Battling Bob Dickerson
IF YOU TRIED TO SELL HIS LIFESTORY AS A FILM SCRIPT, they'd laugh you out of the studio. They just don't make movies like this any more. Take the plot - Depression days kid grows into inner-city punk with attitude. Quits school at 13. Jockey-size, he falls in life-long love with horse- racing and the betting ring. There's money and street-cred in boxing, too, so he becomes Bobby Moody, featherweight prelim boy at the blood'n'guts Sydney Stadium. Most of the fights are rigged, stings to make money from mug punters. Some are not. Hits the country carnival trail with Jim Sharman's boxing troupe as a travelling ring-in, signs up with the wartime RAAF. Dreams of flying but ends up on a three-year guard posting in Indonesia. Watching native Javanese youngsters fight to survive gets to him. He's moved to draw them, raw sketches of big-eyed kids with emaciated dignity. Demobbed, he returns to menial work in Sydney.
But he's caught the artistic bug. Too poor to study art, too driven to ignore it. Draws whenever he can, with whatever he can find - even his finger in the dirt at idle moments at work. Marries a local Sydney girl, moves into a ramshackle house, starts a family. Two jobs, sometimes three at once. Someone gives him house paint and some masonite and he begins painting late at night and at weekends - after he's piled the family's beds and furniture into the kitchen to make room. He paints and paints, using the floor as an easel. Most of the work ends up nailed to that same floor, as reinforcing to stop its collapse.
Eventually, people notice his work - confronting, contorted, emotional little masterpieces of the city's desolated. Word gets around. He starts mixing with the arts crowd. He's a bit raw for some of them, too feisty. And he will insist on wearing singlets and shorts. Soon he's a fixture on the scene, part revered, part scorned.
Fast forward several years: acknowledged as a significant figure, a veteran of art's factional brawls, he's become unpredictable. Tales of drinking, violence, divorce and the whole wine and wild women disaster. Critics dismiss him as yesterday's man, condemned to parody himself. His mana fades. Two more marriages, ten kids all up. Somehow he keeps painting. But the art world isn't really looking any more ...
If it were Hollywood, the moguls would demand the happy ending. A late-life "rediscovery", a man at peace with himself, finding love, acclaim, respect .... In real life, though, we all know it doesn't happen that way. Unless, perhaps, your name's Robert Dickerson.
TUCKED BEHIND HIS SON'S FINE ART GALLERY fronting Woollahra's salubrious Queen St is the HQ of Dickerson Inc. Investment-bought in 1979 before Sydney's real estate price spiral, the terrace is prime-sited amid the area's wealth of galleries, patrons and art aficionados. Prime-sited too as a base for a painter of inner-city street scenes. Except it's no longer the where-the-heart-is kind of home it once was. Four years ago Dickerson underwent an epiphany of sorts; the great urbanist moved to Eumundi and a two-hectare rural retreat, near Noosa. And in discovering and exploring Queensland's expansive cornfield landscape, he uncovered something deeper in himself.
It's inaccurate and unfair to say, as many have, that his work since the sixties has been moribund - his Sydney dealer, the Holdsworth Gallery's Gisella Scheinberg, says he has been a consistent, steady seller for her over the past 20 years in the $10,000-$20,000 range - but visually, he did often seem to be marking time. With the move to Eumundi, his palette became tropical. It was as if he had found his mind's eye image in the landscape there. The result was liberating. Still the eternal aloneness of people, but now powerful, colourful images and personalities with real shades of character. They excited his loyalist supporters, challenged the assumptions of the scoffers. Battling Bob was back, with a vengeance.
Now Dickerson and his third wife Jenny – they’ve been together more than 30 years - are mid-voyage. They've had to sell up at Noosa because rezoning meant, he says, "it's all become one-acre lots up there. I planted hundreds of trees, let the grass grow really high. Birds bred in it, kangaroos lived there. It was a real nature haven. Now they make you cut the grass and everything's disappeared. Bugger that - if I have to live in a town, I may as well be in Sydney or Perth." Perth it's to be, as base for a six-month painting expedition to the west. In the meantime, he's in Sydney putting the final touches to an exhibition of the new Dicko.
