Vali was certainly Melbourne's most recognisable bohemian artist in recent years. Clad in flamboyant gypsy style, with flaming red hair, featuring intricate tatoos (even around her lips), looking remarkably young for her 70-odd years and usually with a young male lover in tow, she was immediately recognisable in the streets and haunts of Melbourne. We often came across her on our walking tours of Melbourne, and she would always stop and have a chat. On a Friday night, she could often be found in Chloe's Bar at Young & Jackson's and from her dancing you could tell why she had travelled to Europe as a leading dancer in the Melbourne Modern Ballet Company.
You never knew if Vali was embellishing when she talked about her life. It all seemed so fantastical, but upon investigation, the stories all seem based in truth. She was born in Sydney and grew up in the New South Wales bush. As a young child, chronically inward looking and unable to read and write, she immersed herself in drawing and dancing. She later moved to Melbourne where she commenced a dancing career which culminated in a solo dance performance at the Albert Hall in London.
With her arrival in Paris came a number of bohemian encounters with the likes of Tennesse Williams, Slavador Dali, Django Reinhardt, Jean Cocteau, Jean Genet as well fiery interchanges with Bert Tucker. (At around the same time, an equally sexy but far different artist was making her way from Paris to Melbourne - Mirka Mora)
She returned to Melbourne in the 1990s, even though her favourite place to work was a little cottage in Il Porto (Italy). When in Melbourne. she worked in her studio in the Nicholas Building and continued her bohemian lifestyle. When Chloe's Bar became gentrified, she and the other artist left there to frequent the hidden artists bars in the city.
Her work is characterised by fine pen work and erotically charged fantasies. Vali is the centrepiece of many of these works (and why shouldn't she be?) as well as a leitmotif of foxes and other animals to which she was continually drawn.
Whether her work constitutes great art, or never rose above the total self absorption demonstrated by many teenage girls I will leave for the art critics to decide. She adored kitsch and may well be delighted for people to regard her work as such. Regardless of the artistic worth of her paintings and prints, no-one can deny the delicacy of the pen work and her willingness to pursue and improve her craft - something which is seen as an optional extra by many a modern 'conceptual' artist.
Vali died in Melbourne in February 2003 after a short and distressing illness.
She certainly left Melbourne the richer and more colourful for her presence.