Visual arts Kitty Hauser’s Public Works column
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.
AS HE RARELY SOLD A PAINTING, HE NEVER HAD ANY MONEY, AND TRADED PORTRAITS FOR HOT DINNERS
Gouache on newsprint,
29.8cm x 40cm