Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 1, 2017
Jean Hélion They Shall Not Have Me: The Capture, Forced Labor, and Escape of a French Prisoner in World War II New York: Arcade, 2014. 464 pp. Paper $19.95 (9781628723762)

On August 18, 1939, the French abstract painter Jean Hélion wrote to Raymond Queneau from his studio in Rockbridge Baths, Virginia, to say that he was ready to return to France and throw himself back into what he called the “torment of Europe” (Lettres d’Amérique: Correspondance avec Raymond Queneau 1934–1967, Paris: IMEC, 1996, 146). In leaving Paris for New York in 1936 in the aftermath of the collapse of the Popular Front, Hélion had left behind the aesthetic and political convictions of the previous period. From the late 1920s through the mid-1930s, he had been a central part of Paris-based abstract art circles, from Theo van Doesburg’s Art Concret to the larger and more eclectic Abstraction-Création-Art non-figuratif. Repelled by Stalinism, he drifted away from an earlier embrace of the Constructivist agenda and began incorporating curves and eventually quasi-figural modeling in the name of a nebulously conceived French tradition of painting. His rejection of neoplasticism and geometric abstraction came to be couched in the same terms—dogmatic, rigid, strict—that he would apply to communism. Hélion officially left both Abstraction-Création and the Association des Écrivains et des Artistes Révolutionnaires in 1934, but he confided in his letter to Queneau that had he stayed in France he probably would have continued abstract painting in some form and remained both “anti-national” and “anti-militariste.” In the tranquility of the mountainous Virginia farm where he lived with his American wife, such earlier stances might already have seemed remote, although a more definitive break was yet to come. With the outbreak of war Hélion was recalled for military service and amid defeat taken as a prisoner of war. They Shall Not Have Me: The Capture, Forced Labor, and Escape of a French Prisoner in World War II is his account, written in English, of life in various German Stalags and Arbeitskommandos (prisoner-of-war camps and their labor sub-camps) and his successful escape in February of 1942.

The first part of the book, “Downfall,” opens with an image of people fleeing through an abandoned landscape with hastily packed wagons and cars. What follows is a day-by-day account of the disorderly rout of the French army: scenes of exhaustion, fear, confusion, gridlock, and ugly breakdown ending with Hélion’s capture on the nineteenth of June. The rest of the book is organized into three parts: “Captivity,” which follows in detail the forced march to his first Stalag in Orléans; “Forced Labor,” vivid portraits of fellow prisoners and the substance of their shared daily lives—hard labor, the misery of lice-infested quarters, efforts at resistance both major and minor, despair and fantasy, and Nazi officers and German guards; and lastly, “Escape,” a fast-paced and absorbing narrative beginning with his walk out of the prison camp in Stettin under the cover of a fight staged by other prisoners and ending with his crossing into the unoccupied Zone. Additional details about the underground networks that aided Hélion in his passage from Germany through Belgium and Paris to the border of occupied and Vichy France could not be included in the original 1943 publication, but some are provided in an afterword by Jacqueline Hélion in the present edition. For example, readers learn that the American friend helping Hélion in Paris was Mary Reynolds, bookbinder and long-time associate of Marcel Duchamp, and that Gabrielle Buffet-Picabia also provided much needed assistance. The latter had, in fact, played a crucial role in the Resistance through the Gloria SMH cell, which was co-founded by Jeannine Gabrielle Picabia, her daughter with Francis Picabia, and was also the cell to which Samuel Beckett belonged (James Knowlson, Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett, London: Bloomsbury, 1996, 279–90).

Over the course of the four hundred-plus pages of the book, Hélion’s account barely mentions this milieu of artists or earlier disputes over abstract painting. There is also little explicit discussion of politics, and no reference to his previous left-wing commitments. These are understandable exclusions. The book was written under the auspices of the U.S. Office of War Information, the state propaganda agency that employed notable intellectuals and artists such as André Breton and Claude Lévi-Strauss in the French-language version of its Voice of America radio program. Many details about the prisoners’ squalid conditions, and the lack of not only food but the widespread confiscation of their packages, would have served to counter German claims that the prisoners lived in relative comfort, with plenty of leisure time and food and clothing supplemented by the generous distribution of Red Cross aid packages.

The book was widely read at the time of its original publication in 1943 and became a sort of cult classic among painters (1). One question that arises for today’s reader, though, would concern what insights it provides into Hélion’s artistic evolution. Hélion only completed one painting—a small 1942 watercolor of prisoners shaking lice out of a blanket—explicitly dealing with his wartime experiences. In her introduction, Deborah Rosenthal suggests that They Shall Not Have Me is akin to a “great unpainted composition” of short stories, and that his postwar painting based itself upon the creation of pictorial vignettes filled out not by the abstractions that he was still creating in the 1930s but by fully realized human figures (8). This is a good way of describing the structure of a large part of They Shall Have Not Me as well as his postwar paintings of street scenes. Can it provide any insights into Hélion’s abandonment of abstraction?

