Leon Vilaincour



Not on display

Leon Vilaincour 1923–2016
Oil paint and gold metallic paint on canvas
Support: 1218 × 1470 mm
Purchased 1997


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.

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Display caption

Vilaincour was born in Krakow, Poland. He moved to England where he studied art for a short time before volunteering to fight for the British army. He later taught at the Chelsea School of Art and has exhibited many of his paintings in London.

This painting combines objects which evoke the artist's own personal memories as well as his research into European history. Two early accordions can be seen in the centre, while to the right are shell-like lamp shades. On the left are uniforms of Napoleon's army and Polish army insignias.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Technique and condition

The painting is on a coarse, plain weave linen canvas with large slubs. Vilaincour reports buying a stock of large rolls of Belgian linen canvas from Russell and Chapple in the 1980's which he has used since then. The canvas was then marked out with pencil lines, cut out and stretched onto a five-member softwood stretcher. Vilaincour or his assistant adapted the five-member expandable stretcher by the addition of four painted diagonal softwood corner braces screwed onto the reverse of the outer members and two painted strips of hardboard screwed horizontally across the centre, from the left and right outer members to the cross bar. In an interview with the artist he says that he did this to stop his paintings touching each other when they are stacked. He states that he then sized the canvas with rabbit skin glue.

A.white priming layer covers the stretched face of the canvas. Medium and pigments of the priming have not been tested but according to the artist it is probably Roberson's alkyd primer. It is of medium thickness, the coarse canvas texture remaining apparent in some of the more thinly painted areas and appears fairly lean where visible at the edges.

The paint has not been analysed but the artist reports using Winsor and Newton oil paints with additions of a complex mixture of other media on the palette. The added medium consists of one part sun-thickened linseed oil and one part dammar varnish mixed with one part white spirit with small additions of copal picture varnish and beeswax. He then mixed this medium with an equal part of Liquin alkyd medium before adding it to the oil paint. The purpose of these additions is to increase the speed of drying, which is important for Vilaincour because he builds up his paintings in numerous layers with the paint allowed to dry between applications. The paint covers the priming except for the very edges. It is applied in a variety of ways; including brush, palette knife and sponge or roller. Paint has been dragged across or glazed or scraped over underlying palette knifed and sponged textures. There are areas of medium rich impasto applied by brush and some areas of wet paint have been scraped into with pointed brush handle or similar instrument. In other areas the paint is brushed on in thin layers. Gold paint, which has not been analysed, but which the artists reports is bronze powder in a Liquin alkyd medium has been dabbed on with a brush in spots of slight impasto. Much of the paint appears medium rich and quite transparent due to addition of medium.

A glossy varnish, which according to the artist consists of a mixture of matt and glossy Winsor and Newton picture varnish, has been applied unevenly creating slight runs.

The artist and his wife make their own frames. This one consists of two edging battens of different depths the first pinned into the stretcher and the second onto the first. They are stained with a dark brown glossy stain. He marked the position of the tacks attaching the canvas to the stretcher with pencil on the turnover edges so that he could avoid banging the pins holding on the double edging strips into them. The artist also sized the tacking edges, which extend around the reverse of the stretcher and are attached with ferrous staples.

The condition of the painting and the frame are very good and stable with no damages apparent and no significant discolouration or dirt.

The artist has painted his initials and the date and the title of the work at the top edge of the front of the painting. His name and address and the title and the date of the painting are also written on the reverse of the canvas. There is also a small pencil drawing on the reverse of the top stretcher member.

Sam Hodge
May 1998

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