LABOUR OF LOVE

How Robert Dick­er­son, aged 90, has re­mained at the top of his game

The Weekend Australian - Review - - FRONT PAGE -

EV­ERY af­ter­noon, the scene is the same. As the sun starts to fall across the moun­tains, Robert Dick­er­son can be seen walk­ing along his race­track, deep in thought. There are two tracks for horses on his property: this is the longer one, stretch­ing over 2400m, the length of the Caulfield Cup. He walks three laps around, and the whole cir­cuit takes him al­most two hours to com­plete. It’s a re­flec­tive time of day, around dusk at Cam­be­warra, near Nowra on the NSW south coast, and Dick­er­son, usu­ally wear­ing a soft white hat, takes in the shift­ing colours of the light in the trees and hills in the dis­tance as he takes his daily walk. “It’s a good time to go through your mind,’’ he says. “To re­lax.”

Dick­er­son turned 90 at the end of March, and his ex­er­cise rou­tine rarely varies. His days in­side a box­ing ring are long gone but his fit­ness level re­mains high. There are the weights and the squats, plus walks, and he of­ten swims in the pool be­side the house. The view from the pool is a se­duc­tive one and he talks with af­fec­tion about the way this land­scape plays on the eye.

“The ef­fect of the en­vi­ron­ment here means you’ve got a per­ma­nent en­ter­tain­ment,” he says. He looks up, ges­tures into the dis­tance. “That moun­tain changes all the time. The whole place changes all the time.”

Dick­er­son, not usu­ally one for sen­ti­men­tal­ity, takes a mo­ment to re­flect on his sur­round­ings. Much has changed, much re­mains the same. His pas­sion for horserac­ing goes back to when he was a teenager, when there wasn’t much money to spare but the chance to earn plenty more. When he be­gan paint­ing, he was do­ing it just for him­self, and his pic­tures car­ried that same quiet, soli­tary mourn­ful­ness they do to­day. He re­mains some­thing of an out­sider, and while he’s well rep­re­sented in ma­jor col­lec­tions across Aus­tralia, there’s a sen­si­tiv­ity among his fam­ily about the need for a ret­ro­spec­tive, whether he has re­ceived due recog­ni­tion from his home state of NSW af­ter all these years. Even now, on the eve of a new show in Bris­bane, with Dick­er­son stand­ing as one of the elders of Aus­tralian art, the only mem­ber of the An­tipodean group of 1959 still close to the top of his game, he continues to strug­gle with the chal­lenges of his art.

“All paint­ing is a ter­ri­ble thing, re­ally, if you’re re­ally se­ri­ous about it,” he says. “You paint a paint­ing and you think it’s mar­vel­lous, and lo and be­hold you go back and see it and it looks lousy.”

It’s why Dick­er­son of­ten de­stroys work he doesn’t like. He might put all his ef­fort into a paint­ing only to find it “pretty dread­ful” when ex­am­ined later. An artist needs to be “very stern about what you put down”, he says, which some­times means paint­ing over some­thing and mov­ing on.

“Be­ing an artist, you’ve got to be in love with it,’’ he says. “You’ve got to be crit­i­cal too.” A CHILD of the De­pres­sion, Dick­er­son worked hard from an early age. He spent hours af­ter school in his fam­ily’s back­yard fac­tory in in­nercity Syd­ney, mak­ing tin mir­ror backs and dis­tribut­ing them around town. Be­fore long he was work­ing in a fac­tory in An­nan­dale, earn­ing 16 shillings and six­pence for a 44-hour week. He was work­ing out on the side and turned to box­ing, with his first fight at the age of 15. In the ring he took on the name Bobby Moody af­ter a suc­cess­ful fighter abroad. The fights were of­ten fixed, which meant more money, since the fighter could earn ex­tra cash by bet­ting on the win­ner. He also trav­elled with Jimmy Shar­man’s box­ing troupe around the state. But his box­ing ca­reer came to an end af­ter 37 fights, and Dick­er­son is far from nos­tal­gic when he thinks of those days in the ring, or the sport in gen­eral.

“I don’t rate it at all,’’ he says. “Any­body who goes to see and watch some poor bas­tard get knocked about, no, I don’t like that.”