Painterly gestures are noticeable in the description of a pair of shoes fashioned from found and stolen scraps of wood, leather, and nails, reminiscent of a Cubist collage (141). Readers also find clues in the anecdotes and portraits in “Forced Labor.” In a section on the makeshift theater organized by his fellow prisoners aboard the S.S. Nordenham in Stettin, he describes a prisoner dressed up in women’s clothes:

Homely, with strong arms and powerful red hands, when white had been smeared over his face, his lips barred with vermilion, a yellow wig drawn over his curls, a bit of lace tied around his neck, and a rayon dress pulled over his underwear, he made a surprising doll. His appearance was a mixture of physical brutality and of indefinable gentleness. These hands could have killed—they had—this mouth could have bitten cruelly, and yet this painted face and this clumsy body were tender. When he stood, wordless, blushing under the make-up, and looking far away beyond the small room, he expressed something of us, of our conditions. . . . Perhaps this ridiculous figure was the real image of our efforts to resist captivity, to feel, to love, to live the dream behind which we hid from the ugliness of the day. (285)

Art for Hélion is in this image—garish, brilliant, tender, crude, vulnerable—of struggle against the privations of “bare life.” Details of theatrical and musical performances and classes on topics ranging from automobile repair to literature, history, and philosophy also echo the experience of other perhaps more well-known French prisoners of war. Fernand Braudel wrote most of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (1949) while in an Oflag (an officers’ prisoner-of-war camp). Jean-Paul Sartre taught a course on Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (1927), and his play Bariona (1941) was also written for and performed by his fellow prisoners (Alfred R. Desautels, “The Sartre of Stalag 12D (1940–1941)”; review of Avec Sartre au Stalag 12D by Marius Perrin, The French Review 55 (1981): 201–6).

Occasionally, Hélion’s comments gently betray a sense of where his own aesthetic preferences lay. He wrote, for example, that he liked best the first improvised theatrical shows in the camp, which “seemed like a poor calendar picture copied by a naïve amateur” but ended up nevertheless sincere and touching (281). Another time, he lets loose a more critical, damning verdict.

At times, it all seemed so stupid, so primary, so far from anything that I personally liked, that disgust fought my best intentions. Instead of seeing, in the comedy being attempted on the stage, the expression of the will of my men to buck up, I now saw an example of their mediocrity. All their patience and ability had transformed the crude but expressive platform, improvised on four stools, into a masterpiece of bad taste and pretensions, with valueless ornaments invading the once healthy panels like an eczema. (293)

Facing a “similar decadence” in the classes he had painstakingly organized, Hélion fights the impulse to tear it all down (293–94). But in this upsurge of embittered exhaustion, there is nevertheless a glimpse of his vision of what politics in the camp might be, or aspire to. It is oriented toward the “strange collectivity of the captives” (332), which in its unity is tenacious and enduring.

Hélion’s experience of the concrete as a camp inmate consolidated an aesthetic trajectory that was already in motion. He says it best in a short essay from 1943: “My share of the war has been sordid, yet rich. I have come back, after three years, feeling hurt and muddy, from feet to soul, yet strangely happy and alive. And my work has advanced one step that has changed its appearance entirely. The war has not given me any new idea” (“How War Has Made Me Paint,” Art News 43, no. 3 (1943): 17). We can make sense of this by looking for the evidence of Hélion’s use, as he explains it, of abstraction as the underlying structure of the figures that came to populate his postwar paintings. He picks up sketching in 1943 where he left off in 1939 with studies of a man’s head. A painting started in 1939, Au Cycliste, and its central motifs reappear also. Hélion had already come to the conclusion that abstraction was no longer adequate to the task of painting the concrete, even though he had once conceived of it in precisely this way. The attempts of 1939 were always connected in some way, as he writes to Queneau, to the street: “sum of all of us, source of raw material” (Lettres d’Amérique, 147; my translation). He asked Queneau to keep these new directions in confidence until he felt more assured, but by 1943 he could write in his Art News essay that it was impossible for abstraction to express his “violent passion for life, as a whole, as it was denied to me, the streets, the people, the things.” A vivid portrait of a concrete life-world of suffering, They Shall Not Have Me is a stylistic testimony to this rejection of abstraction, one that eluded adequate representation in painting.

Amy Chun Kim
independent scholar