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.

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