The lively expression of this double-sided marble sculpture exemplifies the daring and original technique of Danila Vassilieff, a refugee from the Soviet Union. Stenka Razin was the peasant rebel and ataman (leader) of the Don Cossacks, celebrated in song and legend, with whom Vassilieff sometimes identified.
Vassilieff tackled the local limestone directly, responding to its metamorphic character with a variety of individual and asymmetrical features. Razin’s bulbous winking eye corresponds with a grey coral discovered during the creative process, his open mouth is formed by a second happy ‘accident’, his warlike broken nose doubles as the intersection of two planes while a double row of tooled serrations shapes his barbed beard. By carving out spaces inside the form, in particular by undercutting the clasped arms, Vassilieff defies gravity in a kind of cut and thrust with the hard marble.
Vassilieff’s approach to carving stone grew out of his experience of building his own extraordinary house at Warrandyte. However, whereas in his building he left the stone rough, in Stenka Razin (and about 30 other major carvings from 1947–54) he polished the surfaces smooth to reveal the life within the stone. Through this process, including the transparency and reflection he thus achieved, he invites our sense of touch.
The individual expression of Vassilieff’s art, especially of his paintings, encouraged the original visions of his younger contemporaries – Arthur Boyd, Charles Blackman, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan, John Perceval and Albert Tucker.
Felicity St John Moore
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002