A Life consists of two paintings – hung side-by-side approximately 20 cm apart – that both depict figures and objects presented in a tightly packed composition. The scenes are overlaid with a pattern of white lines that resembles an irregular grid of decorative glass, and with gold patches of different shapes and sizes that are made up of small, circular shapes representing shining pearls. The density of the compositions, along with the varying scales of the figures and their apparent disconnection from each other, lend the paintings a collage-like appearance, while the dominant grey tones and the realistic style in which they are painted recall the look of black and white photographs. The painted pearls on the left-hand panel are organised into large diagonal strips that reach across the panel from edge to edge, while those on the right-hand canvas are arranged into several different shapes, including triangles, squares and ovals, that seem to be positioned haphazardly. Both paintings represent various effects of bright light, such as the vivid white lines that border the gridded glass patterns and the gleam on shiny objects such as the pearls and the figures’ faces. The straight edges of the glass grids also feature reflections in patches of bold colour. The frames of the paintings are covered with many small strokes of gold metallic paint, and at the top-right corner of the left panel is an inscription, written in Polish and Ukranian in very small letters, which translates into English as ‘Perhaps one day they will return, master and horse’.
This work was completed by the Polish artist Leon Vilaincour in London in 1984–5. Each painting was executed on a single piece of coarse linen that was prepared with rabbit-skin glue and then with a white, oil-based primer. Vilaincour has stated: ‘I drew the general plans of the divisions and possibly the figures but I am much more certain of drawing the divisions first’ (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.40). He applied paint in multiple layers of varying thickness, ranging from very thin washes to areas that are up to 5 mm deep. Vilaincour and his wife made the frames together. Regarding the way that A Life should be displayed, he has said that ‘The two wings of A Life are inward looking, I think, and so they seem to want a fairly close hanging – or just standing on the floor’ (Leon Vilaincour, letter to Richard Morphet, 14 October 1997, Tate Catalogue file).
Vilaincour has described the work’s title as ‘very literal’, since many of the figures are representations of the artist’s friends and relatives, while others are individuals from history with whom he has felt some personal connection (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.28). For example, the right-hand panel includes portraits of Vilaincour himself, wearing glasses in the upper-middle section of the painting, and his mother and aunt, depicted in the bottom-right corner, while the bottom of the left-hand canvas features the French actor Louis Jouvet (1887–1961) and Józef Pilsudski (1867–1935), a Polish head of state in the 1920s and 1930s, who is shown lying dead in a coffin. Vilaincour has said that Jouvet was his mother’s favourite actor, and the artist recalls a childhood visit to see Pilsudski’s body when it was laid in state in a cathedral in Krakow (Moorhouse 1998, pp.30, 16).
Through the inclusion of these portraits, A Life, like many of Vilaincour’s paintings, combines aspects of the artist’s own background with references to the ways in which his family was affected by the military history of the twentieth century. For example, Vilaincour’s father is depicted in an Austro-Hungarian military uniform on the right side of the left panel, and the centre of the same canvas features a portrait of the artist’s Aunt Helena, who was killed by Nazi collaborators in Poland during the Second World War. Vilaincour stated in 1998 that the painting is not ‘a celebration’ of his life, since there is something ‘morbid’ or even ‘unhealthy’ about it (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.36).
According to Vilaincour, the inscription in this work comes from the penultimate line of a short story about a bankrupt landowner who is forced to sell his property and instead abandons it, running away on his favourite horse. A stable groom utters the words ‘Perhaps one day they will return, master and horse’, and the final line of the story is ‘But they returned never’. Vilaincour has said of the story that ‘I thought that it summarised this painting’, and although he has not stated how, it is possible that Vilaincour associated the stable groom’s words with his own interest in experiencing the presence of acquaintances and well-known figures from the past (Vilaincour in Mundy and Morphet 1998, unpaginated). It is notable that Vilaincour omitted the final line of the story, suggesting that he wanted to keep open the question of whether those who are gone will return.
In 1998 Vilaincour explained that he produced this work on two separate panels because ‘I thought of it as an altarpiece’, stating that he would have liked to put ‘very heavy bronze hinges between it ... that would have reinforced the idea of it being a ritual object’ (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.10). He has also called the canvases ‘reliquaries’, and with their various effects of bright light and depictions of decorative glass and pearls they resemble ornate religious artefacts (Vilaincour in Moorhouse 1998, p.27).
Martha Kapos, ‘Introduction’, in Leon Vilaincour, exhibition catalogue, Rye Art Gallery, Rye 1992, p.2.
Jennifer Mundy and Richard Morphet, ‘Leon Vilaincour Interview’, 18 February 1998, Tate Catalogue file.
Paul Moorhouse, ‘Leon Vilaincour talking to Paul Moorhouse’, 12 November 1998, Tate Catalogue file, pp.1–43.
Supported by Christie’s.