In May 2016, the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University was the recipient of a a gift from the Blair family: a collection of over 385 preliminary paintings, drawings, and prints by Jean Hélion (French, 1904-1987). This gift (the largest in the history of the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum) is an important collection of studies by one of France’s noted modernists. French by birth, Hélion married an American from Virginia and spent time living and working in the United States. He lived with his wife in Virginia from 1936-1940 and returned during WW II to work in New York City. This exhibition will present selections from this generous gift, most of which has never been exhibited to the public. This collection makes Hollins University a major repository for Hélion studies.
Inspired by the organization, rhythm, and patterns that would come to characterize his abstract paintings, Hélion’s early interests included poetry, chemistry, and architecture. In the mid-1920s, he abandoned his studies in favor of drawing classes at the Académie Adler in Paris. Over the next several years, he met and drew inspiration from abstract and cubist artists including Otto Freundlich, Joaquin Torres-Garcia, and Piet Mondrian. In 1936, Hélion moved from France to the United States. Living in New York and Virginia for four years before returning to France, Hélion deliberately changed his style to be more representative.After World War II, Hélion’s career grew to include radio and lecture appearances as well as a best-selling book about his months as a prisoner of war. Even as his later painterly interests became figurative and naturalistic, his work relied on shape and repetition in the same manner as his abstractions.