Jennifer Dickson, OC, visual artist (born 17 September 1936 in Piet Retief, South Africa). In 1965, Dickson was elected to the Royal Society of Painters, Etchers and Engravers (now the Royal Sciety of Painter-Printmakers) and subsequently became the only Canadian in history to be named a Royal Academician by the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England, in 1976. She is one of Canada’s most celebrated artists, receiving an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Alberta in 1988, the Order of Canada in 1995 and the Victor Tolgesy Arts Award in 2001. Her work can be found in the collections of the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, the Musée des beaux-arts Montréal, the Royal Academy of Arts, UK, and the British Museum.
Early Life and Education
Jennifer Dickson was born in the small rural town of Piet Retief in Mpumalanga province, South Africa. As a child, she was driven to creative pursuits, especially painting. Struck with polio at age two, Dickson was home-schooled until the age of eight.
Largely housebound and immobile, she spent her early years occupied with art before receiving formal training at the local parish. Under Sister Magdelene, Dickson was introduced to traditional 18th-century watercolour techniques. Though her work did not remain wedded to classical approaches, watercolour continued to be an important element in her work: in the many photo-etchings Dickson produced throughout her career, a vibrant spectrum of watercolour pigments were used to enliven otherwise black-and-white monochromes — a pioneering technique that would earn the artist an international reputation.
Dickson went on to pursue a diploma in painting and printmaking at Goldsmiths College School of Art at the University of London, England, from 1954 to 1959. In 1960, she was awarded a scholarship by the French government to study under the famed printmaker Stanley William Hayter at the prestigious Atelier Dix-sept in Paris, an apprenticeship she held until 1965.
In 1963, while still training at the Atelier, Dickson was awarded the Prix des Jeunes Artistes pour Gravure by the Paris Biennale for an early photo-etching entitled Genesis. The work was subsequently exhibited as part of a suite of etchings in the Prizewinners Salon of 1965. The symbolic language and aesthetic of this early series — semi-abstract objects evoking Christian mythology, set on a terracotta and burnt umber ground — act as a precursor to one of the most important themes of her later work, namely, the symbolic role of gender and sexuality and its contested place on the historical landscape.
During her years studying under Hayter, Dickson learned to temper her intuitive approach, later wholly abandoning it for his more rigorously analytic method; here emotionality and whim were replaced by calculated risk-taking and artistic brevity.
In the mid-1960s, following her mentorship with Hayter, Dickson moved to Brighton, England, to begin a teaching post at Brighton College of Art (now Brighton University). Quickly becoming aware of the lack of offerings in print and photography, Dickson established the graduate printmaking program at the college, which she went on to direct for a number of years. A highly regarded mentor, Dickson was instrumental in integrating photography into the program.
During her time at Brighton, Dickson was slowly gaining an international reputation for her innovative work in print media. Her first solo exhibition at the New Vision Centre in London in 1962 was met with rave reviews and was followed by a spate of solo as well as group shows in the UK and abroad.
In 1968, Dickson left England for Jamaica with her husband and son to take her post as a Visiting Fellow in Fine and Applied Arts at the University of the West Indies. One year later, the family immigrated to Montréal where Dickson became the director of the Graphics program at the Saidye Bronfman Centre and later taught Drawing at Concordia University. In the same year, Dickson was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England.
Within months of arriving in Montréal, Dickson produced The Song of Songs, an important early series inspired by a verse from the biblical text, which dealt with the symbolism of cultivated gardens and their vivid place in the ancient imagination.
In 1976, in collaboration with the Still Photography Division of the National Film Board, Dickson produced one of her best-known early suites, The Secret Garden, executed using a hybrid photo-etching technique she would later become famous for. Here, photographic images were burned onto metal sheets using the traditional Intaglio method of submerging zinc plates in an acid bath. Largely autobiographical in scope, the work offered a tight bundle of Dickson’s priorities to date: an aesthetic in which form mirrored content and the troubling affair between the great beauty myth and contemporary female gender identity was laid bare.
Increasingly attracted to the processes of photography, Dickson embarked on her second major photographic piece, The Earthly Paradise (1980). A symbolic and allegorical portrayal of two women ushered through life, death and the afterlife, The Earthly Paradise employed a collage-like aesthetic in which female figures appeared languorously meandering below a highly manicured Romanesque garden.
Though in many respects The Earthly Paradise represents a new formal and conceptual direction (one that continues to occupy the artist to this day), it would be the last image in which human beings appeared. From that point onward, Dickson’s photographs would picture not the sentient but the inanimate: statues petrified in rigid poses set within decaying gardens.
Dickson travelled widely in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, emerging with a number of significant suites, most notably, The Last Silence: Pavane for a Dying World from 1993–1997, which addressed the desecration of modern European cultural heritage by capitalistic greed, widespread xenophobia, and war. The work toured 15 venues, including Rome and Mantua, before being acquired by the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography as part of their permanent collection.
In April 2002, the National Archives of Canada established the Jennifer Dickson Fonds. Ongoing until her death, the project is dedicated to the collection and archiving of the artist’s entire oeuvre. In the same year, she received the Victor Tolgesy Arts Award for cultural leadership from the Arts Council of Ottawa.
From September 2005 to January 2006, a solo exhibition, Sanctuary: A Landscape of the Mind, which documented historical gardens and heritage sites in Turkey, was held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, England. The work has since been made part of the permanent collection of the Royal Academy.
A passionate speaker, Dickson remains an active lecturer on the evolution of garden aesthetics, the dangerous consequences of chemical use in print production, and the devastating cultural effects of funding cuts to the arts.
Dickson’s most recent series, Contemplative Moments, was shown at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in 2012.