27. DANILA VASSILIEFF
Melbourne prides itself as being one of the world’s most liveable cities, a place of culture, home to a vibrant arts scene with a penchant for festivals of every kind. A century ago it was already one of the largest urban centres of the world, but a very different place culturally and artistically. There was a drab conservatism that pervaded every aspect of life, from the draconian drinking laws to the arch reactionaries who controlled the major art galleries and schools. Into this dull, beige world Danila Vassilieff landed in 1936, not just as a colourful foreigner, but as some energised being from another far more exciting and magical world.
His looks, manner, modes of dress and artistic style could not go unnoticed. Drawing on his Cossack heritage and tales, both real and imaginary, of a heroic past, he attracted followers, especially the younger artists yearning for some colour and excitement in their lives. He tried his luck in various parts of the country, from cane farming in North Queensland, engineering work on dam projects out of Sydney and on to Melbourne, accumulating experiences and a succession of female companions along the way. He was a prolific painter, but there were few buyers for his quirky portraits and lively street scenes of the grimy inner suburbs. He particularly loved to paint the children, the urchins who made their own fun in the impoverished back streets. The depression had produced a grinding poverty for a large sector of the population and those who might have been in a position to buy art, the residents of the conservative suburbs south and east of the river, did not wish to be reminded of the poor, eking out an existence beyond their comfortable streets.
Struggling to make ends meet, Vassilieff lived in Fitzroy before settling at Warrandyte on Melbourne’s northeastern fringe in 1939. The move to Warrandyte had been fired by the promise of a job teaching art at Koornong, the new progressive school founded by Clive and Janet Nield, which opened later that year. At Koornong he was able to encourage free artistic expression among the spirited children lucky enough to be placed in this new, adventurous environment. The area had long been popular with artists, drawn to the attractive riverside landscapes, the cheap land and relatively easy access to the city. Building regulations were lax and Vassilieff set about crafting his own eccentric home, a rough hewn stone cottage, part grotto, part film set and wholly his own. Fellow artists like Albert Tucker (1914-1999) and Joy Hester (1920-1960) ventured out to help with the labouring, hauling the huge rocks across the creek and up to the building site. It was aptly named Stonygrad, a reference to both the rugged location and the artist’s Russian heritage.
Vassilieff’s magnetic personality and open charm attracted the more relaxed residents of Warrandyte and he became a popular figure about the village. Helen Aron was the widow of a Melbourne property developer and, in 1938, had commissioned a new house to be built on top of a high hill north of the river, immediately above Stonygrad and Koornong. As her youngest daughter attended the school, she soon got to know Vassilieff and was drawn to the charm and vibrancy of his paintings. She supported many of the local painters, buying works by Adrian Lawlor (1889-1969), Jo Sweatman (1872-1956) and Arnold Shore (1897-1963) as well as Danila Vassilieff. Between teaching and building, Vassilieff was not producing much new work, and was pleased to be able to draw on his stock of inner suburban subjects for sales. Soap Box Derby was the largest of the three works Helen acquired from Vassilieff in the early years of World War Two. His prices were modest, only two or three pounds and he was always keen to do a deal, in one case exchanging a painting for a new battery for his old car. Soap Box Derby has since become one of Vassilieff’s best-loved and most recognisable works, having been exhibited in five significant public gallery exhibitions while remaining in the one family collection since its initial purchase in 1940.
Gavin Fry BA[Hons.] MA, M.Phil