In his private journal for 6 March 1952, Jean Hélion wrote about Nude with Loaves, one of several paintings in which he contrasted flesh and bread. As he had just begun work on the composition, his notes explore his underlying preoccupations. Although he had made studies from a model - an acrobat named Mauricette - he wanted the figure to be impersonal. He envisaged the nude as being seen 'from the back, because from the front it would be a person, and the relationship between the flesh and the bread would only be seen from a long way off'(Hélion, p.234). This relationship went beyond the contrast between the muscular articulation of the nude back and the split crust of the three loaves. Hélion saw parallels between the desired body and food, a preoccupation borne of his experience as a prisoner-of-war in 1940-2. He made this clear in another journal entry, where bread is described as 'an object to eat, marked by men's hands and by injuries; gilded like autumn' (24 November 1951, Hélion, p.226). This balance between desire and frailty is implicit in Nude with Loaves.
The other details in the painting enlarge upon the narrative of desire. An atmosphere of sexual tension is generated by the discarded clothes. 'The relationship between male and female', Hélion noted in March 1952, 'is once more expressed in the dark/white, heavy/light antinomy of the hanging trousers and the petticoat' (Hélion, p.234). The notes continue: 'Man's shoe, large, heavy and old below the fresh petticoat. Brought there to supply the composition with a blemish - balancing the trousers without doubt, but also to establish the homage to the nude.' Adoration is made more explicit in the remark about the absent (and evidently naked) man: 'Perhaps he is on his knees in the spectator's place, adoring.' Hélion reinforces a quasi-religious view of the composition by seeing the branch laid beside the loaves on the table as a springtime sign of budding.
Hélion's sensual account of Nude with Loaves reflects his need to communicate 'a violent passion for life as a whole … the streets, the people, the things' (quoted in Paris Post War, p.135). This simple figurative style, initiated in 1939, replaced the cool abstraction for which he was well known in the 1930s (see Tate T00766). In the post-war period, his return to the figure was interpreted rather less optimistically by his contemporaries. The poet Francis Ponge introduced Hélion's work to Britain in 1951 by characterising it as 'the official art of a Republic of the Absurd' (quoted in Paris Post War, p.136). In this way, the anonymous figures painted by Hélion were associated with the isolation of the individual and the absurd impossibility of communication identified in contemporary Existential philosophy in France. A post-war anxiety about this break-down of human interaction was identified in the painter's simplification and isolation of the figure, often set - as it is in Nude with Loaves - within surrounding of evident physical decay. Hélion's imagery thus found echoes in the destitution and inactivity of the Existential condition, such as that epitomised on stage by the 'Theatre of the Absurd' of Eugène Ionescu's The Bald Prima Donna, 1948, or by Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, 1953 (London 1993, p.135).
Jean Hélion, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, Liverpool 1990
Jean Hélion, Journal d'un peintre I: Carnets 1929-1962, Paris 1992
Paris Post War: Art and Existentialism 1945-55, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, pp.135-41, reproduced p.141 (colour)