Wilson Museum Shares Works from the Largest Gift in its History

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Last May, the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University received the largest gift in its history, a collection of 385 preliminary paintings, drawings, and prints by one of France’s noted modernists, Jean Hélion.

Beginning February 2, the Wilson Museum will display 40 of these works, most of which have never been previously shown to the public, in an exhibition called Hélion Highlights: Selections from the Blair Family Gift.

Hélion is best known in France for experimenting with the various looks of early modernism, and his early work has long been sought after and collected by museums and private collectors around the world. Now, his figurative work from the middle to the late 20th century, unorthodox at the time it was created, is being reexamined. Several recent international exhibits in Paris and New York have created new interest in the artist.

Hélion mostly worked in series, visually exploring and observing every detail that went into a finished painting. Everyday scenes featuring food items, the female figure, shop windows, flea markets, people under umbrellas, and people reading newspapers were common subjects.

“The drawings in our exhibition range from simple but expressive lines to detailed drawings in graphite, charcoal, colored pencil, or pastel, and heightened with watercolors,” said Jenine Culligan, director of the Wilson Museum. “They render almost every detail found in the finished work. The viewer can almost see in these works the inner functions of Hélion’s mind searching for the ideal composition, color, and expression.”

Culligan added, “This collection makes Hollins University a major repository for Hélion studies.”

Hélion was born in France in 1904. He married an American from Virginia and lived off and on in the commonwealth from 1936 to 1940. He returned in 1942 during World War II to work in New York City after escaping from a German prison ship. He left the United States in 1946 and spent the rest of his life in France. He died in 1987.

Hélion Highlights: Selections from the Blair Family Gift will be on view in the Wilson gallery of the museum through Sunday, March 26.

The Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins University is open Tuesday – Sunday from noon – 5 p.m., and Thursdays from noon – 8 p.m. Admission is always free.