Whereas the front store gallery is aesthetically churchy, the sanctum behind is tidily anarchic. Paintings everywhere, some hanging elegantly, others adrift like flotsam. In the kitchen cum temporary office, papers, books, utensils and memorabilia tumble for prominence. We sit drinking a brew of rich coffee around a life-scarred table, surreptiously sizing each other up. Jenny, I've been told, as de facto managing director and PR for the "family firm" is highly protective of Dickerson - a "formidable force when battling for her man" one gallery owner whispered - but apart from ensuring that access is easy and communication established, she leaves us alone.
Whippet-lean, Dickerson is not much more than a bantamweight but very fit. 72 in a fortnight but you'd still back him to go three rounds and be barely puffed at the bell. ("He's as strong as a Mallee bull", one long-time friend tells me - "they'll have to hit him with a stungun too, like they do the bulls, to be finally shot of him.") He swims and jogs every day, works out with weights (has done ever since he subscribed, as a self-styled "skinny runt", to the Charles Atlas school of body-building).
Talking about himself and his work doesn't come as easily as exercise, though. It's not as if he minds a good yarn or is unused to journalists - hell, he used to hang out with some of more legendary at the old Kings Head Hotel; a pretty tough school it was too, he says, with Ron Saw, Alan Barnes, Pat Burgess, Cecil McKenzie and the like. Even cranky Frank, Kerry and Clive Packer at times - it's just that he thinks life's pretty straightforward: he's a painter, he paints, and his paintings say it all.
He'd rather natter about the races - he's owned greyhounds and horses and now has a handy mare called Belle Voyage, about whom he harbours all the normal owner's fantasies and expectations; we interrupt transmission several times for him to lay the day's bets. Then there’s why boxing should be banned (he started at 15, gave it up three years and nearly 40 bouts later. "It's barbaric," he says now. "I've seen too many end up in asylums or as alcoholic dregs. The secret of being a successful boxer's simple - don't get in to it at all."). But his work? It's the "laconic Aussie" approach. Plain truths from a plain-speaking bloke in singlet and industrial-strength shorts, longish white hair haloing Einstein-style, features time-etched above a Roger Ramjet chin, a wide-gapped "dentist's delight" smile, unblinkingly assessive eyes that shy from extended contact but miss nothing.
The reasons we're talking are many, but prime among them is his upcoming exhibition. It's of paintings and drawings executed during his recent sojourn in Paris at the NSW government-sponsored studio in the Cite International des Arts. There's a certain irony, I suggest, in such a strongly identified Australocentric artist being anchored amid the European mainstream. "Stimulus," he responds. "You shove yourself in a different environment and it sharpens all your instincts up - you look at things more deeply, take nothing for granted. In Paris, we were opposite the Seine and close to Notre Dame. Being able every day to go and look at Matisse or other really good painters made you realise what a second-rate hacker you are ... it made you get stuck in, like being thrown from grade cricket into tests." It's an interesting allusion - if Dickerson was unanimously an Australian test player in the 50s, his form after that, depending on who the selectors were, would have seen him as handy State Sheffield Shield material or banished to the local pub team. Now that he's putting runs on the board, is he back in Test contention?
ONE WAY AND ANOTHER, Dickerson has been around in Australian art for the best part of 50 years, and his painting acquaintances stretch back even further, to some who were working before the century's turn. With that in mind, you'd think that at the wisdom-of-age end of his career, and given his apparent renaissance of creativity, that he'd be getting his share of lionising. Well there lies the rub. More specifically, there lies the way he's rubbed against the Establishment. His CV never featured diplomacy. Nor compromise. And he's never forgotten his wrong-side-of-the-tracks origins, nor let anyone else. In his early career, his determination was read as aggro; it jarred Sydney's artistic politesse as much as his focus on the outsider and the alienated challenged ruling aesthetics. And it didn't help that he wasn't hesitant about letting people know what he thought of the work around. He made enemies. And when he gave them ammunition as his personal life disintegrated in the 1960s, they took revenge. Some masterpieces in the 50s, the Sydney cognoscenti declared, but that was it. Thanks for trying, and good-bye.
