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Veteran artist Robert Dickerson, 80, has had a life as
rich as his paintings. The old Antipodean granted Louise Bellamy a
Robert Dickerson went to school barefoot and played footy
barefoot too. Like the racehorses he's backed since he was a boy,
he's stampeded through life because, he says, "it's the chase, not
the winning, which is important".
Dickerson is not referring to punting; he's referring to his
life-long passion for painting, more specifically his passion for
painting the people he's observed over his 80 years. "It is," he
says, "the reason for my existence."
His subjects have included boxers he competed against at age 15
when he was desperate for money during the Depression; jockeys on
whom he gambled his wage; women, men and children in the streets
where he lived; barristers who fought for his custody of the
children from his second marriage; and a stony-faced bank clerk he
once badgered for a loan.
Earlier this year, more than 100 people, including Dickerson's
six children, three stepchildren (sons of his third wife of 35
years, Jennifer) and 17 grandchildren celebrated his 80th birthday
at Sydney's Randwick Racecourse. He has lived at Nowra, in NSW, on
an 88-hectare property for the past four years, working in his
studio seven days a week, beginning each day with a long swim in a
salt-water lap pool and finishing at dusk with a visit to the
stables where he breeds horses.
This week the self-taught artist who shunned art school because,
he says, "what could I learn? I've always known how to draw", is in
Melbourne for his latest solo show, opened by the National Gallery
of Australia Council's chairman Harold Mitchell. It comprises 20
new acrylics on canvas, featuring "the people I observe and can't
forget". His subjects are ever-changing but the trademark aquiline
faces that waver between defiance and dignity are not.
A trip last year to Norway prompted Norwegian Fisherman,
a large 122-by-183-centimetre painting featuring a lone fisherman
holding a net amid an icy, mountainous scene; in contrast, Women
with Trolleys is of four grim, pasty-faced women aggressively
pushing shopping trolleys at a supermarket.
Standing in front of Man at Culburra Beach, Dickerson
explains that the image of the elderly suited man on a bench is
based on a man he studied while visiting his beach house. "This
painting barely made it, there was so much to say about his
loneliness, the weather, his gaze. What's left for him? Not much.
It's sad. At least he has a hat."
Robert Dickerson work Girl with Lamb.
Another large work, Fog in the City, depicts three people
in Bridge Road, Richmond, waiting for a tram. Against the
white-gray background, three figures dressed in "traditional
Melbourne black", one with his back turned holding a cigarette,
another scrounging for money from his wallet and a woman consumed
by the cold, wait and wait.
Dickerson sometimes works from photographs but more frequently
from charcoal sketches he does on anything from art paper to the
back of a Kleenex pack, depending on what's within reach. He also
admits to a prodigious memory for people's actions, how they sit
and where they place their hands. Painting directly onto the
canvas, he often uses one colour on top of another so that the
original comes through as a form of light.
More than 50 years ago, Dickerson wrote to art patron John Reed
that the Sydney street in which he lived "with an old woman
strolling in it, which is an event which takes place every night",
was "full of poetry". Reed later responded that Dickerson
penetrates "the roots of our most everyday acts and presents them
in all their elements of truth".
In the '50s, Dickerson was shovelling coal at Port Kembla,
supporting a wife and three children, whom he moved from the single
bedroom into the kitchen at weekends so he could paint. To save
money, he used Dulux house paint and skirting boards for
In 1956 he held his first solo show at the Melbourne Museum of
Contemporary Art, attended by Arthur Boyd, John Perceval and
Perceval's dog. The works were transported from Sydney for free by
a truckie he knew. Dickerson, wearing only shorts and a shirt,
caught the bus down, got sick and spent the following week in bed
recovering at Reed's house, now the Heide Museum of Modern Art. The
only bonus was that the National Gallery of Victoria purchased one
work, The Tired Man, for £10.
