1904 Birth of Jean Bichier, known as Hélion in Normandy, in a very modest environment.
1913 First colour trials.
1920 Short studies in chemistry, to search for the reality of things behind their appearance, while writing poems.
1921 Apprentice-drawer with a Parisian architect, he travels around Paris to do surveys, begins to develop a passion for street scenes. Writes poems, becomes friends with many poets but definitely chooses painting. Visits the Louvre assiduously, particularly the works of Poussin and Philippe de Champaigne.
1922 First paintings, thick and figurative until 1929: mostly portraits and still lifes.
1925 A collector, Georges Bine, provides him with a more or less regular income. He can devote himself entirely to painting.
1926 Decisive meeting with Torres Garcia, who will live with him, introduces him to Cubism and more generally to modern art, introduces him to the artistic research of his time, introduces him to many artists. His compositions become more rigorous, the forms are simplified.
1927 Founds with friends a first magazine where he publishes a selection of his poems about the city.
1928 Exhibition of two paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, but he is refused at the Salon d’Automne. Organises a protest exhibition “Les 5 Refusés” (including Torrès-Garcia).
1929 In November, exhibition of his first abstract works in Barcelona. In Paris in the autumn, he meets Théo van Doesburg, Otto Carlsund and Léon Tutundjian, with whom he will found the group Art Concret, whose manifesto states: “The work of art… must receive nothing from the formal data of nature, nor from sensuality, nor from sentimentality. “All inspiration from nature is banned. This, he will soon realize, does not correspond to Helion’s profound nature, but rather to his desire to elaborate a universal language understandable by all.
1930 At van Doesburg’s instigation, the group Art Concret expands and becomes Abstraction-Creation (with Arp, Delaunay, Herbin, Kupka, Gleizes, Valmier and Tutundjian (then, after van Doesburg’s death in 1931, Vantongerloo). Trip to the USSR: shocked by the lack of freedom of his artistic or intellectual interlocutors, he distances himself from communist propaganda.
1932 Helion leaves for the United States, marries Jean Blair, an American from Virginia. Beginning of frequent round trips between Paris and the United States. In Paris, the Pierre Loeb gallery organizes his first solo exhibition. He befriends Mondrian, Arp and Giacometti, directs the first issue of the magazine Abstraction-Création where he publishes an article.
1933 Distances himself from the doctrines of abstract art: “The superiority of nature is to offer the maximum complexity of relationships. It is towards this superiority that I am going to make great strides. “He renounces the formalism of geometric art. “The work is seen as a growing organism. As far as possible it escapes the canvas, as it escapes the artist. “Appearance of volumes. Becomes the eminence grise of the Gallery of Living Art in New York: the first American institution, before the Moma, devoted to the great European artists of the first half of the 20th century.
1934 First solo exhibition in the United States. His forms, which he now calls figures, separate and proliferate, take on relief thanks to variations in colour intensity, are linked by a musical rhythm, become sculptural and become allusively anthropomorphic. He begins to systematically analyze his approach in his writings.
1935 “The further I go, the more obvious the call of nature becomes… the volumes will have to become complete: objects, bodies. This will soon be the inevitable end of nature’s nose and the passage into a new naturalist era. »
1936 Participates in numerous group exhibitions in Paris, London and New York. Great success of his first exhibition at the Galerie des Cahiers d’Art. From July he lives mainly in the United States, builds a studio in Virginia, and spends the winter of 1936-1937 in New York.
1939 Produces his last abstract work, The Fallen Figure, and simultaneously his first figurative painting in ten years, The Cyclist. In October, begins a series of men’s heads with hats, structured by shapes. It is with precision that he announces to a friend, P.G. Bruguière, the evolution of his future approach: “Ten years ago, I produced my first graphics freed from the natural image. I am going to be 35 years old. I still have time to accomplish a great work. For ten years, I think I will be looking, admiring and loving the life around us, the passers-by, the houses, the gardens, the shops, the trades, the everyday gestures. Then, when I will have reached the mastery of the means and the baggage of characters and attitudes that will make me feel the ease that I have now in non-figurative art, I will begin another period that I have been foreseeing for a few days: I will give back to painting its moral and didactic power. I will attack great scenes that will no longer be only descriptive, administrative but significant like the great Poussin. »
1940 Hélion, at a time when many French artists were taking refuge in the United States, and despite the fame he had acquired there, chose to return to France in January to join the army. He is taken prisoner in June, interned in a camp in Pomerania, then in Stettin where he serves as an interpreter in a prison ship. He escaped on 13 February 1942, crossed Germany, drew a lot on the spot, went to Paris and then to Marseille. In October he returns to the United States where he gives numerous conferences to denounce Nazism, with the aim of influencing public opinion to convince Roosevelt that military intervention is necessary. He writes an account of his captivity and escape in a widely distributed book They Shall not Have Me.
