Leon Vilaincour
1804-1995 1995

Artwork details

Leon Vilaincour 1923–2016
Date 1995
Medium Oil paint and gold metallic paint on canvas
Dimensions Support: 1218 x 1470 mm
Acquisition Purchased 1997
Not on display


1804−1995 is a large rectangular painting depicting a tightly packed scene that features an array of colourful objects. In the lower half of the picture are two accordions, and shell-like lampshades with coloured bulbs appear on both sides of the composition, while at the left is a pole that is topped with a lyre-shaped decoration and has a long, pointed bracket protruding from its right side with a number of red, yellow and black ribbons hanging from it. Across the top of the image is a collection of flags, insignia and fragments of military uniforms, with a small blue and red hat to their right bearing the word ‘SURCOUF’. Gold metallic paint has been used to create dense areas of small dots in several places on the painting’s surface, and across the top of the composition are ribbon-like shapes rendered in the same gold colour. Looping blue lines and rows of white-edged bubbles are painted over many of the objects. The title of the work, the year that it was made, and the artist’s initials are written in a small grey rectangle at the top edge of the painting. Both of the accordions in the lower half of the composition bear illegible inscriptions, and there are more words painted in larger red letters towards the left of the work that are mostly set against a dark green background, but that also overlap with other coloured areas of the painting. These red letters make up the word fragments ‘RMONIE ORDEONISTE RUXELLOISE 1913’ which, according to the artist, are parts of the French phrase ‘HARMONIE ACCORDEONISTE BRUXELLOISE 1913’ that translates into English as ‘HARMONY ACCORDIONIST OF BRUSSELS 1913’ (Vilaincour in Tom Learner, Sam Hodge and Jennifer Mundy, ‘Interview with Leon Vilaincour’ 1998, Tate Acquisition file).

This painting was completed by the Polish artist Leon Vilaincour in his studio in London in 1995. Vilaincour has stated that ‘I worked on [this painting] with several others and I must have spent, perhaps two to three years on it, I am not quite sure’ (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.43). He initially marked out the scene in pencil lines on the coarse linen canvas, which he then placed over a stretcher and prepared with rabbit-skin glue and a white primer. The oil paint was then applied using various different utensils, including brushes, sponges, rollers, a palette knife and another scraping instrument, which may have been a brush handle, and Vilaincour finished the painting by covering it with a glossy varnish.

The artist has stated that the work’s title ‘simply means that the objects included come from the year of the founding of the Empire in France [1804] up to ... the year when this picture was made’ (Vilaincour 1995, unpaginated). It is one of many works by Vilaincour that address themes from nineteenth-century European history, often including references to Napoleon and the Napoleonic wars, and these are evoked in 1804−1905 through the depiction of fragments of military uniform from that era.

According to the artist, ‘the whole of [this scene] is supposed to be underwater’ (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.53). This might partly explain the reference to ‘SURCOUF’, the French military submarine of that name that sank in 1942. However, despite acknowledging a link with this event, Vilaincour has insisted that this was not the only reason for situating his scene under the sea, stating that he also wanted the scene to seem ‘beyond reach’ – an effect he achieved in the painting through the whirling blue lines, rows of floating bubbles, sinuous, seaweed-like ribbons and accumulations of encrusted dots (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.54).

These features also lend the scene a disorienting and fantastical quality, and the art critic Richard Morphet has suggested that in this painting and other works by Vilaincour, the ‘fluid, interpenetrating imagery’ produces a space in which ‘it is difficult at first to find any bearings, yet which communicates immediately an intensity akin to dream, with all the vividness characteristic of such a state’ (Morphet undated, p.10). In 1804–1995 this surreal and arresting appearance is also achieved through strong contrasts between extremely bright areas and sombre dark tones as well as by the dynamic lines that draw the viewer’s eyes across the canvas in multiple different directions.

Further reading
Leon Vilaincour, unpublished statement regarding the display of the artist’s work at the Lord Provost’s Prize exhibition, Gallery of Modern Art, Glasgow 1995, Tate Acquisition file.
Paul Moorhouse, ‘Leon Vilaincour talking to Paul Moorhouse’, 12 November 1998, Tate Acquisition file, p.4364.
Richard Morphet, ‘A Listener’s Perspective: On Hearing Leon Vilaincour’s Recording Made with Linda Sandino’, undated, http://www.bl.uk/reshelp/findhelprestype/sound/ohist/ohnls/nlsart/artistsliveslistenerperspective.pdf, accessed 17 October 2014, reproduced p.11.

David Hodge
October 2014

Supported by Christie’s.