Backing Jean Hélion: Why Did Roberta Smith Attack the Painter?

It had not been my intention to return to the subject of the Jean Hélion exhibition at the National Academy Museum any time soon, but after reading Roberta Smith’s lengthy and altogether malicious attack on the artist in The New York Times of Aug. 5, I believe a rebuttal is needed. Jean Hélion (1904-1987) was a painter of considerable accomplishment and a man of great personal courage, and Ms. Smith’s exercise in defamation should not be left to stand unchallenged.

Her indictment of Hélion is remarkably crude and often muddled. It alleges that as a painter Hélion was nothing but “a brilliant sponge”—“one whose command of brush, composition and color enabled him to lift his synthesis of other artists’ ideas above humdrum derivativeness.” The “brilliant sponge” is also charged with the crime of “sexism”: Hélion was married more times—four in all—than Ms. Smith believes to be permissible. Even when she grudgingly praises his artistic command, she couples that praise with disapproval of the painter’s marital history, as in this ditzy passage:

“He had an uncanny sense of when a style had served its purpose and, as with his four wives, never ended one relationship before he had started another. As a result, this exhibition proceeds with an almost uninterrupted fluidity, despite its shifting commitments.”

There are, indeed, a number of times in Ms. Smith’s review when she experiences some difficulty in determining whether she’s praising Hélion or maligning him, so she provides the reader with a commentary that lends itself to diverse readings.

What her irresponsible review completely omits is any reference to the crucial experience that changed Hélion’s life and, as a consequence of that life experience, led him to change his outlook on art. Hélion had been living and painting in France since 1925. He took up residence in New York in 1936, but in 1940 he returned to Europe to join the French Army. He was captured by the Nazis and held as a prisoner of war, but somehow managed to escape. He told his story in a book called They Shall Not Have Me (1943). It was his experience as a P.O.W. that precipitated the crisis that changed not only Hélion’s life but his art as well.

After surviving Nazi capture, Hélion no longer felt that an art devoted to abstraction accurately represented his beliefs. The ordinary affairs of civilian life were now more precious to him than the purist painting of abstract forms. This was certainly a loss for the history of abstract painting, for Hélion had been in the vanguard of the movement, serving as a vital link between European and American modernists.

It tells us a great deal about Roberta Smith’s critical priorities that in her long and often condescending review of the Hélion exhibition, she has overlooked (or forgotten?) the central moral crisis of the artist’s life. Clearly, neither the war nor Hélion’s particular experience of it are of the slightest interest to her—which, for a critic attempting to elucidate the change of heart that led to Hélion’s rejection of abstraction, is fairly disabling.

For a quite different view of Hélion’s pictorial achievement, consider the following passage from Jed Perl’s book, Paris Without End (1988):

“Jean Hélion is the only artist since Leger who has made poetry out of that most shadowy of presences in modern art, the common man. This artist … invented types who are much more than the statistics of social realism; characteristic types, with the mysterious aura of Le Nain’s peasants and the housekeepers of Chardin. Hélion and Leger, born a generation apart, are connected by friendship, by Hélion’s many borrowings from the older artist, and above all else by the liberality of spirit with which they’ve approached the bewildering spectacle of Modern Times.”

The Jean Hélion exhibition remains on view at the National Academy Museum, 1083 Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, through Oct. 9. Backing Jean Hélion: Why Did Roberta Smith Attack the Painter?