The most oddly neglected artist in Australian history
The rock has a shiny polished surface with an olive-green marbled appearance. Sometimes it tends towards browns and blue hues. It has been called both limestone and Lilydale marble.
The figures range in size, from small elegant forms up to heights of 60cm, expressionist in character they were made in Warrandyte in the 1940’s and 50’s by someone once described as “the most oddly neglected artist in Australian history”. This artist was the vibrant and charismatic Russian refugee Danila Vassilieff.
Samples of Danila’s work can be found in these links.
Danila’s life is a rapturous kaleidoscopic image, full of passions that tumble in chaotically beautiful ways. A free spirit, he was born in Southern Russia in 1897. In WW1 he fought as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Russian Army, firstly against the Germans and later against the Bolsheviks. His exploits involved blowing up bridges, commandeering a runaway train and escaping from a Red Army prison camp during a snowstorm in 1921. He crawled across the Russian border to begin a journey across the globe - to live a life (in his own words) of “creation rather than destruction”.
In 1935 he arrived in Australia. He was most prolific as a painter, moving to sculpture later in his journey. His paintings of the back streets of Fitzroy in the 1930’s were in an iconic style and are of everyday life and people. One even features Fitzroy graffiti, 60 years before it gained recognition as an artform. His work was praised for capturing an element of Australianness above and beyond the physical form. Struggling to make a living selling his art, he began teaching art at Koornang - an experimental school in Warrandyte. Having trained as an engineer, he built many rooms in the school and also his house - Stonygrad. The construction of the stone buildings sparked his foray into sculpture. He quarried marble at Lilydale and began sculpting simple fluid animal forms then moving onto more abstract pieces. In the late 1940’s and early 1950’s he sculpted about 100 pieces.
Danila’s influence is under acknowledged in the Australian art world. He was at the centre of the renaissance of modern Australian art in the 1940’s and 50’s, being friends with the Reid’s at Heide, and the tribe of young aspiring artists - Joy Hester, John Blackman, Albert Tucker, John Perceval and Arthur Boyd. One of Danila’s paintings was pivotal to the inspiration of Sydney Nolan’s now famous Kelly series of paintings. First Class Marksman was painted by Nolan at Danila’s house Stonygrad and broke Australian records in 2013, selling for 5.4 million.
Danila stored his artworks at friends' houses across Victoria. He often gave them away to encourage interest in his work, or traded them for rent. Despite early critical acclaim, his works were ignored by the official Australian art world. He sold no more than six sculptures, five in his last exhibition, two months before his death in 1958. His art was not represented in any public collections until 1966 (except for two small purchases made by the NGV in 1956). Given his undeniable influences on some of Australia’s most famous artists I suspect that as sculptors, we would do well to study his works.
If you are interested in learning more about Danila there is a recent documentary that can be streamed for $7 here https://www.roninfilms.com.au/feature/12916/wolf-in-australian-art.html
The above link also contains two articles (at the bottom of the page) that you can download.
There is also the book, Vasillieff and his art by Felicity St John Moore
Thanks to Michael Adeney for this article