It was not a universal opinion by any means, even in Sydney, but it was held by enough influential arbiters to become perceived wisdom. And to induce a critical schizophrenia. In Melbourne and Brisbane, his reputation remained solid; in Sydney, he was footnote material. Artistically, Melbourne always seemed more his kind of town: his aesthetic roots and alliances were predominantly there, he'd been courted by the Heide group under John Reed's patronage, been cultivated by art historian Bernard Smith to join the (in)famous Melbourne Antipodeans exhibition in 1959. He was the only Sydneysider in the show, and a contentious choice in both cities.
That exhibition, and the accompanying Manifesto signed by the exhibiting artists, was intended as a rallying call to fellow figurative true-believers against the infidel abstractionists. Short-lived and overhyped, it assumed mythical significance in Australian art history. Today the manifesto seems a pompous even faintly absurd document, but then it was a cause considerably celebre, especially given the status of the signatories: the Boyds Arthur and David, Clifton Pugh, Smith, John Brack, Charles Blackman, John Perceval, Dickerson. And if it's difficult now to appreciate the passion of the times, in Bernard Smith's words, "All hell broke loose around the opening." Arguments raged, friendships shattered. Thirty-five years later they're still bickering about it. Dickerson was the first casualty, says Smith, "got at by [painter] Len French" who had not been invited into the showing: "Bob rang me early one morning - I'll always remember because it was pouring with rain, very grim and atmospheric - and told me he wanted to withdraw. I think the backlash was too big for him to take on at the time. The problem was, I had organised the group with a view to the international market but it had an intellectual base and that antagonised local friendships."
French denies he "nobbled" Dickerson. "Bob knew I was bitterly opposed to it, and when he asked, I told him my opinion. I also told him his involvement would probably assist his career. But he decided to quit on his own. If you know Bob, you'd know no one can tell him what to do." Painter Francis Hodgkinson remembers Dickerson telling him that he had belonged totally to the Antipodeans until "Bernard Smith invited them all home for drinks. When Bob saw his walls were covered with abstract paintings, he became disillusioned and quit." For Dickerson today, the whys and whens of that affair are of small interest. It seemed like a good idea at the time, he says, but he decided it wasn't for him and he got out.
He's more forthcoming on his feuding involvement with another art legend, Rudy Komon, the entrepreneurial Czech credited in some circles with revolutionising Australia’s appreciation of art, wines and food. Komon, Dickerson says, "was a main chancer who'd tee up with whoever happened to be in power." Komon recruited him soon after the Antipodean show. Whether or not he induced interest in the work or merely rode an already-formed wave, the alliance propelled Dickerson into a bigger league of market awareness. "To his credit," Dickerson concedes, "Komon was very successful. He'd throw parties for everyone of notoriety and feed us food and wine we'd never seen before. He was also highly skilled at persuading buyers a painting was a masterpiece. But he and I hated each other - it was a personality thing. I spent a lot of time with him for a while, travelled around the country with him in his old Morris. But I got sick of the way he'd do business. In my opinion, he was making money out of people by abusing their goodwill."
Dickerson says he thought he'd found a dealer who would encourage him to paint; instead, Komon wanted his painters to be "performing baboons. He'd take me and Jon Molvig out to Harold Holt's place when he was PM, say, or to some rich party, and we'd be in shorts and T-shirt and be expected to drink up and Be Artists. In a way they were good times, but so dishonest." Their two-year association was intense and ultimately acrimonious: they fell out over money Dickerson believes the dealer owed him. His Komonophobia, it must be said, is largely his alone - others speak more of a tough dealer who made hard currency for his painters and added an edge of excitement to the art world.
Len French, introduced to Komon by Dickerson, had a 30-year association with the dealer. "All dealers are tough," he says, "but when they make money, you make money. Certainly Rudy always wanted you around, he was gregarious and ran distinct salons, but he was canny enough to leave you alone as an artist. He was a civilising, sophisticating influence on all of us. And he had a very good ear for art - he'd take us out for dinner, buy the wine then sit back and listen. It was a free form guide for him on who to seek out. He once said to me: 'All I want is a stable of stayers, not sprinters.' He really loved Bob's work, and definitely saw him as a stayer."
