Abstract Australis
Abstract Australis
Brighton, Victoria 3186 Australia
Ph: 0407 501 808
ABN: 66 086 690 771
[email protected]

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Danila Ivanovich VASSILIEF (b.1897; d.1958)

Danila Vassilieff, sometimes called “the father of Australian modernist art”, was born on 16 December 1897 at Kagalnitskaya, near Rostov-na-Donu in Russia. Of mixed descent, Danila’s father, Ivan Ivanovich Vassilieff, was a Don Cossack, and his mother Eudoxia, née Perepelitsina was Ukrainian.

Though largely unrecognised for his work for much of his life, today Vassilieff is recognised as a key figure in abstract expressionism, yet he did not come from an artistic background. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vassilieff was educated at technical school at Novocherkassk and at a military academy in St Petersburg. While he specialized in mechanical engineering, from mid-1917 he served on the Eastern Front with a Don Cossack cavalry regiment, was captured by Communist forces and escaped via Persia and India to China.

In July 1923, Vassilieff and his then wife arrived in Queensland where they bought a sugar-farm at Yuruga, near Ingham. In the later 1920s, he was employed on railway construction at Mataranka, Northern Territory and was naturalized in 1929. However, that year he left Australia for Brazil where he studied art under Dimitri Ismailovitch, exhibited in the West Indies and South America (1932-33), and in England, Spain and Portugal (1933-35). There, according to biographer Felicity St John Moore, he began to see a relationship between the modernist movement and Russian decorative art.

Vassilieff returned to Australia in October 1935 and settled in Sydney and then Melbourne. He began painting street scenes of the inner city; his early works of the later 1930s and 1940s were of children playing in the streets of Collingwood, Fitzroy and East Melbourne.

His wife told a reporter:

“He does not need to go searching for subjects ... he often has a chat with the children of the neighbourhood and paints them too ... the children flock around her husband, he has many friends too with the dogs of the neighbourhood who are always apt to get painted into the street scene.” *

The young Vassilieff was always a man of the people, a wanderer as well as an artist and a sculptor. His approach to his art could be described as complete immersion. In the words of another Australian painter Albert Tucker, "he was a rich and sombre presence who carried with him the odour of Byzantium and Caucasian steppes".**  Vassilieff’s fresh and original style influenced other artists like Joy Hester, Sydney Nolan, Arthur Boyd, and John Perceval amongst others.

In Melbourne, he became a member of the local artistic circle, populated by influencers such as George Bell, Vance and Nettie Palmer, and John and Sunday Reed. Vassilieff also joined the Contemporary Art Society focussing on what he described as the 'gut' response and 'message'. In 1939, he oversaw the building of, and became foundation art teacher at, Clive and Janet Nield's experimental Koornong School in Warrandyte on the outskirts of Melbourne. If Vassilieff could ever be said to have settled it was in Warrandyte where he built his house and studio, Stonygrad.

With a turbulent personal life and several broken marriages/relationships already behind him, Vassilieff married Elizabeth Orme Hamill, née Sutton on 20 March 1947. She was a 31-year-old lecturer and a divorcee, who had bought Stonygrad from him – and was active politically; they separated in 1954.

In his later life, Vassilieff explored the theme of conflict between the sexes in his paintings and sculptures. He was also a significant art educator, working as an art teacher at Mildura High School, then Swan Hill High School in 1955., (Notably, Vassilieff was to return to the Riverland region but not as an educator. In his final months he painted watercolours on the banks of the river at Mildura).

Exhibiting at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Melbourne, in 1956, his work was barely noticed; a retrospective exhibition of his sculpture at the same gallery in 1957 was disparaged by the critics.

Vance Palmer wrote of Vassilieff’s oeuvre in 1938,  “‘His is easily one of the most brilliant new talents we have seen here in recent years. As a naturalized Australian he is one of the few who is giving expression to an aspect of Australian life rather than imitating a physical aspect of the country itself. I suggest that Melbourne may have some cause to be ashamed of its neglect of Vassilieff in the fullness of time as Paris for its former scorn of Gauguin and Van Gogh.” ***

Vassilieff died on 22 March 1958 at Heide, the Reed’s property at Bulleen, Melbourne. His work is represented in major Australian galleries including Heide Museum of Modern Art; National Gallery of Australia; National Gallery of Victoria; Art Gallery of New South Wales; National Portrait Gallery Canberra, Cbus Collection of Australian Art; and State Library of Victoria.

* Felicity St John Moore, Exhibition Catalogue Notes 2014

** Quoted in “Danila Vassilieff: a missing link of Australian art history” by Kitty Hauser, The Australian 28 December 2018

*** Palmer, V., Catalogue introduction, Riddell Galleries, Melbourne, October 1938, quoted in Felicity St John Moore, Vassilieff and his Art, 1982 edition.

 by Wordmakers 2018.

 

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