But it was neither this sale nor the Reeds' patronage that put
him on the map. The turning point in his career, he says, was an
Australian Women's Weekly competition run in 1957 in which
he was invited, among other artists including Arthur Boyd, to
decorate a Kelvinator refrigerator for which he was paid
Sitting in the Richmond gallery, which was set up by his
stepson, Stephen Nall, in 2000, to promote new artists and where
Dickerson exhibits every two years, he erupts into laughter as he
recalls what he did with the money. "I put £50 each-way on a
horse and won. So I quit factory life for good and became a
Almost five decades on, Dickerson is hailed as one of
Australia's most significant figurative painters. The assistant
director of Australian paintings at the National Gallery of
Australia, Dr Anna Gray, says Dickerson has played a vital role in
the history of the country. She refers specifically to the NGA's
2000 group retrospective, The Antipodeans, which honoured
the contribution of the seven Australian artists, including
Dickerson, who held the historic one-off show at the Victorian
Artists' Society in 1959 to challenge the surge of interest in
abstract art. The other artists were Arthur and David Boyd, John
Brack, John Perceval, Clifton Pugh and Charles Blackman. Dr Gray
says the retrospective "placed Dickerson's work within the context
of his contemporaries".
The president of the Australian Commercial Galleries
Association, Stuart Purves, who is also the director of Australian
Galleries - one of the first Melbourne galleries to show Dickerson
- describes him as "one of the legendary long-distance runners of
the Australian art world".
"His early social realist pictures particularly have never lost
their significance and are as important as the early Nolans and
Boyds, which are still holding up in the Australian art world
Purves adds that Dickerson, along with the handful of other
Australian artists "in their sunset period" (Jeffrey Smart, John
Olsen, Ray Crooke, Charles Blackman and James Gleeson), "fire
bullets which continue to ricochet. They still have the brains of
their youth which enable them to introduce brave new subject matter
and painting methods."
Dickerson started drawing at the age of five. Early subject
matter included aeroplanes and warships; as an RAAF guard waiting a
year to be demobbed from Morotai, a Dutch island that is now part
of Malaysia, he painted the island children applying camouflage
paint on tent canvas. At 21 he returned to Australia, married,
became a father and a slave to menial work, "never thinking I'd
ever earn a living from painting".
During the 1960s, while his prominence as an artist was rising,
his first and then second marriages fell apart. In 1969 he met
Jenny, moved to Brisbane "with three paint brushes and a form
guide" and started painting with a vengeance. In the same year, a
show at Brian Johnstone Gallery, which sold out, placed Dickerson
on the map. Exhibitions throughout Australia and overseas have
continued to sell strongly ever since.
Dickerson has not been affected by the accolades about his work,
which sometimes fetch close to six-figure prices. Driven by a
desire to do better, he is determined to paint what he sees, not
what the market wants. "I don't care what the critics say or what
the gallery owners want. What I care about is that there is so much
to paint and sometimes I think that maybe I haven't got the ability
to do what I have to do."
His self-doubt is matched by contagious self-deprecating humour.
He retells a story, which makes him laugh so hard his gap-toothed
smile stretches from ear to ear, about the time in the early '40s
when Brisbane art dealer Brian Johnstone came to Sydney to meet him
for the first time. Dickerson, almost penniless, arrived at a cafe
on a tram, complete with mammoth canvas in tow. After two coffees,
during which time Johnstone had rejected the work, it was time to
pay. Dickerson procrastinated and procrastinated, finally doing the
honours and, with no money for the tram home, "threw the painting
into the harbour because I couldn't be bothered carrying it".
It's a quintessential Melbourne spring morning, warm sun, no
breeze. Dickerson is off for a long walk - probably all afternoon -
to get some new ideas. Along the way he'll have a bet or two. He's
already done half the work for his next show and thinks he can do
better. "If I didn't think I could improve, there'd be no point.
I'd simply stop."
Robert Dickerson New Works is at Dickerson
Gallery, Richmond, until November 21.
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