Whatever the reasons, the split segued into Dickerson's "troubled times". In her 1994 monograph on her husband, Against the Tide, Jenny Dickerson alleges that Komon gave the painter a taste for strong liquor. "Under Rudy's patronage," she writes, "Bob soon became the artistic enfant terrible of the social set. He spent an evening with Patrick White, drove a car over [his] prize rose garden when he left ... [he] would wake friends up at 3am after carousing for hours and expect them to drink with him until the sun came up."
The inference scandalises many who knew both men. Through Komon, they say, Dickerson certainly began to socialise with tycoons, barristers, politicians and writers but he'd already demonstrated enthusiasm for drink and a good time. He'd always worked hard; now he learnt to play harder. The upshot was operatically inevitable. His 11-year, three-child marriage to his first wife, Innis, disintegrated and he became the colloquial man about town for a while before entering a tempestuous second relationship with Anna. It was about this time, say the critics, that he also entered his "creative hiatus". "He began to churn out doe-eyed waifs by the dozen," says one, "because he desperately needed money to cover his alimony costs, to pay for his children and wives".
Dickerson doesn't disagree that he was desperate to make money, but he resents the suggestion he took shortcuts with the work. Nevertheless, by 1963 John Douglas Pringle was noting in his book Australian Painting Today a "pause, a lack of development and ... a disturbing suggestion of blurring and softness" in Dickerson's work. Patricia Rolfe was more blunt in The Bulletin. "No art party was complete," she wrote, "without Dickerson exchanging blows or ideas."
"People tended to make things more dramatic than they were," Dickerson says today. "Sometimes a bit of push and shove when you were arguing at a party might get carried on a bit, but most of the time I'd only be mucking around."
EVERYONE IN THE ART WORLD HAS AN AXE TO GRIND - and sink it into a passing back. There's a cutting edge to most comments, and if you don't understand the history and political alliances, or are unaware of the weave of sional animosities and affiliations, you tread there at your peril. Intrepid but trepidatious, I hit the circuit. I wanted considered appraisals of Dickerson's work, then and now. Where better to find that than at the bigger hometown institutions? The sound of experts ducking for cover became a drum roll. "I have nothing I'd like - or dare - to say," one told me. I racked up two "No"s and a "I'd prefer not to be involved" before I scored my first assessment. “The work touches on a luminosity of colour and strength of design,” I was told, but “on the whole it's not taken seriously by museums and galleries; any moment of revision is still coming”.
"It's the classic Tale of Two Cities revisited," Sydney-born and now Melbourne-based artist Jeff Makin explains. (Unlike the administrators, most artists were happy to comment.) "It's not just about Dicko, it's about different cultural approaches." When the 1960s "Coca-colonisation" of Australian culture was taking place, Makin says, anything that did not have an American accent was considered worthless. Particularly in Sydney, where the cost to artists who disagreed was virtual ostracisation. "Dicko was quite a force on the scene then. He was a regionalist and a figurative painter, and he was fighting for his beliefs.” That, says Makin, “inevitably spilled into physical outbursts. It was the direct result of frustration created by curators becoming the creatures of whatever was the fashion in New York. And today's new breed of curators there seem to hold similar opinions, possibly because they're the pupils of that 1960s curatorial mafia."
On the other hand, he notes, Melbourne has always had a strong tradition of looking towards the regional, resisting the international. That might explain why Dickerson is held in high repute there: "He always has been. And he now seems on the cusp of even greater reputation. Serious buyers in the city are making very serious overtures about his work." Makin first met Dickerson in the late 60s when he was an art student and the painter "frequented the saloon bar of a pub my father owned in Kings Cross. He'd sit quietly in a corner in a black T-shirt and emanate an almost menacing air. He was quite intimidating - in those days, the measure of an artist was directly commensurate with the amount of alcohol you could knock back and the sheer toughness of your charisma.”