He liked the track, though, and an en­dur­ing pas­sion for horserac­ing was set in train. Some­times he’d see his fa­ther at the races, though it was far from a bond­ing ex­pe­ri­ence — they trav­elled separately and spoke only once at the track. He ex­plains: “I hap­pened to back a 19-1 win­ner up at Warwick Farm. He knew I’d backed it. And he went broke and bor­rowed money off me. His horse won so he gave me the money back straight away. About the only time he ever spoke to me.”

War broke out and, still a teenager, he joined the RAAF. He found him­self based on the In­done­sian is­land of Moro­tai when World War II ended, read­ing The Moon and Six­pence, the Somerset Maugham novel loosely based on the life of Paul Gau­guin. He drew por­traits of lo­cal chil­dren while wait­ing to re­turn home.

His am­bi­tions re­mained mod­est. “I never thought of be­ing an artist,’’ he says. “I never even thought of it. I just did it be­cause I loved it.”

When he re­turned to Aus­tralia, he con­tin­ued to paint in his spare time. He had no for­mal art train­ing and no spe­cific ideas about style. “I just painted and drew.”

Grad­u­ally he met other artists and started mak­ing art-world con­nec­tions, among them Charles Black­man and John and Sun­day Reed, and at­tract­ing crit­i­cal at­ten­tion. His first one­man show was in Mel­bourne in 1956, and only two people showed up: “One was Arthur Boyd and the other was John Perce­val, who wouldn’t go any­where with­out his dog,’’ he re­calls. “I was very lucky — the dog liked me.”

Then came the show that still ranks as one of the more ran­corous episodes in Aus­tralian art his­tory. “AS An­tipodeans we ac­cept the im­age as rep­re­sent­ing some form of ac­cep­tance of — an in­volve­ment in — life. For the im­age has al­ways been con­cerned with life, whether of the flesh or of the spirit. Art can­not live much longer feed­ing upon the dis­il­lu­sions of the gen­er­a­tion of 1914. To­day dada is as dead as the dodo and it is time we buried this an­tique hobby horse of our fa­thers.”

Led by writer Bernard Smith, the 1959 Mel­bourne ex­hi­bi­tion The An­tipodeans shaped it­self in de­lib­er­ate op­po­si­tion to ab­strac­tion. Of the seven artists tak­ing part — the oth­ers were Arthur and David Boyd, John Brack, Clifton Pugh, Black­man and Perce­val — Dick­er­son was the only one from Syd­ney.

It was a di­vi­sive show, by de­sign, al­though the An­tipodeans never showed again as a group. Look­ing back, Dick­er­son says he agreed to take part only be­cause he thought the ex­hi­bi­tion was go­ing to be shown over­seas. He also dis­tances him­self from the fa­mous An­tipodean Man­i­festo writ­ten by Smith and signed by the artists in­volved.

“I didn’t give a damn about the people paint­ing ab­stracts. Good luck to them. They were all my friends any­way,’’ he says now.

“They switched to ab­stract and said, ‘ Why aren’t you do­ing ab­stracts?’ I said I can’t work out what you can get out of it, there’s noth­ing hap­pen­ing, just a lot of colour, I might as well throw paint at the wall.”

The way Dick­er­son tells it, the fig­u­ra­tive cru­sade against ab­strac­tion went only so far: “When the show was fin­ished, we went back to have a lit­tle drink with the bloke who started the whole thing. Lo and be­hold the wall was cov­ered with ab­stract paint­ings. I thought, ‘This is ridicu­lous.’ I got up and walked out.” SIX­TEEN years ago, keen to es­cape the bus­tle of the city, where a short walk to the TAB was be­gin­ning to take for­ever be­cause of the num­ber of people to chat to along the way, Dick­er­son bought a 90ha property two hours south of Syd­ney. He wasn’t es­pe­cially fa­mil­iar with the area, al­though he used to spend time at the nearby Lake Illawarra dur­ing the De­pres­sion, prawn­ing and fish­ing. The re­lo­ca­tion was a quest for space and quiet, but it was also about rac­ing: the man who trained his horses lived in the area and wanted a track to ex­er­cise them.

He named the property Tur­pen­tine Park, a ref­er­ence to the paint­ing and the trees scat­tered through­out. These days it’s a busy thor­ough­bred stud with about 40 horses, a hand­ful of which are owned by the fam­ily. The artist has an af­fec­tion for horserac­ing but that doesn’t mean he wants to spend much time in the com­pany of the an­i­mals: “I wouldn’t go near a horse. You don’t know what they’re go­ing to do.”