1943 Solo exhibition in New York at the Art of this Century (Peggy Guggenheim). Against the current and very conscious of the risks to his recognition, he definitively renounces abstract art, completes figurative works begun before the war, draws and paints new men in hats.
1944 Hélion settles in New York, and finds Mondrian, Ernst, Calder, Tanguy, Léger, Seligman, Ozenfant, Breton and André Masson, refugees in the United States. Numerous portraits, nudes, still lifes. Creates his own mythology drawn from the spectacle of the streets. Series of Igniters, Smokers, Yellow-haired Women, half-naked self-portraits, Greeters, Walkers, Rain Figures. First “mannequineries”. Strong works, structured by his abstract experience. 1946 In April, he returns to France. During the summer he paints nudes in Cagnes-sur-mer. In November, marries Pegeen Vail, daughter of Peggy Guggenheim.
1947 Paints À rebours which summarizes all his previous research – from the first abstractions to the nudes of the previous summer – inserted into urban architecture. In May, Hélion presents his figurative works in Paris, where he has not exhibited since 1938. They are very badly received by the critics.
1948 First trip to Italy, Venice and Genoa. Discovery of Alessandro Magnasco, rococo painter of the Genoese school. In Paris, meets the poets Yves Bonnefoy, André du Bouchet and Francis Ponge.
1949 Hélion will realize many verist feminine nudes, without concern to please. He then paints men on benches and recumbents, mannequins and complex scenes. “I had always admired the mannequins in the shop windows who were making gestures […] These mannequins appeared to me to play a whole theatre behind the window, a theatre of elegance and manners. There was also a way of preaching accomplished by their gestures. “The social convention of the models, their social poses are opposed to characters lying in the street, without concern for conventions, not tramps as has sometimes been said, but poets or the painter himself.
1951 In the autumn, he paints chrysanthemums from nature. Incomprehension of the public and most critics. The Parisian art scene is then entirely turned towards abstraction. Still lifes with tapins, pumpkins, breads; nudes from nature. Numerous drawings of street scenes and daily life. Allegories of his time. New failure of his exhibitions in France and abroad.
1952 Hélion continues his exploration of reality without deviating: geraniums, anemones, yellowed leaves of chestnut trees, still life objects, often placed on a pedestal table. “On the wooden temple of an ordinary table, I would set up a sumptuous pumpkin, disembowelled to reveal all the treasure of its entrails, the clusters of its seeds, its filaments, its gilding. “He is comforted by the friendship and esteem of Giacometti, Balthus, Brauner, Francis Ponge.
1953 Discovered Belle-Île, where he bought a house. He carries out many studies based on nature.
1954 Large compositions and numerous drawings inspired by the Luxembourg Gardens.
1955 New trip to Italy to discover Masaccio.
1957 Hélion paints vanities where skulls are next to familiar objects. “Nothing macabre, feeling of architecture, core, mineral, ordinary and grandiose object… the object that survives for a long time still, reassuring. “Naked in the workshop, pumpkins and vanities. Helion separates from Peggy.
1959 Portraits of his friends poets and collectors. Appearances from the rooftops, those he sees at his home in rue Michelet, which reintroduce without artifice geometric shapes and his questioning of forms.
1962 Purchases a property in Bigeonnette, near Chartres, where he has a very large workshop. Continues to paint in Belle-Île during the summer. Starts using acrylic. Back in Paris, he is once again amazed by the spectacle of the streets. “I dream of a Sistine Chapel in today’s costumes and forms. “This dream of allegory, of everyday mythology, it will be in 1963 The Butchers who will embody it. He goes to Les Halles, pencils in these “meat carriers”.
