Ile de France is one of Jean Hélion’s most important abstract paintings and, at two metres across, it was clearly envisaged as a substantial piece. Typical of his work in the mid-1930s is the disposition of variously sized and coloured planes across a relatively neutral background. For the large scale of Ile de France, as distinct from the small Abstract Composition (T07921), Hélion introduced an additional blue background plane that occupies part of the upper half of the composition. The effect is to reinforce the sense of implied space, within which the apparently overlapping planes mark out a rhythm. Four of the floating elements enhance this further through a modulated shading that suggests that they are convex forms within this shallow space. This recurrent device related to Hélion’s interest in sculptural reliefs on ancient architecture (Jean Hélion, Lettres d’Amérique: Correspondance avec Raymond Queneau 1934-1967, Paris 1996, p.81). Closely comparable conjunctions of elements to those in Ile de France are found in various preparatory ink and wash drawings of 1933-5, notable one of those known as Large Volumes, 1935 (Musée National d’art moderne, Paris, reproduced in Hélion: Dessins 1930-1978, exhibition catalogue, Musée National d’art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris 1979, p.19). When asked about the title many years later, he explained that Ile de France (referring to the region around Paris) was so named by a friend, the collector Pierre Bruguière, ‘because it could not have been painted elsewhere’ (letter to Tate, 29 October 1965).
In the 1930s, Hélion was one of the most prominent abstract artists in Paris. This reputation came about partly through the originality and fertility of his paintings and ideas, and partly through the energy with which he promoted non-figurative art in exhibitions and publications. He helped to found the international group Abstraction-Création in 1931 with Jean Arp (1886-1966), Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) and others, but withdrew in 1934 objecting to the sacrifice in new membership of quality to quantity. As well as his wide circle of associates in Paris, he had a number of important contacts in Scandinavia, in the United States (with Alexander Calder) and in Britain (especially with Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth). His encouragement is widely credited as the impetus behind Myfamwy Evans founding Axis (1935-7), the first British periodical devoted to abstract art. It was through Axis that Hélion showed Ile de France, and other works, in the pioneering exhibition Abstract and Concrete organised by Nicolete Gray in 1936. There it appeared alongside Mondrian’s Composition B with Red (T07560), Calder’s T with Swallow (T01142), Hepworth’s Three Forms (T00696) and Nicholson’s white reliefs among others. The artistic radicalism of the exhibition ensured some critical interest but financial failure and many works were returned to the artists. Hélion showed Ile de France in Paris in 1937 before storing with the writer Raymond Queneau through the war years.
An inveterate writer, Hélion recorded the progress of many of his works in a studio notebook. The passage written about Ile de France in 1935, reveals his persistent private doubts about the relation between abstract art and reality even as he worked on such a major canvas:
The oppositions are developing.
The colours are becoming refined, the space more supple, but the more I advance the more evident is the attraction of nature. The space is provisionally, miraculously, filled with light but the volumes want to become complete: objects, bodies. There will soon be the inevitable odd bit of nature, and the entry into a new naturalistic phase. (Journal d’un peintre, 1992, p.56)
While he made no direct allusion to the outside world in his paintings of the mid-1930s, such notebook passages reveal the underpinnings of his abstraction. Thus, although the formal and colour balances – or ‘oppositions’ - were crucial, he saw the planes of Ile de France as volumes occupying a lit space. Thirty years later, after a long period of working from the figure (see Nude with Loaves, 1952, T05497), he identified the abstraction from nature quite explicitly: ‘Ile de France comprises, on the left, an upright abstract figure from my year 34, opposed and composed to and with this [diagram] broad figure with “gros volumes” [Large Volumes]’ (letter to Tate, 29 October 1965).
Jean Hélion, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, Liverpool 1990.
Jean Hélion, Journal d’un peintre I: Carnets 1929-1962, Paris 1992.
Jean Hélion, exhibition catalogue, Musée National d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris 2004.