Great works: Grande Mannequinerie (1951) by Jean Hélion

Musée de l'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

In the years of his maturity, Jean Hélion became a great painter of pumpkins, umbrellas and hat stands – to name but a trio of his favourite subjects. He painted them joyously, skippingly even, with crisp graphic fervour, as if he and his subjects were engaged in a kind of dance or romp.

It had not always been so. As a young man in the poker-faced 1930s, he had been very poker-faced indeed, opting for abstraction (a very modish thing to do at the time), and calling his paintings by such grave and intellectually teasing names as Equilibre, Circular Tension and First Curve. His destiny, it seemed, was to be a little bit like his friend Piet Mondrian, walking the world frowning, be-suited and relentlessly analytical.

But it wasn't. As he grew up, so he grew younger. Little by little, something odd began to happen to these abstract paintings of his. The elements of abstraction became increasingly recognisable as things out in the world. And, little by little, Helion began to discover that it was in fact out in the world that he really wanted his painting to be because it was the world and the things of the world – the bustle of its street life, for example, the odd jumble of things he could pick up for next to nothing in the flea markets of Paris, where he lived for much of his adult life – that interested him most of all. He was not a ponderous, closet-bound intellectual after all!

Here is a painting made not long after the end of the Second World War, the heyday of the gloom of Existentialism. There is no gloom here at all – in spite of the fact that if you were to summarise the theme of this work, it would be perfectly possible to give it a solemn interpretation. Outside the tailor's shop lies a destitute man, in front of a window of half-length tailor's mannequins, doomed by poverty to be forever on the wrong side of the glass.

But such a reading is nonsense, isn't it? The execution of this painting is far too playfully alive to admit such doleful stuff. It has the feel of a mixture of surrealism and vivacious, DC Thomson-style cartooning. The sleeping, reclining man is neither more alive nor more dead than the two half-length mannequins in the window, who are gesturing in our direction. Perhaps they belong in that sleeping man's dream of bourgeois prosperity. The shop's door is open to that possibility. The umbrella waits, to be seen in the company of that hat, that jacket, one or another of those ties.

Hélion loved mannequins, and he painted an entire series of mannequin paintings. He admired, as we can see here, the element of performance that they seemed to suggest from behind the mystery of the glazed window. He admired their gesturings, the way they often held their labels in the tips of their rigid fingers: "A little like," as he once put it, "the instruments of a brass band with the music on an attached little stand." He glimpsed an entire pent and wonderful world there, forever on the brink of coming alive.

About the artist: Jean Hélion (1904-1985)

The painter Jean Hélion was born in Couterne, Orne, the son of a taxi driver and a seamstress. Having worked as a pharmacy assistant, at the age of 16 he moved to Paris where he became a draughtsman in the office of an architect and, in due course, formed friendships with many writers and poets, including Raymond Queneau, Jean Arp and Alexander Calder. A lover of urban street life, he regarded the revolution of 1968 as a great and inspiring circus.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Pixie Lott will take part in Strictly Come Dancing 2014, the BBC has confirmed

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?