48. ROBERT DICKERSON
It would have been unbeknown to Robert Dickerson at the time, but as he completed the present, major late-career work, The Card Players, in 2011, a world-renowned painting carrying the same title was quietly changing hands on the other side of the globe.
Paul Cézanne’s (1839-1906, French) The Card Players c1895, reportedly purchased for upwards of US$250 million by the royal family of Qatar from the Estate of Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos, is one of five paintings in the series considered by critics to be a cornerstone of Cézanne’s art during the early-to-mid 1890s period, as well as a ‘prelude’ to his final years, when he painted some of his most acclaimed work.
More than a century later and half a world away, Dickerson has produced a contemporary adaptation which references Cézanne, yet remains true to his own prodigious body of work and its investigation of the human condition.
Raised in Depression-era Sydney, Dickerson earned a living as a factory worker, trained as a boxer and joined the Royal Australian Air Force as a guard before finding his niche as a painter. His work suggests a strong resonance with the psyche and existence of the working class, and is immediately recognisable for its depictions of isolated characters with angular, brooding faces going about their everyday business – be it work, leisure or solitary contemplation.
The setting for the current painting, a shady, inner-city poker room, is an apt one for Dickerson, just as the working class café in Aix was for Cézanne. Dickerson was a notable owner and breeder of thoroughbred racehorses and the racetrack, with its attendant characters is a recurring subject in his oeuvre. This parallel world of illegal card play is one which the artist would have found extremely familiar as the gambler has universal characteristics which transcend individual settings. Viewed from left to right, Dickerson’s four protagonists are as recognisable as they are anonymous: a slouching novice and his stony-faced female companion contemplate their weak hand; one green jacketed player scans the room nervously (possibly looking for a creditor) whilst the other folds and contemplates his parlous financial state; all the while the figure in red maintains eye contact and his erect posture, confident in his hand, or at least in his ability to ‘bluff’ this meagre opposition.
The sense of tension is heightened by the surrounding audience of onlookers which, tellingly, account for half of the total composition, but are rendered in subtle Dickerson chiaroscuro, so as not to divert the viewer’s attention from the main event. Significantly, there are onlookers present in two of the five versions of Cézanne’s Card Players: these are held by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and The Barnes Foundation museum in Philadelphia. At 122.0 x 152.0 cm, the current painting by Robert Dickerson comes close to emulating the dimensions of the Cézanne in the Barnes Foundation (134.6 x 180.3 cm), which is the largest in the series by some margin.
Robert Dickerson’s The Card Players of 2011 is a unique, investment quality example by a late master of modern Australian art.
1. Dorment, R., ‘Paul Cézanne: The Card Players, Courtauld Gallery, review’, The Telegraph, 25 October 2010, retrieved 18 April 2011