One characteristic of Australian art's major figures is that most have had to fight very hard for recognition and to make a living. In Dickerson's case, if the sixties was his time of trial, longevity has helped his cause. “He's now one of the grand old men of art,” says Makin, “a genuine home-grown great of Australian regionalism. Any Sydney flak that remains is largely based on envy - his success since the 70s irritates the avant garde, as does his long career. What the scoffers don't realise because they haven't looked for 30 years is that what may have been true is no longer. Dicko today is having an equally wonderful late flowering to Lloyd Rees's."
Bernard Smith is not so convinced. "He is still the least well-known of the Antipodeans. That's partly because of geography - he was isolated within the Sydney scene." That he kept on with his own style is to be admired, Smith faint-praises. "He uses a rather limited formal vocabulary well, and suggests a sense of loneliness and alienation as well as anybody did, with less sentimentality than Blackman. His best works are quite powerful; the rest are period pieces which time has invested with extra meaning. But the Sydney establishment has never taken up his work - he deserves a major retrospective there so Sydneysiders can actually see just what he has done."
Fellow former Surry Hills boy and racehorse owner, artist Sam Fullbrook, is less constrained: "There's no such thing as great artists," he booms down the phone from his Victorian horse-breeding haunt, "only great paintings. And Bob's painted several Australian masterpieces, do you hear? In whatever he does, there's a soft, gentle perspective that captures the essence of Australia. AND he's been a loyal Australian, not one of those expatriate spivs who went overseas and lived off the Australian public for their whole career before coming home to die - he's painted Australia for Australians and deserves to be recognised as an elder statesman of Australian art. You can quote me on that. And you can quote me on this: the best thing about Bob is that he went to Bourke Street School in Surry Hills. Anyone east of there was a no-good bum."
EVERYONE IN THE ART WORLD HAS A DICKERSON STORY I was told. Some have even made a minor career from dining out on Battling Bob stories. Try to track down details, though, and you find mostly hearsay or amnesia. Frank Hodgkinson, however, met Dickerson about the time he was retiring from the ring. "In those early days, he was always ready to go - it's fair to say he had a chip on his shoulder. Once he'd had a drink this became more obvious, but he didn't need to be drunk to lash out." Hodgkinson remembers a society wedding broken up by Dickerson brawling with his second wife, Anna; pub discussions erupting into donnybrooks; critics fleeing the painter's wrath. "He's always been a stirrer - the trick is not to let him get under your skin. Some people just couldn't resist his bait."
More typical of the Dickerson approach, he says, was the floating exhibition incident aboard an ocean liner. "It was in the mid-fifties and very proper. The artists had been asked to dress up for the reception, and they did. Just as the high society hostess was commenting with tremendous self-satisfaction on the well-presented artists there, in strolled Dicko in running shorts and singlet. He'd been out for a run, he said, and suddenly remembered the do was on. That may be, but his intention was really to make a comment on art with a capital A and all its pretensions. That's what he was like."
Painter-critic Elwyn Lynn, another who has known Dickerson from the early 50s, is equivocal about the warrior reputation. Much of it he puts down to "legendising". "There's no doubt Bob waved his fists around a lot - huge fists they are too, twice as big as you'd expect for his size - but a lot of tales grew in the telling. One time he and I almost came to blows but didn't. Still, the story around Sydney was that he had picked me up and thrown me in the bath. Never happened, but it became lore. That's the way those things grew. Bob himself is a genuine man who doesn't make things up for the sake of it."
A lot of people gave Dicko away during his years of trial, says Len French, although few painters ever gave him away as an artist. "It paid to be cautious around him, though. When he was drinking, a curious brutality would come out. For a few years no one could handle him, he was a wild bull out of control. He was uncompromising and he scared people because he was not the accepted idea of an artist. I'll never forget him telling me, at the depths of his worst troubles, 'I'd sooner sit and face the wall of an empty room than face a picture.’ ”
French was terrified by that, he says, “not for Dicko but for myself - I just hoped I'd never get to that stage. Alcohol is a real killer for artists - you imagine you're doing good work but it's all really bullshit. The reason to be an artist is to renew, to push on. And when that renewal stops, the art gets lost; that's what happened with Bob." Nowadays, he says, Dickerson seems very settled. "And his newer works look to be getting back to the simplicity of the earlier years. In art, you know, you're not doing so badly when you're hated - it usually means you're doing something right. You only need to worry when they all love you.”
