First published in the Canberra Times on 18 July 2016
© by Jane Freebury
In the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917, young Danila Vassilieff, a trained engineer and former White Army soldier, left his homeland behind. After extensive travels in Asia, he made his way to Australia with his wife, also a Russian refugee. He became an Australian citizen, and began to paint but the wanderlust returned and he set off around the world. When he eventually returned, he became a key figure in the development of figurative expressionism in Australia. Prominent painters influenced by him during the 1940s include Sidney Nolan and Charles Blackman.
For all this, the legacy of painter and sculptor Danila Ivanovich Vassilieff has been overlooked, says Richard Moore whose new documentary film explores his legacy. Moore, a former head of the Melbourne International Film Festival, has extensive experience as a director and producer in film and television.
The Wolf in Australian Art is based on research by Moore’s mother, Felicity St John Moore, with contributions from his brother and his sister. Felicity features as the gallery guide through the Vassilieff collection at the National Gallery of Australia, that holds the biggest collection of his work in the country. Around 300 works are shown in the film.
It was the sculptures by Vassilieff, wrought in marble found in Lilydale that was the artist’s eventual home, that first caught Felicity’s eye.
‘The film is based on Felicity’s book, Vassilieff and His Arts. I directed and produced the film, my brother Tim (Moore), who is head of exhibition design at National Portrait Gallery. He designed the major exhibition of Vassilieff’s work where sections of the film are shot, and my sister Lisa (Moore) plays the majority of the music.’ Lisa, a professional pianist, lives in the US.
‘A bit of a family affair’, Moore says, who I interviewed from Melbourne this week. ‘And we’re still talking!’
Art historian, author and curator, Felicity St John Moore, was formerly head of Education at the NGA, training guides and giving public lectures. Her book on Vassilieff, first published in 1982, is in its second edition.
While in London in the 1930s, Vassilieff encountered the Ballets Russes and the Russian moderns, and from this point his work was underpinned by the traditions of the figurative tradition from Russian folk art and the modernist avant-garde, as he sought to paint life as it is lived. When back in Australia, he established his reputation through a confident confrontation with fine art, insisting that it was the visceral response and the message in art that mattered, rather than the aesthetics.
‘Vassilieff was a colourful, eccentric, unusual character,’ says Moore. An outsider who didn’t really fit in? A restless intelligence? Yes, and yes. ‘He changed styles constantly. He was a shape shifter.’ He had a liberating effect on young Australian artists who felt emboldened to trust their own vision. However, unfortunately, he only sold five of his own paintings during his lifetime.
The ‘Wolf’, where does that come from? It’s a playful label, says Moore, derived in part from Vassilieff’s Peter and the Wolf watercolours, held in the NGA. ‘And he was also a voracious lover’, who had many affairs.
The Wolf in Australian Art is an opportunity to re-evaluate the contribution of Vassilieff, considered a father figure to the generation of Australian painters such as Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker known as the Angry Penguins, helping them to find their voice.
The Wolf in Australian Art screened at the National Gallery of Australia in July, introduced by director, Richard Moore, and followed by a Q&A.