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Painter, Robert Dickerson, was born on 30 March 1924 in Hurstville, New South Wales, to mother Ida Amelia Dickerson and father Albert Dickerson, a tinsmith. He grew up with older brother, Bert, his older sister, Ida, and a younger sister, Betty. His childhood was spent in Surry Hills, attending school and helping his father to make tin mirror backs in his backyard factory during the Great Depression. As a boy he would visit the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Australian Museum and sketch the exhibits. These trips to the gallery were a sign of an early interest in art. He is a strong believer of self-teaching; when visiting a gallery he gets close and studies the artist’s brushstroke.

He attended Bourke Street School until the age of thirteen and eight months. Thereafter, he found employment at the hinge factory in Annandale where he worked for six months. During this time he began to train as a boxer, and became a professional fighter at the age of fifteen. When World War II broke out he enlisted, aged eighteen, and served for the next four years in the Royal Australian Air Force. While waiting to be demobilised he drew and painted East Indian children in Morotai. These drawings were the beginning of Dickerson’s path of depicting people within their surroundings. He began to paint in 1947; one of his first works was Reading by Lamplight (1947). At this time he worked with a limited palette, enamel often on cardboard. Due to the weight of hardboards he began to frequently paint on canvas in the early 1970s.

In 1949, he had his first exhibition at Sydney’s Blaxland Gallery. During the 1950s he entered numerous competitions, winning the Tumut Prize in 1959, and also started sending paintings to be exhibited in the Contemporary Art Society in Melbourne. This brought him to the attention of John Reed, who encouraged Dickerson and gave him much help. His first one man show was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Melbourne where he sold the painting The Tired Man (1956). In 1959 he began to exhibit with the art dealer Rudy Komon who was bringing European art dealing practices to Sydney. Komon helped to promote Dickerson’s work by placing important pieces into Australian collections, but he did not offer encouragement or a financial stipend. Sometimes Dickerson was paid in wine instead of the much needed money, and within two years their association ended. At this time, Dickerson was one of the few Sydney post war painters of his generation who was working within the figurative mode. Figures became a way of portraying his view and experiences of the world and people, all individual and unique. Dickerson’s art uses a personal language with which he comments on the human condition. His na├»ve looking figures are sometimes portrayed isolated and lonely in their social roles, alienated by their environments. He paints both urbanscapes and landscapes, however seldom without a figure or figures in the foreground. He has a remarkable memory and captures an image in his mind from which later he paints.

It was because his work was so in sympathy with the Melbourne figurative modernists that Dickerson was approached to participate in the Antipodean exhibition, held in Melbourne in August 1959. The Antipodean Manifesto was written by Bernard Smith, and was a protest against the “clamorous pretensions of the multitude of new converts to abstract expressionism and its varieties”(Smith, 2001, p. 328). Of the artists who exhibited, including Arthur Boyd, David Boyd, John Brack, Charles Blackman, Clifton Pugh, and John Perceval, Dickerson was the only Sydney-based artist. As with some of the other 'Antipodeans’ he signed it, but he never read the Manifesto and did not really support the ideas, but this was an opportunity for him to participate in a major exhibition. In addition, he rejected the belligerence of Smith’s polemic as he had many friends who were abstract artists.

By the early 1960s Dickerson changed his painting medium to include oil paint instead of household enamels, and he started to paint more subjects relating to horseracing, with works such as Woman at the T.A.B. (1969) and Jockey in a Red Cap (1969). Dickerson continued to follow the races and this became a reoccurring subject in his work. In 1961, Dickerson was chosen to exhibit at the Whitechapel in London, his work was slowly but surely getting attention overseas. In 1963, he was selected for the Sao Paolo Biennale in Brazil, and had his work exhibited at the Tate Gallery, London. He moved to Brisbane in 1969 and in July he took inspiration from Manet, Monet, Degas, Picasso, Daumier and Goya for the 'Homage to the Masters’ at the Johnstone Gallery, Brisbane.

The 1970s was a decade of experimentation, increasing success and travel for Dickerson, who began to work with other techniques of art making including pastels, acrylics and printmaking. Though he has no preference for a medium, he enjoys the versatility of drawing, which allows him to work anywhere he wishes. He was not concerned with printmaking in the earlier part of his career, yet it later became a significant part of his practice and he initially took inspiration from his earlier charcoal and pastel drawings and some paintings. His serigraphs, etchings, lithographs, and linocuts depict subjects such as the ballet, girls with cats, Japanese geisha girls, horse racing and lawyers.

After 1972 he made frequent trips to Europe, Asia and America. In 1973 he organised an exhibition of both drawings and paintings in London at the Qantas Gallery. In 1978 he was commissioned to design the curtain for the Queensland Ballet Company production 'Cage of God’, and it was also in this year that he moved back to Sydney. In 1983 a retrospective of his work was held at the Holdsworth Gallery in Sydney.

In 1991, Dickerson spent four months in London preparing for the England and Company exhibition, following which, he moved to Eumundi, near Noosa. In 1997 Dickerson began exhibiting with Rex Irwin Gallery in Sydney.

In 2009 Dickerson is showing less frequently, with only two or three exhibitions a year in either Perth, Brisbane, Melbourne or Sydney. Robert Dickerson is represented in all major public and private collections across Australia, and his work can also be found in collections overseas.

Writers:
Danica Firulovic Note:
Date written:
2009
Last updated:
2011
Status:
peer-reviewed