Vis­ual arts Kitty Hauser’s Pub­lic Works col­umn

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Kitty Hauser

Danila Vas­sili­eff, Re­flec­tion in the Dar­ling (1958). Mil­dura Arts Cen­tre; ac­quired 1966.

DANILA Vas­sili­eff was an artist you might think had been dreamed up by a ro­man­tic nov­el­ist. A Cos­sack who fought against the Bol­she­viks be­fore be­ing cap­tured by the Red Army, Vas­sili­eff trav­elled in China, the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, France, Brazil, the West Indies, Spain and Eng­land be­fore wash­ing up in Mel­bourne in 1935, aged 38. He cer­tainly looked the part, with his dark beret, ni­co­tine-stained clothes and his in­tense gaze.

In the words of painter Al­bert Tucker, ‘‘ he was a rich and som­bre pres­ence who car­ried with him the odour of Byzan­tium and Cau­casian steppes’’. As he rarely sold a paint­ing, he never had any money, and traded portraits for hot din­ners. He traded, too, on his ro­man­tic im­age to get women into bed — he had, he said, ‘‘ many wives’’.

You don’t of­ten see his paint­ings ex­hib­ited, but Vas­sili­eff has been posited as a miss­ing link in Aus­tralian art his­tory. With­out his ex­am­ple in the late 1930s and 40s, some say, the later work of the so-called An­gry Pen­guin pain­ters would not have been pos­si­ble. Cer­tainly he was an im­por­tant fig­ure for younger artists such as Sid­ney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Joy Hester.

Ac­cord­ing to Felicity St John Moore, Vas­sili­eff brought the stream of Rus­sian folk art into Aus­tralian art, as well as ex­hil­a­rat­ing ideas about the in­di­vis­i­bil­ity of art and life.

Vas­sili­eff set­tled — in so far as he set­tled any­where — at Warrandyte on the out­skirts of Mel­bourne. There he built him­self a house out of rocks that he quar­ried out of the ground; he called it Stony­grad. It looked a bit like some­thing from The Flint­stones.

The labour in­volved was ex­tra­or­di­nary. It was as if he were try­ing to tie him­self down with the sheer weight of the stones. He made a ter­raced gar­den where he planted fruit trees and flow­ers, in­clud­ing 30 va­ri­eties of iris. He fash­ioned strange lit­tle sculp­tures out of the lo­cal stone. By 1954, how­ever, some­thing of the old itin­er­ancy was back. Vas­sili­eff lived in a se­ries of lodg­ings in Mil­dura, Swan Hill and Mel­bourne, earn­ing money from teach­ing, but never lasted long at any post. In the last months of his life he was liv­ing in a fish­ing shack owned by a fel­low teacher, Colin Wil­son, at Buronga on the banks of the Mur­ray River.

He had been dis­missed from his last teach­ing job and turfed out from his beloved Stony­grad by his wife. His health was bad. He did a lot of fish­ing. And in the evenings he painted, usu­ally on pages of the Sun­raysia

Daily, by the light of a kerosene lamp. His sub­ject was the river, pop­u­lated with birds, an­i­mals and alarm­ing-look­ing women; he gave his pic­tures ti­tles such as Many twists and turns has Mother Dar­ling on Sun­day but not as many as the girl from Went­worth.

Re­flec­tion in the Dar­ling was the last paint­ing he did.

It is painted on newsprint, its bright colours re­flect­ing Vas­sili­eff’s ex­u­ber­ant love of the river and its flora and fauna; on the right is what St John Moore iden­ti­fies as a self­por­trait, in a more tor­tured mode. Per­haps, as she sug­gests, the paint­ing is about fish­ing; per­haps it shows the fish­er­man (ac­com­pa­nied by as­sorted crea­tures) watch­ing in horror as the big fish gets away.

Re­flec­tion is one of 34 paint­ings given by Wil­son (the owner of the shack) to Mil­dura Arts Cen­tre, which is host­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion of Vas­sili­eff’s works.

Mil­dura was fairly un­wel­com­ing to Vas­sili­eff when he was alive — per­haps be­cause many of his de­pic­tions of the place were far from com­pli­men­tary — but it’s mak­ing time for him now.

Vas­sili­eff: Jour­ney to Mil­dura, cu­rated by Felicity St John Moore, at the Mil­dura Arts Cen­tre un­til April 20.


Gouache on newsprint,

29.8cm x 40cm

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