VILA-GRAU, Joan (1932-)

Mixed media on wood, signed lower left
74 x 62 cm
Date of entry at UNESCO
Country of origin Spain
Donating country Spain
Donation made to UNESCO by the Generalitat of Catalonia
© Photo: UNESCO
Joan Vila Grau

"Pintura"("Painting") represents only one aspect of Joan Vila-Grau's prolific career. Signed on the bottom left, this work of art belongs to a series of paintings called « Tanques » created during the 1970’s. Arranged in two successive levels, this piece is entirely made of wood, the artist’s first material of choice. Created in 1979, it results from his in-depth thinking about the blending of shapes and colors into a traditional two-dimensional support. The title "Pintura" is supposed to underline his concept of mixing the traditional base of the canvas and using wood to somehow “paint” on it.

As an architect his logical mind drove him to think about how to combine shapes onto a limited space. In this case, the anthropomorphic sculpture formed by gathered pieces of wood, arises from the limited ground. This figure is composed by a wide and imposing torso with two arms and a head, looking like a primitive totem.

Vila-Grau keeps in mind the Western pictorial tradition when he creates this figurative composition on a colored background. In addition to the material, the colored background also underlines the naked figure in the foreground. Consequently, it puts the focus on the material: an old, darkened, recycled piece of wood which is given a new life thanks to the artist. The cold chromatic range of greens and yellows emphasizes the touch of bright red. The application of colors in this manner seems to be taken from the stained-glass technique which fascinated Vila-Grau.

This work embodies, like all of the "Tanques" series, the artist’s transition period during the 1970’s, when he reconsidered his father’s classical teaching and started questioning the real meaning of painting. As he expressed:

« To get a new outlook, one must get rid of all previous education [...] because, as good as it may be, it will always influence. From this freedom; the artist has to find […] a way to express his own personality in order to fully communicate to others his vital experience. »

Vila-Grau went further in his research by introducing the third dimension to his work, including elements in relief and multiple supports making art critics consider him more as a "painter-sculptor". Instead of looking at the canvas only as a way to convey colored pigments, he tries to show it as an important element, a new shape in the composition.

“Pintura” however goes beyond figuration; it is the result of its own logic, without story or main subject or expressiveness, but simply its own materiality. In the 1980’s, the series of sculpted works "Instruments for the Music of Silence" embodied the completion of his studies on the complete disappearance (or integration?) of the support.

Artist Biography

Besides being recognized as an artist, Joan Vila-Grau is also considered to be an important art historian on Catalonian art. Born in 1932 into a family of accomplished artists, he was initiated to painting by his father, Antoni Vila-Arrufat (1894-1989). The strict teaching he received seemed to predestine Vila-Grau to become a painter. However, he decided in 1950 to study architecture but stopped five years later and decided to dedicate himself to painting.

Whilst both his father and grand-father (Joan Vila-Cilca, 1856-1938) principally painted genre scenes and landscapes Vila-Grau seems to have avoided painting the human figure altogether. His diverse and varied work included sculpture as well as painting, going from paintings on canvas to murals, as well as “painting-sculptures” and stained glass. His art reflects his constant efforts to detach himself and question established fact.

After an unavoidable figurative period which lasted approximately twenty years, Vila-Grau did not hesitate to shake up the traditional confinement between art disciplines by mixing themes and techniques. From 1965 to 1967, he produced "Arquitectures" ("Architectures"), a series of oil paintings depicting architectural elements. Taken out of their original context, these details are reduced to a cluster of shapes organized within an delimited space. His lead him in turn to abstraction and geometrical and spatial conceptions as of the 1970’s.

After “Tanques”, Vila-Grau introduced the third dimension into his works through his use of recycled wood which he organized upon a flat, painted support. Following this, the support simply disappears in the series "Instruments per la Música del Silenci" (“Instruments for the Music of Silence”), where it has become an integral part of the composition.

Joan Vila-Grau not only created art, but promoted it. He founded the arts magazine « Question d’Art », published between 1967 and 1974, intended to promote contemporary Catalonian art. In 1973, he became the director of As, a gallery specialized in graphic arts, through which he introduced European avant-garde art to the Catalonian public.

His passion for stained glass naturally drove him to research this field. He became director of the Stained-Glass Institute of Barcelona and member of the Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi, an international stained-glass research group. He participated in a series of conferences given in European universities and published several articles (i.e. "Les vidrieres modernistes catalanes", in Revista Sant Jordi, Barcelona, 1974, n°94) and a book (Els vitrallers de la Barcelona modernista, Barcelona, 1982.) on the subject of stained-glass from the Gothic period to Art Nouveau. Recognized as an eminent specialist in this field, Vila-Grau is also remembered for his stained-glass windows made for the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona, between 1980 and 2010.