Critics, curators and art auction houses can destroy artists for a time, he extrapolates, but ultimately they don't influence buyers. “And they come and go - the secret is to outlast them. Only the good work emerges in the end; the crap is swept away. If you lined up Dicko's top 30 pictures in a large room, they'd look fabulous - very few Australian artists would have as many works of such first-rate standard. I wouldn't. He's undoubtedly one of Australia’s significant figures and I'd love to see him get the praise he's due." It's probably about to happen, he thinks, given "that recent sale at Southerby's [a Dickerson painting sold for just under $70,000]. Dealers and buyers will be sniffing around now, hoping to pick up a bargain."
BACK IN WOOLLAHRA, I ask Dickerson whether he feels he is becoming more accepted in the art hierarchy. As a question, it's a bit of a Dorothy Dixer and he swats it aside with the contempt it deserves. "It doesn't interest me at all - I can't be bothered with the bullshit. All I know is that people buy my paintings. Does that mean I'm accepted? I don't know. They can say what they like, it doesn't touch me."
It's no less than I would expect. The difficulty when dealing with such a complex character as he undoubtedly is, even if he wraps that complexity in casual clothes, is that you tend to focus on the crisis points. And because they carry so much historic baggage, they invoke expected responses. More equitable, and more relevant, characteristics become obscured. Dickerson, for instance, is more intellectually aware of what he is doing than he or others would allow: they talk of his intuitive qualities as an artist, his immediacy of vision, and make no allowance for the honing of eye, mind and experience that has shaped that intuition. He may be prickly - the record certainly indicates that - but he's also affable, astute, self-deprecatory, somewhat exasperated at the past, engagingly enthusiastic about the present.
Everything he has gone through has only tempered his resolve, yet perhaps the biggest benefit to him from his marriage to Jenny has been the restoration of his confidence. "I'm lucky," he tells me. "Lucky to be still going, lucky to be doing something I enjoy. But you'd have to be off your head if you thought painting was an easy way to make a living. It's always been hard, and I can't say it's ever turned around to any great extent for me - I still have to work all the time.
"You just have to learn not to worry about what critics and the rest say. If people don't like the paintings, if they don't buy them at exhibition, you take 'em down and paint something else. It's like betting on the horses - hit or miss, you just have to keep going. Keeping swinging, and hope you land a lucky punch now and then." He laughs at the image. So it's all just a gamble, an extended boxing match? Not at all - "You do it for the real pleasure you get occasionally when you do something really good. It's rare, but when it happens, it makes you feel good for a very long time. You also have to be honest with yourself, and realise that you're a pretty mediocre old hack who needs to keep getting better. Once you start to think you're any good, you've had it. You must continually measure yourself against good painters, not just the local level." Most of the time, he says, you don't know when you've succeeded. "It's only when you see it years later and you think, that wasn't a bad effort."
Just before I go, he leans forward, unexpectedly serious. "I don't think it's a bad thing that people have to struggle to survive, you know; I do think it's a great thing to paint somebody standing up to adversity." The triumph of the spirit is what he's seeking, the resilience of the person who'll survive. "I'm not interested in quitters and I'm not a sentimental painter - I have no feeling of sentimentality in my make-up - but I do have respect. Respect for those who stand up for themselves, who are outspoken, who fight to survive in the best possible way they can under the conditions provided for them."
He could be talking about Bob Dickerson. Because what becomes clear to me as I drive away is that whatever the bruises - real and imagined - that others have experienced through knowing him, they are nothing compared to those he has given himself. Psychologists might talk about insecurity, self-doubts, a feeling of inferiority and the need to constantly assert one's ego against them; they might even talk about the effect of an unloving "absent" father on the boy he was. It doesn't matter. Battling Bob Dickerson's public war with the curatorial and critical mafia may never be over, but the important war, the one within, seems at last within reach of a truce. The legacy could be an overdue revision of our art history.
This article appeared first in The Weekend Australian Magazine. Copyright (c) Murray Waldren
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