Robert Dickerson

Jennifer Dickerson
Robert Dickerson: Against the Tide
Pandanus Press, 168pp.

Australian Book Review, July 1995, pp. 24-25.

By 1930, Freud had to acknowledge that even the “best and fullest” biography “would not throw any light on the riddle of the miraculous gift that makes an artist.” Sixty-five years on, we are no closer to knowing why certain people seek to become artists, why some persist, or why a few succeed.

Bob Dickerson fitted none of the categories. He was a working-class lad who always wanted to make art although, until his late 20s, he did not dare voice that ambition because his parents, siblings and first wife were indifferent, bordering on hostile. His biographer offers no suggestion as to why Dickerson had this urge. Had he been gay, she could have fallen back on sensitivity to explain why a slum kid had determined to paint. We are spared the biologism of some distant uncle whose hobby was drawing.

Dickerson learnt to paint by painting. The repetitiveness of his faces, with their comic book features, is as much a mark of the limits on his skill as a draughtsman as it is an expression of alienation in the city.

The author is Dickerson’s third wife, which compounds the difficulty of writing about his life before they met early in 1969. The first wife, Innis, disappears from the text long before their divorce. The second, Anna, is painted in lurid colours. Children from both those marriages are hardly more than named. To explore those relationships would intrude on the privacy of people who have no public life beyond their paternity. By avoiding these difficulties, Jennifer Dickerson is not able to connect the imagery and paintwork with swings in the lifestyle, or even to explore if such a link operated. Did he illustrate his emotions or establish an objective correlative?

Dickerson experienced the art work of Sydney around the dealer Rudy Komon whose use of him as an office boy disrupted the limited time he had to paint, but then the dealer made amends by taking over maintenance payments. Melbourne began with John and Sunday Reed, who got to know about Dickerson through a Brisbane contact. Brisbane became significant because of the support for figurative painters from Brian Johnstone whose gallery promoted the Antipodeans who had invited Dickerson to join them in 1959 in their stand against Abstraction.

Ten years later at Johnstone’s, Dickerson exhibited his Homage to the Masters such as Manet and Renoir, although he would have seen only a couple of originals by each. He did not get to Europe until he was 50, in 1972.

Despite encountering slips such as a claim that Jack Lang practiced as a solicitor, social historians who read this work will be rewarded with plums for quotation. Differences between the families of casual labourers and the regularly employed could not be illustrated with greater sharpness than in the football match between Dickerson’s public primary school team and one from a Marist brothers college which the latter won because they were “half a stone heavier and had boots”.

With the Keating gang stirring up anti-Japanese memories as a polling-day ploy, it is salutary to read that, in the last months of the war on Moratai, Dickerson had not shot at the Japanese whose starvation drove them to line up for food with the Allied forces: “it would be like shooting a couple of schoolboys, they were so small.”

Understanding of how the urban sprawl could extend the working week, even without the overtime needed to maintain mortgage payments, is quickened by Dickerson’s daily journey to work. He rode his pushbike from Moorebank to Warwick Farm racecourse, rowed across the river, took a train, and then ran “a couple of miles to the factory”.

Jennifer Dickerson is prepared to correct her husband’s memory. For example, she quotes his letters to prove that he was wrong to pretend that he had never read the Antipodean Manifesto. While she refrains from detailing any of the punch-ups in which Dickerson featured, her refrain about how he sobered up is a reminder of what a wild man he had been, defiant in shorts and singlet. Similarly, she notes that his first wife’s mother had been a communist militant and that he associated with the front organization, the Society of Realist Artists, but otherwise avoids any radical politics.

Moreover, she is not beyond comparisons which must embarrass Dickerson, as when she prefaces a question to him about his gambling with the phrase, “Like Francis Bacon …”.

Robert Dickerson: Against the Tide is superior to the crop of books about living artists published by their dealers as marketing aids, although that aim is not absent here since the book is being promoted in association with “Queen Street Fine Art”. Nor is the nexus between cash and creativity evaded as happens in many commercial accounts, though exact sums are not often given. We are not told who put up how much money for the book. However, if it is an example of vanity publishing, let there be more of it for the glory of the illustrations alone, most in colour.

Art books of this order do not need academic advisors, but rather professional editors. The hundred illustrations come with titles, dates, media, sizes and provenances, but are not numbered, nor is it clear whether a painting under discussion has been illustrated. A copy editor could have improved sentences such as “Bob is producing a book of these in 1995, with the help of Sam. These will be released in book form.” The index is skimped.

Dickerson’s reputation is rising against several of his contemporaries’, though I do not suppose that it will surpass the appeal of John Perceval or John Brack in the way that it has left behind Charles Blackman and Len French. Now in his early seventies, Dickerson is living in the suburban littoral close to Noosa, giving time to landscapes with figures in place of figures against cityscapes. This switch intensifies a re-evaluation of Dickerson’s output in terms of its formal properties, especially his control of space, without necessitating any pretence that those figures were not central to the impulse that Freud considered inexplicable.