Jean Hélion

Abstract Composition


In Tate Modern

Jean Hélion 1904–1987
Original title
Composition abstraite
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 271 × 350 × 15 mm
frame: 450 × 525 × 60 mm
Accepted by HM Government in lieu of inheritance tax and allocated to Tate 2002


Although modest in size, Abstract Composition, 1934 is exemplary of Jean Hélion’s personal abstract style of the 1930s in which characteristically linked planes are arrayed across the canvas. The rhythm of the forms, both in their subtle colour relationships and their contrasts of vertical and horizontal orientation, is critical to the harmony of the composition. A dynamic energy is generated by the play of curved and straight edges, with a notable swinging movement created in the lower right half. Alongside those with flat colours, three planes (in grey, blue and green, arrayed bottom left to top right) have modulated shading to suggest outward curvature. A sense of shallow space is maintained by allowing the forms to float in front of a neutral plane and there is an implication of gravity in the way that they are weighted towards the base of the composition. All of these qualities found a more complex resolution, on a larger scale, in the slightly later painting Ile de France, 1935 (T00766).

Hélion came of what he perceived to be a second generation of abstract artists in Paris, following in the path of pioneers such as Piet Mondrian (1874-1944) and Theo van Doesburg (1883-1931), whom he befriended. As such, he saw himself as reinforcing a new tradition and he worked energetically as a promoter of abstract or non-figurative art. In 1930, though still relatively unknown, he helped van Doesburg to form the short-lived Art Concret group. In 1931, with Jean Arp (1886-1966), Auguste Herbin (1882-1960) and others, he co-founded the Abstraction-Création group and edited its first yearbook. As well as being explicitly non-figurative in orientation, this association was deliberately international in outlook at a time of political nationalism and intolerance across Europe.

In the years between two stays in America (1932-3 and 1936-40), Hélion’s Paris studio was a significant port of call. Among the British artists and writers who visited were Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, John Piper and Myfanwy Evans. He made Abstract Composition in 1934 at around this moment and just as he withdrew from Abstraction-Création (over differences with Herbin). Evans came away from her first visit to Hélion, in September that year, fired with enthusiasm to launch a periodical, which resulted in Axis. The periodical helped to promote the pioneering exhibition Abstract and Concrete which Nicolete Gray organised in 1936 and in which Hélion showed Ile de France alongside works by Mondrian, Hepworth, Nicholson, Piper and others. Reinforcing this relationship, Hélion wrote two important articles for Axis. The first of these was ‘From Reduction to Growth’ (Axis, no.2, April 1935), in which he retraced the recent history of abstract painting. Just as his thinking was close to Evans’s, so his work was most influential upon and closest to that of Piper, whose abstract reliefs (for example T01026, T07922) he admired. Like them, he believed that abstract art, however radical, shared timeless values of balance, rhythm and composition with the great art of the past. Hélion’s second article in Axis ‘Poussin, Seurat and the Double Rhythm’ (no.6, summer 1936) made this explicit. These were qualities, beyond realism, that he sought in his own painting.

After the closure of Axis, Hélion contributed ‘Avowals and Comments’ to Evans’ anthology on contemporary art The Painter’s Object (1937), where ‘Poussin, Seurat and the Double Rhythm’ was also reprinted. He is said to have given Abstract Composition to Piper and Evans to set against the debts accrued by the periodical. It is visible in photographs of the Pipers eating bananas in their parlour studio (Frances Spalding and David Fraser Jenkins, John Piper in the 1930s: Abstraction on the Beech, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London 2003, p.30, fig.10).

Further reading:
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.

Matthew Gale
March 2004

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Display caption

Hélion was an energetic promoter of abstract or non-figurative art. He believed qualities such as balance, rhythm and composition linked the most radical abstract art and the great art of the past. He helped to found the groups Art Concret and Abstraction-Création as forums for like-minded artists. These groups were deliberately international in outlook at a time of political nationalism and intolerance across Europe.

Gallery label, January 2019

Does this text contain inaccurate information or language that you feel we should improve or change? We would like to hear from you.

Technique and condition

The painting comprises an uncomplicated construction. A small commercially primed canvas has been painted with artists’ tube oil paints. Pencil under-drawing is visible as an outline around each element of the composition. There is evidence of a tentative approach to the colouring of each shape. A number of these shapes have been over-painted, for example the grey rectangle superimposed on the black rectangle centre left was initially painted red. The artist then painted the grey paint on top. Several of the white elements had originally been coloured. The underlying coloured paint has an optical effect on the overlying white paint. Each white element has a slightly different shade and surface reflectance. The paint may also have become slightly more translucent with age allowing the underlying colours to affect the appearance of the over-lying ones.

The paint is applied with a small fine brush which adds to the sense of the precision of the composition. The paint layer is in a fine condition although surface dirt has become imbibed in the fairly lean paint film.

Rachel Barker


You might like