositions (1929 – 1932) which, in Hélion's words, restricted themselves to 'rectangular trellises with colours stretched between them' (J. Hélion, 1933, quoted in Jean Hélion (exh. cat.), Liverpool, 1990, p. 155), he turned towards a concern for more organic, spatial compositions which experimented with variations of line, volume and hue.

    Composition abstraite is an excellent example from this transitional moment in Hélion's abstract phase which is characterised by a rhythmic energy and formal harmony. Realised through a series of interpenetrating planes, he employs a variety of straight and curved lines to delineate shapes of flat and gradated colour. Emerging through a play of contrasts, Hélion here creates a sense of optical and spatial dynamism where, in relinquishing the reductive geometry of his abstract forbearers, he allows the formal possibilities of his compositions to grow ad infinitum: 'I consider the person and the oeuvre of Mondrian to be exemplary.' Hélion explained, 'The two aspects existed in symbiosis (...) I have always taken notice of [Mondrian's] opinion and remembered his example: to go the whole way. From that cross in which I saw the essence of all structure and the knot of all space, I felt sure I could make the whole world of forms emerge, like a rose. Mondrian accepted it only as the least naturalistic support for his scale of relations. For me, it was the essential sign of all structures, the knot of all space, from which the world of forms could awake petal by petal, like a rose.' (J. Hélion, 9 March 1957, quoted in A. Meoglin-Delacroix, Jean Hélion (exh. cat.), Tate Gallery, Liverpool, 1990, p. 155).

    Significantly, the introduction of volume and curvilinear lines also reveals Hélion's attempt to reconcile geometry and living matter. For Hélion, Neo-plasticism's exclusion of nature from the canvas, in favour of the mind, neglected the truism that we see with the body as well. The fact that mind and the body are inextricable ultimately led Hélion back towards nature and the complex relationships between the immaterial and material. In speaking of his comparable, though larger, painting Ile de France (1935) now in the Tate collection, Hélion stated 'The oppositions are developing. The colours growing more refined and space more supple. But the further I go the more keenly I am aware of the appeal of nature. The space is temporarily, miraculously filled with light but the volumes will have to become complete; object, bodies' (J. Hélion quoted in A. Meoglin-Delacroix, ibid., p. 156).

    Hélion, it seems, even at this stage intuited his inevitable break from abstraction and return to figuration, which he resolutely took up again in 1939 and practised until the end of his career. He remains however a pioneer of abstract art and theory in the early 20th century and consequently many examples from this key period of his work now hang in major museum collections across the globe. Indeed, in 1940, on the occasion of Hélion's fourth exhibition in New York at the Gorgette Passedoit Gallery, the art critic Meyer Schapiro cited Hélion as the most 'outstanding abstract painter among the young generation of American and European artists'. 'Painters here and abroad' Schapiro continued, 'follow his work closely as the most advanced and accomplished of its kind' (M. Schapiro quoted in Jean Hélion (exh. cat.), Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 2004, p. 48).
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