IF DICK­ER­SON FEELS EMO­TIONAL ABOUT A SHOW THAT CO­IN­CIDES WITH HIS 90TH BIRTH­DAY, HE HIDES IT WELL

Dick­er­son lives there with his third wife, Jennifer, a writer, poet, jour­nal­ist and for­mer art val­uer. The pair have been to­gether for more than 40 years, and have lived var­i­ously in Queens­land, where Dick­er­son used to play chess with Ian Fair­weather on Bri­bie Is­land, and Syd­ney. When they moved to Cam­be­warra, they ini­tially lived above the sta­bles while the house and stu­dio were be­ing built, and Dick­er­son reg­u­larly drove across to Bun­danon, Arthur Boyd’s place 30 min­utes away, to work.

“I did a lot of work over the first 10 years,’’ he says. “A heck of a lot. It’s quite good.”

While some of his con­tem­po­raries were quick to travel abroad in the 60s, ea­ger to con­nect with some of the en­ergy of Lon­don or New York, Dick­er­son fo­cused his en­er­gies at home, where he had a grow­ing fam­ily and work com­mit­ments. He was in­cluded in the 1961 Whitechapel show of Aus­tralian art in Lon­don, but his first trip to Europe wasn’t un­til 1972.

Dick­er­son had also been drink­ing heav­ily for some time be­fore he met Jennifer. Soon he found a way to bring the “poi­son” of al­co­hol un­der con­trol. “If I was still drink­ing I’d be dead a long time ago,” he says.

His is a for­mi­da­ble fam­ily: he has nine chil­dren, 20 grand­chil­dren, 14 great-grand­chil­dren and one great-great-grand­child. The fam­ily is closely in­volved in his af­fairs: his youngest child, Sam, man­ages the horse busi­ness and runs the Dick­er­son Gallery in Syd­ney. A step­son, Stephen Nall, ran the Dick­er­son Gallery in Mel­bourne un­til it closed in 2010, and now works as a lawyer and art con­sul­tant. In 1994, Jennifer Dick­er­son pub­lished Robert

Dick­er­son: Against the Tide, a hand­some book that de­tails his life and art. At the back of the book she has printed a se­ries of ques­tions and an­swers in which she asks her hus­band about his meth­ods, the in­flu­ence of oth­ers, art crit­i­cism and so on. She asks him about the people he paints, re­fer­ring to one critic who de­scribed them as wear­ing “an ex­pres­sion of ap­pre­hen­sion of im­pend­ing doom”.

“Ev­ery­one is ap­pre­hen­sive,” he re­sponds. “Look at people in the street, in traf­fic.”

Dick­er­son’s recog­nis­able mark­ings, those an­gu­lar faces and scenes of stark isolation, have been con­sis­tent through the years. Fa­mil­iar­ity, though, can pose its own chal­lenge. In 2010, Vic­to­rian Supreme Court judge Peter Vick­ery or­dered the de­struc­tion of three paint­ings wrongly at­trib­uted to Dick­er­son and Black­man. Vick­ery ruled the paint­ings — two by Black­man and one by Dick­er­son — were “fakes mas­quer- ad­ing as the gen­uine ar­ti­cle”. “What is more,” the judge con­tin­ued, “they were de­lib­er­ately con­trived to de­ceive un­sus­pect­ing mem­bers of the pub­lic in this man­ner. The false sig­na­tures drawn on each of the works could have had no other pur­pose.”

Nall gave ev­i­dence to the court about the fakes and about his step­fa­ther’s work. Black­man suf­fers from Kor­sakoff’s syn­drome, an al­co­holic de­men­tia, and the judge ac­cepted he was un­fit to give ev­i­dence.

Dick­er­son spent a few hours on the stand, an or­deal he de­scribes as “pretty ter­ri­ble”. He re­calls: “You felt like punch­ing the bloke in the face down there.”

Dick­er­son was also in­sulted by the qual­ity of the fake: “Noth­ing like mine. I said it was ridicu­lous. They kept on grind­ing away, try­ing to make me look an id­iot, make a mis­take. But I didn’t make a mis­take.”

