SASHA GRISHIN                            p.1   p.2   p.3  p.4  p.5  notes
In Melbourne, during the years of the Great Depression, there appeared a strong radical tradition in the visual arts. If artists, in other parts of Australia, sought distraction through their art and produced beautiful images of escapist frivolity, a number of Melbourne artists confronted and engaged with everyday reality. Poverty, conflict and angst served as the subject-matter for their art, whilst various expressionist and surrealist artistic strategies informed their stylistic language.

Melbourne artists of the 1930s and 1940s, including Danila Vassilieff, Noel Counihan, Arthur Boyd, Joy Hester, Sidney Nolan and Albert Tucker, also played an active role in the various radical art societies and organisations including the Contemporary Art Society, the Murrumbeena Group, the Angry Penguins, various anti-fascist coalitions, and later, the Antipodeans.

The art of Peter Neilson is very much a product of urban Melbourne radicalism. He was born in East Melbourne in 1944 and grew up in the inner-Melbourne suburb of Essendon, where he formed a life-long affiliation with the local football club. His father, Alfred Matthew Dickie, was a Presbyterian minister, a socialist and an active member of Melbourne's peace movement, while his mother, Allison Neilson, taught at the local kindergarten. Neilson, who adopted his mother's maiden name as his surname, was brought up in a household where the peace movement held its gatherings and where various international peace activists were frequent visitors. He remembers as a child meeting Hewlett Johnson, Paul Robeson and Pete Seeger, as well as the regular assemblies and speeches on the banks of the Yarra River.

It was while attending the local Essendon High School, that the art teacher, a sculptor named Ronald Upton, recognised Neilson's artistic abilities and encouraged him to consider a possible career in art. Neilson proceeded to study at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) for four years in the early 1960s, at a time when the school was one of the most creative centres for art training in Australia. Under the headship of Victor Greenhalgh, Neilson primarily studied painting under

Lindsay Edward and Rod Clarke, but also had some links with the printmaking department under Tate Adams and with the sculptor, Vincas Jomantas. The student body during his day included Les Kossatz, Gareth Sansom, Guy Stuart, Paul Partos, Robert Jacks, John Buckley and George Baldessin. Neilson studied art at a time when in the Melbourne art scene there was an active debate between those who felt that the future of art lay with non-figurative formalist strategies and minimalist aesthetics, and those who felt an empathy with the Antipodeans, who in their polemical manifesto of 1959 had argued for the defence of the image. They proclaimed "As Antipodeans we accept the image as representing some form of acceptance of, and involvement in life. For the image has always been concerned with life, whether of the flesh or of the spirit". Neilson, like his fellow students Kossatz and Baldessin, felt that the abandonment of the figurative image was too great a sacrifice and that art needed to confront reality and to comment on the problems and joys of this reality. Neilson's student work was figurative, expressionist and imbued with an Existentialist angst.

When Neilson graduated from RMIT with a Diploma in Fine Art majoring in painting in 1964, he was only twenty years old, but to some extent he was already a fully formed artistic personality - he had taken many of the decisions which were to remain relevant to his subsequent artistic practice. In his philosophy of art making, he felt that for his art to be relevant it needed to engage with a social and psychological reality. He also held a conviction that for art to be valid in the contemporary world, it had to have a real social function and not only an aesthetic one, and that if it achieved this function it would retain a validity which would outlive its creator. What he lacked was the means through which he could express this theory of art making and one could argue that he spent the subsequent three decades of his life in attempting to attain and master the various strategies and conventions of art making.

Neilson's first solo exhibition, at the Tolarno Gallery in Melbourne in 1967, marked something of a watershed in his art and thinking. It was critically acclaimed and financially