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Danila Vassilieff

1897 – 1958

Danila Vassilieff, born in Russia, arrived in Australia in the early 1920s having served in a Cossack cavalry regiment, been captured by Communist forces and escaped via Persia and India to China. In the early 1930s he lived for two years in Rio, where he trained in art and exhibited; he showed his work in the Caribbean, the UK, and Spain and Portugal before returning to Australia in 1936. Here, in time, he built a house at Warrandyte, Victoria called Stonygrad, and taught painting and sculpture (Ken Whisson was one of his students). Vassilieff’s fresh style and his interest in child art significantly influenced Nolan, Boyd, Blackman, Perceval and others; recently, it has been claimed that his work was ‘a crucial trigger for Nolan’s Kelly series’. Having established his reputation with pictures of children playing in the streets of Collingwood, Fitzroy and East Melbourne, in the late 1930s and early 1940s he was art teacher at the experimental school at Warrandyte. In the early 1950s he began stone-carving using Lilydale limestone, with which no one else had been able to succeed. Late in his life he taught art at high schools in Mildura, Swan Hill and Eltham, but ultimately he was dismissed by the Department of Education. John and Sunday Reed owned many of his paintings; their adopted son, Sweeney, named one of his own children Danila. Vassilieff died of heart failure at the Reeds’ property, Heide. Vassilieff was the subject of a commemorative exhibition at Joseph Brown Gallery in Melbourne in 1973 and his work has since featured in many group retrospectives. A revised and expanded edition of Felicity St John Moore’s book Vassilieff and His Art (1982) was published in 2012, coinciding with the exhibition Danila Vassilieff: A New Art History at Heide. The National Gallery of Victoria has eighteen of his works; the National Gallery of Australia has many more, including his “Expulsion from Paradise’ screen, his ‘Peter and the Wolf’ series and many drawings.

Updated 2018