Vick­ery’s judg­ment gives a sense of how it all went down in court, when Dick­er­son was giv­ing ev­i­dence and de­scrib­ing the of­fend­ing work as dis­gust­ing. Why did you think it was dis­gust­ing? “Be­cause it’s very bad work, it’s a very commercial lit­tle study.” What about it con­veyed to you that it was a work of that kind? “Well, the neck is out of pro­por­tion.” Just take it slowly in steps, please. “Its neck is out of pro­por­tion, its eyes are wrong, the hair is wrong and the shape gen­er­ally of the face is wrong.”

Later, dur­ing cross-ex­am­i­na­tion, he dis­cusses the “one big al­ter­ation (that) turns what should have been a good draw­ing into a bloody aw­ful one”. What’s the clumsy line? “Ev­ery­thing about it, the draw­ing it­self is clumsy.”

The dodgy works were later burned in the back yard of the Dick­er­son gallery in Syd­ney. Black­man and Dick­er­son have had a frac­tious re­la­tion­ship through the years, but they came to­gether for this oc­ca­sion. Even though, as Dick­er­son tells it, it al­most left the frail Black­man worse for wear: “Char­lie came around and we burnt them all to­gether,’’ he says, “and Char­lie nearly caught on fire.” IN 2010, the Dick­er­son fam­ily do­nated sev­eral works to the Na­tional Gallery of Aus­tralia. The NGA is one of many or­gan­i­sa­tions he has helped out through the years, with do­na­tions to the likes of Opera Aus­tralia, the Aus­tralian Bal­let, Syd­ney Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal Foun­da­tion and the New­cas­tle Hospi­tal. He do­nated 10 paint­ings to the NGA. But why give them to Can­berra and not the Art Gallery of NSW? Af­ter all, Dick­er­son has spent much of his life in the state.

The ques­tion touches a nerve. “The Syd­ney gallery is not very friendly with me,” he says qui­etly. Jennifer Dick­er­son says the NGA was cho­sen be­cause the gallery had al­ways shown an in­ter­est in her hus­band’s work. She is adamant Dick­er­son should have had a ret­ro­spec­tive by now. It’s a sim­i­lar com­plaint to one made by Black­man’s fam­ily in re­cent years, and comes in re­sponse to what she sees as a pref­er­ence by the gallery for Brett White­ley and other higher-pro­file artists.

“I per­son­ally think they should have had a ret­ro­spec­tive by now be­cause he’s a NSW-born pain­ter,’’ she says. “But there’s never been any ap­proach to us, any in­ter­est in what we’ve got.”

In the mean­time, the new show looms in Bris­bane, at the Philip Ba­con Gallery.

There are 33 works in to­tal, with the old­est dat­ing back to 1965, Boy Play­ing in the Street. Most of the show fo­cuses on more re­cent years, from the late 1980s on­wards, and there are three pic­tures from this year: The Mount­ing Yard, a rac­ing scene, nat­u­rally; Seated Geisha and Girl

with Flow­ers. “I haven’t changed very much in the way I paint,” Dick­er­son says. “I’m still paint­ing the same way as when I started.”

There have been plenty of ac­co­lades along the way, of course. Last year, he be­came an of­fi­cer in the gen­eral di­vi­sion of the Or­der of Aus­tralia, in recog­ni­tion of his con­tri­bu­tions in art and phi­lan­thropy. The ci­ta­tion read: “For distin­guished ser­vice to the vis­ual arts as a fig­u­ra­tive pain­ter, and to the com­mu­nity through sup­port for a range of cul­tural, med­i­cal re­search and so­cial wel­fare or­gan­i­sa­tions.”

If Dick­er­son feels at all emo­tional about a show that co­in­cides with his 90th birth­day, then he hides it well. The ex­hi­bi­tion gives him an op­por­tu­nity to see whether these works have stood the test of time, he says, and he’s sat­is­fied that most have done so.

“It gives me a look at things that I’ve done. That’s about all.’’ He pauses, and reaches for a tis­sue. “I can’t think of any­thing else.”

Robert Dick­er­son: Paint­ings and Pas­tels 1965

2014 at Philip Ba­con Gal­leries, Bris­bane, from July 8 to Au­gust 2.

Robert Dick­er­son at home in Cam­be­warra, NSW, top; at work ear­lier in his ca­reer

Boy Play­ing in the Street (1965), above left; Nude on the

River­bank (2005), above; On the Way Home (1998), left

Dick­er­son on the 2400m race­track he walks ev­ery day

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