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Robert Dickerson, born 1924, is an Australian figurative painter and former member of the Antipodeans* group of artists. Dickerson is one of Australia's most recognised figurative artists and one of a generation of influential artists who include Ray Crooke, Charles Blackman, Laurence Hope, Margaret Olley and Inge King.
Dickerson is a self-taught artist who refused to go to art school. His art has been described as angular and high contrast chiaroscuro* and executed in a range of materials including paint, pastels, charcoals and other graphic media.
The inspiration for his art comes from everyday life and he draws on the themes of loneliness, vulnerability and isolation. Lone characters with long noses and whimsical, often averted eyes feature heavily of his work. He says it is "the same style I've always used," and does not intend to change it.
In November 1955, art patron John Reed published an article in Ern Malley's Journal (Vol 2), which described Dickerson's work as containing "a new sense of beauty, a new truth". But his break as a professional artist came in 1954 when the National Gallery of Victoria purchased his work Man Asleep On The Steps. In 1959 he joined Charles Blackman, Arthur Boyd and John Molvig, to form the Antipodeans – a group of figurative artists making a statement opposing abstractionism* in their day. According to the former deputy director of the National Gallery of Victoria, Frances Lindsay, members of this group continue to be 'productive and innovative after many decades of practice.
Robert Dickerson was born in 1924 and grew up in Sydney during the 1930s Depression era. By the time he was 14, he was working in a factory while he trained as a boxer. He toured for four years with the Jimmy Sharman Boxing Troupe. "Boxing was purely about money. I was earning 16 shillings (A$1.60) working a 44-hour week and could make two to five pounds (A$4 to A$10) if I won a fight. Minutes in the ring seemed like years, but you cope with what you have to and we needed the money – badly."
Dickerson took up drawing at the age of five, mainly aeroplanes and warships. Later the people in streetscapes became his subject matter. He joined the RAAF as a guard and continued to sketch in his spare time. Inspired by Somerset Maugham's novel The Moon and Sixpence, he spent the time painting island children using tent canvas and camouflage paint.
Back in Australia he resumed a life of poverty. By the age of 30, he was married with three small children. He shovelled coal to provide for the family, painting at weekends. Later the family lived in a caravan. He continued to find time to paint and, by the end of the 1950s, his work was being noticed.
He turned professional at 35 when he won 100 pounds ($200) in the 1957 Australian Women's Weekly fridge decorating competition. A small fortune then, the prize allowed him to buy more art materials and extend his techniques. Until then he had used whatever materials were available. He enjoyed art so much that he decided to make a living out of it. Some people liked his art however others didn't. He first met art when he was three at a horse show.
In the mid-1960s Dickerson remarried, had two more children and, despite a drinking problem, continued to paint. The marriage lasted eight years, with three more years fighting for custody of their children. He moved to Brisbane, showing at Johnsone Gallery, travelled, exhibited – at times in London, returned to Sydney and finally settled at Nowra.
Today Dickerson works from his studio in Nowra, New South Wales. He paints full-time, breeds race horses, and lives with his third wife Jennifer, who is also his business manager. His passion for breeding and racing horses was recognised when he was appointed artist-in-residence at Moonee Valley Race Club for the 2001–02 season. He has several children and stepchildren, 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.
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