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Vassilieff, Danila Ivanovich (Daniel) (1897–1958)

by Felicity St J. Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Danila Ivanovich (Daniel) Vassilieff (1897-1958), painter and sculptor, was born on 16 December 1897 at Kagalnitskaya, near Rostov-na-Donu, Russia, son of Ivan Ivanovich Vassilieff and his wife Eudoxia, née Perepelitsina. His father was a Cossack and his mother a Ukrainian. Educated at a technical school at Novocherkassk and at a military academy in St Petersburg, Danila specialized in mechanical engineering. From mid-1917 he served on the Eastern Front with a Don Cossack cavalry regiment. He saw action with the White forces in the Russian Civil War and claimed to have risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel. After being captured by the Reds at Baku in April 1920, he escaped and made his way via Persia and India to China. At the Shanghai Russian Church on 13 May 1923 he married Anisia Nicolaevna; they separated in 1929 and were divorced in 1947. Convinced that he was sterile as a result of his wartime sexual exploits, he continued to be a womanizer.

In July 1923 Vassilieff and his wife had arrived in Queensland where they bought a sugar-farm at Yuruga, near Ingham. By 1928 he was employed on railway construction at Mataranka, Northern Territory. Although he was naturalized in 1929, he left Australia that year. He studied art under Dimitri Ismailovitch in Brazil (1930-31) and exhibited in the West Indies and South America (1932-33), and in England, Spain and Portugal (1933-35). While living in England, he mixed in White Russian circles, befriended Vladimir Polunin, and began to see a relationship between the modernist movement and Russian decorative art.

Vassilieff returned to Australia in October 1935 and settled in Sydney. Combining an iconic style with immediate experience, he painted turbulent street scenes of inner-city areas. He also produced still lifes, such as 'Red Roses', unflattering portraits, and lively landscapes of the windswept Woronora area. His expressionist paintings impressed Basil Burdett, Sydney Ure Smith, Gavin Long and John Young, and he exhibited twice at the Macquarie Galleries. In 1937 he eloped with Helen Macdonald. They lived at Biloela, Queensland, and then in Melbourne. Enthusiastic reviews of his paintings—often of children playing in the streets of Collingwood, Fitzroy and East Melbourne—established his reputation.

Welcomed into the city's artistic circles, particularly by George Bell, Adrian Lawlor, Vance and Nettie Palmer, and John and Sunday Reed, Vassilieff joined the Contemporary Art Society. His confident attack on 'fine art', and his insistence that 'gut' response and 'message' mattered more than intellect and aesthetics, influenced younger artists, among them Albert Tucker, Lina Bryans, Joy Hester and (Sir) Sidney Nolan. In 1939 he oversaw the building of, and became foundation art teacher at, Clive and Janet Nield's experimental Koornong School, Warrandyte. Nearby, he built Stonygrad, a house of stone and logs. He sang bass in the choir of a Russian Orthodox Church, and mixed with members of the Covent Garden Russian Ballet during its Melbourne seasons.

For Connie Smith, Vassilieff painted a four-part screen, 'Expulsion from Paradise'. Its theme of the fall of man had a lasting impact on Arthur Boyd and John Perceval, both of whom visited him to learn to paint quickly. Vassilieff, however, regarded religious subjects as suitable only for the decorative arts. His rejection of all dogma—religious, political and aesthetic—annoyed the social realists. In 1944 he helped to defeat the communist attempt to take over the Contemporary Art Society. Helen's departure that year provided a catalyst for a series of cryptic and costumed allegorical pictures, including 'Firebird from Drummoyne', which triggered Nolan's blending of iconic and folk traditions in his Ned Kelly paintings. Vassilieff's 'Peter and the Wolf' gouaches (1948) responded, perhaps jealously, to the success of Nolan's Kelly paintings.

At Wesley Church, Melbourne, on 20 March 1947 Vassilieff married Elizabeth Orme Hamill, née Sutton, a 31-year-old lecturer and a divorcee, who had bought Stonygrad from him. After a number of paintings on the theme of marriage, he transferred his energies to sculpture, using limestone from Lilydale; power tools enabled him to work faster and to respond spontaneously to the grain. Vassilieff reconciled the formal language of European iconic art with the lively shapes of folk art in his vigorous standing figures, such as 'Petit Bourgeois', 'Mechanical Man' and 'Stenka Razin'. The aesthetic elements—which he sometimes sacrificed to the more urgent need for expression in his paintings—were achieved through the brilliant finish which revealed the metamorphic pattern of the marble. In the early 1950s the titles of his paintings and sculpture assumed an aggressively anti-imperialist mood, due in part to his wife's political activity. In 1953 he became vice-president of the Contemporary Art Society.

As his relationship with Elizabeth deteriorated, Vassilieff explored the theme of conflict between the sexes in a series of paintings and sculptures. The couple separated in 1954. In May he obtained a post with the Education Department as art teacher at Mildura High School. He painted portraits of the school's staff, expressed his reaction to provincial society in a number of 'psychological' paintings, and fished in the Murray River. Transferred to Swan Hill High School in 1955, he carved some small pieces, and painted mildly satirical watercolours of the local population. He exhibited at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Melbourne, in 1956, but his work was barely noticed. A retrospective exhibition of his sculpture at the same gallery in 1957 was disparaged by the critics. The Education Department sent him to Eltham High School that year and then dismissed him on the grounds of unsatisfactory performance.

Keen-eyed, sallow and lean, Vassilieff spoke broken English in a low, resonant voice. He spent his final months in a shack near Mildura painting watercolours that suggest the fragmentation and absurdity of life. Survived by his wife, he died of a coronary occlusion on 22 March 1958 at Heide, the Reeds' property at Bulleen, and was cremated. A memorial exhibition of his oeuvre was held at the Museum of Modern Art of Australia, Melbourne, in 1959. His work is represented in major Australian galleries.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Scarlett, Australian Sculptors (Melb, 1980)
  • F. St J. Moore, Vassilieff and his Art (Melb, 1982)
  • F. St J. Moore, Vassilieff, exhibition catalogue (Melb, 1985)
  • F. St J. Moore, 'Force of Nature: Danila Vassilieff's, Stenka Razin, 1953' in D. Thomas (ed), Creating Australia (Syd, 1988)
  • Art in Australia, series 3, no 62, 15 Feb 1936, p 70
  • Angry Penguins, Sept 1943
  • Meanjin, vol 17, no 1, Apr 1958, p 83
  • Art and Australia, vol 4, no 2, Sept 1966, p 113
  • F. St J. Moore, 'Vassilieff's ''Expulsion''
  • Screen and Melbourne Expressionism', Art and Australia, Autumn 1986, p 358.

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Citation details

Felicity St J. Moore, 'Vassilieff, Danila Ivanovich (Daniel) (1897–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/vassilieff-danila-ivanovich-daniel-11916/text21347, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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