1963 Other hieratic figures at the Halles. “The seated man, the flute or guitar player are the priests of a cult that I can only formulate by painting them. … This is my mythology. “Marriage with Jacqueline Ventadour.
1964 The spectacle of the streets is enriched by her own reveries. Her characters become witnesses or actors of a modern fresco, her compositions gain both in formalism and freedom.
1967 Befriends two young painters: Gilles Aillaud and Eduardo Arroyo.
1968 Hélion becomes interested in the Circus, “a place where ordinary people do extraordinary things” and then in the events of May 68, which he witnesses with the triptych “Choses vues en Mai”, “Théâtre de Mai 68” and “Conciliabules de Mars”.
1969 In Paris, he again devotes himself to the circus scenes. Also paints subway entrances and exits.
1970 Retrospective exhibition of his work in Paris, in the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, organized by Daniel Abadie; and, organized by the Centre National d’Art Contemporain, travelling exhibition of his recent works throughout France, until 1972.
1971 Hélion’s eye troubles, which appeared in 1965, worsen.
1972 Hélion becomes passionate about cabbages, which he discovers in Bigeonnette. “Jacqueline arrived at the workshop with a cabbage clutched to her chest. It was so beautiful that I pasted it immediately. Each cabbage seems to me to be a sublime natural abstraction in which the song, the long phrase that haunts me, is played out leaf by leaf, from one cabbage to the next. “Street bands, second-hand shops…
1973 Hélion settles permanently in Bigeonnette, while keeping his Parisian workshop. He is passionate about the market scenes of the surrounding villages. Sensual series of Mathilde, scantily dressed next to a fireplace.
1974 Beginning of a twelve-year collaboration with the Parisian gallery owner Kart Flinker who will give him unfailing support, convinced of the exceptional value of his work at a time when very few people believed in it.
1975 – 1978 The artist deploys the fullness of his means. Homards et mareyeurs, Nus au perroquet, Parroquet bleu, 11 November, book boxes on the quays of Paris. “The theme of crucifixion or anti-crucifixion haunts this saga of the lobster. Calvary of Plougansten. Humor of the Pantalonnades and Jambages. Pissotières de Paris. Pucières Suites. On the occasion of an exhibition, stay in New York where he makes many drawings. From 1978, Hélion convokes all the objects that have animated his works. Three painters wearing their easels evoke the theme of the crucifixion. “Myths are inscribed so deeply in us that under each of our gestures, familiar or extraordinary, there is one that expresses itself. »
1979 – 1980 The Centre Pompidou organises a travelling exhibition of his drawings presented notably at the National Pinacothèque in Athens and in the Fine Arts Palaces of Beijing, Shanghai and Nanchang.
1981 – 1983 His eyesight continues to decline. The theme of dreaming is imposing, allowing him to bring out the truth behind appearances and to give them another life. The characters of the 1940s have new colours: “I painted red panties that weren’t red and purple women who were naked because this was my good mood, this was my way of singing of each other’s happiness. Beethoven composed his most daring music at the end of his life when he was deaf. In the same way, the elderly Helion, with a very diminished sight, painted, with the assurance of one who looked and thought a lot, always made the conceived and the seen coincide. His works are nourished by his memory, his thoughts, his daydreams about his past life, with the need also for an artistic assessment of his work, the coherence of which very few of his contemporaries were unable to see. A few clumsinesses sometimes, certainly, but also large canvases, gouaches and drawings where the audacity of colours and forms is not hazardous. Abstraction merges with figuration. “It is by painting objects that I express abstraction best – here considered as the soul of the world. “The compositions are complex. In October, the enigmatic figures and objects, and what was left of his vision, fell sharply. He has to stop painting, he dictates critical comments on his unfinished or “failed” paintings, kept at Bigeonnette. This “memory of the yellow room” is followed by three notebooks on his childhood and his first encounters when he began to paint.
1984 Two important solo exhibitions: at the Lenbachhaus in Munich (the museum of the Blau Reiter) and at the Musée d’Art moderne de la Ville de Paris.
1987 – 1987 Sale of his Bigeonnette house, back in Paris, rue Michelet. Solo exhibition at the Peggy Gouggenheim Foundation in Venice. Goes on without seeing any important exhibitions thanks to Jacqueline who describes the paintings to him. Death in Paris in October 1987.