In the early 1960s Robert Dickerson gave his father a collection of his paintings. Regarding them as a waste of time, his father burnt them all.
‘They didn’t encourage my art,’ remembers Dickerson, speaking from the backroom of his son’s gallery in Woollahra, Sydney. Later ‘I said to him: “You know how much money you burnt? Thirty thousand dollars’ worth.” He never forgave himself for that.’
The son of a tinsmith grew up in Depression-era Australia and left school aged 13 to work in a hinge (and later suitcase) factory. At home, as on the production line, art was for “sissies”. Dickerson’s father stubbornly refused to see his son’s art as anything other than “stupid”. It was his mother, who spent much of his childhood sick, who “said I might be alright”.
All right is an understatement. But then, at 90, Dickerson has never lost his no-nonsense turn of phrase and proletarian roots. Today he remains one of the country’s most beloved artists and his figurative paintings, often of the working classes he grew up with rendered in bold brush strokes that reveal haunted faces and sad eyes, now reach six-figure sums.The son of a tinsmith, Dickerson grew up in Depression-era Australia and left school aged 13 to work in a hinge (and then suitcase) factory. At home, as on the production line, art was for ‘sissies’. Dickerson’s father stubbornly refused to see his son’s art as anything other than ‘stupid’. It was his mother, who spent much of his childhood sick, who ‘said I might be all right’.
On this sunny winter’s day Dickerson is in town to promote an exhibition currently showing at the Philip Bacon Galleries, Brisbane. Sporting his trademark shorts and long socks, with pale spindly legs sticking out of white trainers, he looks more trainspotter than artist. Yet despite a balding head crowned with wisps of grey hair and a mouth of missing teeth (he pulls them out himself) Dickerson is impressively sprightly for a man who has just passed his ninth decade.
Born in 1924, Dickerson grew up in poor inner-city Sydney. For entertainment, he read Charles Dickens, flew kites in Centennial Park and watched cowboy movies on Crown Street, where tickets cost thruppence. As a teenager he learnt to box, first to protect himself and later to earn cash by rigging bets.
‘We’d make sure that I would lose or he would lose, and then your friends put money on it,’ Dickerson recalls. ‘Two pounds for a round. And I never had to fight after that in my life, nobody has ever picked on me.’ What about in the ring? ‘Oh, I got hurt a couple of times,’ he laughs. ‘My nose was wrecked.’
Dickerson started drawing as a young child but began to paint in earnest when waiting to be demobilised from the island of Morotai, north of New Guinea, after the war. Holed up, bored and in need of release, he used camouflage paint or boot polish on tent canvas and plywood. His subjects became the Indonesian boys climbing trees for coconuts, exchanged for the soldiers’ bully beef. Dickerson notes wistfully: ‘I painted all the kids. They would be old now.’
It was only when he returned to Australia aged 22 that Dickerson married and became a father for the first time (today he has six children from three marriages and is a great-great grandfather). It was then that he considered art school — and was rebuffed. ‘I actually went to the art school and they said: “What are you doing this for? You’ll never make any money, it’s not worth your efforts.” And then I went to learn bricklaying.’
The path to recognition was fraught. In the 1940s Dickerson remembers a potential buyer asking him to bring a painting to show over tea. The artist used his last coins to take the tram, the bulky frame carefully tucked under his arm. It went unsold. ‘The only thing I could do was throw it into the water and [walk] back home,’ he guffaws good-naturedly, the gaped teeth flashing. ‘I didn’t have any money to go back [on the tram]. Much quicker to paint it again.’For a decade, Dickerson filled butane gas cylinders, setting up his new family in a caravan on site. At night he worked as a cleaner; on Sundays he earned double time. It was only on Friday evenings that he could paint in the men’s toilets, staying awake all night to fill canvases with the soulful figures he is now famous for.
Eventually Dickerson sold his first painting for five guineas. His big break came in 1956 when Man Asleep on the Steps was picked up by the National Gallery of Victoria. In 1957, aged 35, he won £100 in the Australian Women’s Weekly fridge-decorating competition. The money, then a windfall, allowed him to invest in materials. Only then did he begin to consider art a career.
It was around this time that Dickerson formed the Antipodeans alongside Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and John Brack, figurative artists who stood against the prevailing winds of abstractionism blowing from America. It was, Dickerson says with a giggle, an ‘uprising’: ‘We were the realists who got together to show we weren’t going to be taken over by the abstract artists. We had a sort of gang.’
Such battles now seem a long time past. Today Dickerson owns two properties, one in Sydney and the other on the New South Wales coastline near Nowra. In the second 88-hectare property, where he lives with his third wife of more than 40 years, Jenny, he can indulge his lifelong passion for the races, born when his father took him as a boy. He has not one but two training tracks.
For Dickerson racing is like art — both require hours of preparation but, in the end, ‘Bingo, either it’s good or bad.’ He paints characters he sees: from boxers he once sparred with to the lawyers who have fought his court cases. He says of his first two marriage breakdowns, ‘I started all over again. That was a horrific thing to do and I punished myself for it.’
Yet the most beguiling moments are the everyday. Dickerson says, ‘It’s about people in the park, leaning back and getting a little bit of sun. And an old lady on an escalator being helped by a man. Things like that I love. Because it’s life.’
His works are acutely, painfully candid; yet his subject’s expressions are often empty. With the primitive, sometimes twisted faces, whimsical outlines and playful colours, he captures essence not reality. He explains: ‘You don’t paint them like they really look, you paint them for what they really are.’
Dickerson’s favourite piece is The Bank Clerk (1959), where a man in a suit, his brow furrowed in an angular, morose face, stares at the viewer, fingers reaching forward as if in plea. ‘It’s a man behind bars, and his hand is there,’ he explains, slapping his hands on the table to illustrate. ‘And he is in a place full of money and he’s stuck in this cell. To earn this miserable little bit of money.’
Most of Dickerson’s artworks touch on solitariness and emotional seclusion. Yet he is refreshingly downbeat about dismissing any hidden meanings. ‘Painting is a very good way of putting your thoughts down, that’s all,’ he insists with a shrug.
He crosses his hands, which shake a little, on his lap and adjusts a gold watch slung over the navy fabric of his cardigan. Then he adds, thinking back over the long years to his time in the factory when he was little more than a child, ‘The sort of life they had was pretty ugly. All they did was work and go to the pub. They didn’t have anything to do. If they had taken up painting, they would have been happier.’
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Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore is a Sydney writer and contributor to the New York Times, the Economist, the Guardian, the BBC and the Wall Street Journal.
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