Jean Hélion… against the current

[14 May 2024]

Completely rejecting the dominant trends during his career, Jean Hélion’s work is currently the subject of a superb exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris, twenty years after his last retrospective at the Center Pompidou in 2004. It’s a major opportunity to highlight the impact of this precursor whose work is little known to the general public, but who was clearly a source of inspiration for the painters of Narrative Figuration. Art Market Insight takes this opportunity to look back on Hélion’s career and provide some key data from his auction market.

Jean HÉLION (1904–1987) was one of the pioneers of abstraction and in 1934 he took his abstract works to the United States before moving on to a highly personal form of figuration just prior to the outbreak of WWII. At just 26 years old, he had already begun to make his mark in the history of modern art, founding in 1930 the first French avant-garde group dedicated to radically abstract art (Art Concret – which then became Abstraction-Creation) along with Théo van Doesburg, Otto Carlsund and Léon Tutundjian. The Art Concret manifesto advocated that the art should “receive no input from the formal data of nature, nor from sensuality, nor from sentimentality”. Hélion and his avant-garde companions were seeking to develop a universal artistic language understandable. In the early 1930s, Hélion took his pioneering spirit to England where he created magazine Axis and then to the United States where he would subsequently build a large part of his life and career.

Soon, however, Hélion renounced the formalism of geometric art and felt the need to return to a more naturalistic style. This resulted in compositions where his volumes would become more-or-less figurative objects and bodies. As the 1930s advanced, Hélion met lots of artists and had a series of exhibitions in New York, Paris, London, Chicago and Oxford. But, despite the notoriety he had just acquired, Hélion interrupted the momentum of his career to sign up with the French army in 1939. In 1940, he was taken prisoner but managed to escape in 1942, crossing Germany, and, after traveling to Paris and Marseille, he returned to the United States where he gave numerous conferences denouncing Nazism. It was during this post-war period that he definitively renounced abstract art and decided to ‘return to reality’, repudiating the dominant trend of post-war Lyrical Abstraction. Henceforward, his work struggled to find its place on a Parisian art scene that only had eyes for abstract works and he struggled to achieve recognition in the following years. In 1962, his career received a boost thanks to an exhibition at the Louis Carré gallery, and then, over the following two decades, Hélion’s work gradually found its place in museums and in certain collections, both in France and abroad.

Jean Hélion’s artistic career was therefore a countercurrent that flowed against the tide of fashionable movements. He eschewed dogmas, tracing his own path, from radical abstraction to the return to figuration, revisiting classic themes, which ultimately made him a major reference for the painters of Narrative Figuration like Gilles Aillaud and Eduardo Arroyo, and then subsequently for the artists associated with Figuration Libre in the 1980s.

Jean Hélion unsold rate on works at auction (copyright

Lower than usual, his recent unsold rate suggests that news of his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris has had a positive influence on demand. Twenty-four of his works have already changed hands at auction since the start of 2024.

Reception in the United States

Arriving in the United States in the 1930s, Jean Hélion quickly immersed himself in the circle of émigré artists of the time, rubbing shoulders with giants such as Piet Mondrian, Fernand Léger, Alexander Calder, and becoming friends with Marcel Duchamp. He became an essential element in the effervescence of American art and was an influential figure at the Gallery of Living Art in New York, a major institution dedicated to the great European artists of the last century and offering informed advice to major collectors. Those years in the United States clearly marked a period of artistic and personal growth, helping to shape his work and his artistic identity.

During the 1930s and 1940s his work was shown in various American galleries and museums, from the bustling cities of Chicago and Los Angeles to the artistic epicenters of New York and San Francisco. Indeed, from a cultural perspective, his work has been anchored in the American art world for decades, forming an integral part of the collections of prestigious museums such as the Met, the MoMA, and the Guggenheim in New York, as well as the San Francisco Museum of Art in California.

Geographical distribution of Jean Hélion’s auction turnover since 2000 (copyright

Despite a sometimes erratic American auction market, his most sought-after works have found buyers in New York where his auction record of $3.4 million dollars was hammered in 2015 for a powerful abstract painting dated 1935. The undeniable influence of Hélion on the pre-war American art scene is thus recognized by local collectors. In France, two of his works have fetched auction results in excess of USD 1 million: a figurative painting (L’escalier) from 1944 sold for double its high estimate in 2022, while an abstract painting created ten years earlier fetched $1.1 million in October 2023 in Paris. Two things to remember in these French results: Hélion’s figurative work is today just as valued as his abstract work, and, these higher results were both clearly ‘news-related’ since both were hammered during preparations for the artist’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris. Although no major painting has been presented at auction since the beginning of this year, the market may have some more surprises in store commensurate with the result obtained last fall.

Jean Hélion: Top 3 auction results

Abstraction (1935)

145.7 x 199.7 cm

Price with fees: $3,413,000

Estimate: $600,000 – 800,000

Christie’s, New York, 12 November 2015


Équilibre (1936)

114 x 147 cm

Price with fees: $1,690,000

Estimate: $1,000,000 – $1,500,000

Sotheby’s, New York, 9 May 2016


L’escalier (1944)

130 x 97 cm

Price with fees: $1,143,134

Estimation: $315,783 – 526,305

Christie’s, Paris, 28 June 2022



Exhibition “Jean Hélion. The prose of the world”

Museum of Modern Art, Paris. Until 18 August 2024