Freda Robertshaw by Sally Quin

Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).

In 1944 Freda Robertshaw submitted Standing nude, a self‑portrait, to the New South Wales Travelling Art Scholarship competition. Having entered the prize three times since 1938, this was her final opportunity to participate due to age restrictions.(1) Standing nude is testament to Robertshaw’s training in the neoclassical style, undertaken with Charles Meere at his Sydney studio between 1938 and 1944. The figure displays strong modelling and there is an overall emphasis on linear design over colour, the range of which is limited and muted. Allusions to a classical past can be seen in the accoutrements of the sandals and drapery of the curtain.

Robertshaw did not take home the 1944 scholarship, which instead went to Anne Wienholt, who worked in a more modern, expressive mode. Following the judging, Robertshaw left Meere’s studio and began to move away from his influence.(2) Perhaps she had begun to understand the limits of subscribing to such strict stylistic precepts.

Standing nude may be considered a product of the practical requirementsof the competition; to enter an example of figure painting.(3) This is supported by Robertshaw’s own words 50 years later: ‘I still regard [the work] as a bit of an exercise … I was just painting a model … it never had a name—it was just a necessary piece of work’.(4) But the composition is clearly not devoid of artifice: Robertshaw does not, for instance, depict herself in the act of painting. And in terms of the presentation of the artist’s physique, some degree of invention is acknowledged: ‘I knew I had a good body and I could make something decent out of it … [the figure] could be a little idealised … I was a bit more ordinary’.(5) Indeed, while recalling classical antecedents, Robertshaw’s figure can be read as an archetype of Australian womanhood— wholesome and athletic, bronzed under the Australian sun.

Interestingly, there is no documentary evidence to suggest that the artist’s depiction of herself naked—with pubic hair visible—caused controversy at the time.(6) This may be due to the somewhat impassive quality of the figure, and emphasis on technical accomplishment. Moreover, there is no threatening sensuality on show: the body’s energy is contained and controlled, most evident in the artist’s neatly coiffured hair, the back of which can be seen in the mirror.

This matter‑of‑fact quality—nakedness without allure—may be the work’s most interesting quality for a contemporary audience. The combination of traditional (even staid) execution, with unusually frank nudity, and the slippage between the bronzed, antipodean vitality and a sense of composed stasis, make this a painting which will continue to provoke interpretation. Robertshaw’s self‑portrait sits in an intriguing position between conservatism and radicalism, raising questions about artistic style and influence, changing modes of reception, and female artistic agency.

(1) Linda Slutzkin, ‘Freda Rhoda Robertshaw’, in Joan Kerr (ed), Heritage: The national women’s art book, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1995, p 439.

(2) As above.

(3) See Kristina Williams, ‘Her self-portrayed: Australian women’s self-portraits between the wars 1918–1939’, PhD thesis, School of Fine Arts, Classics and Archaeology, University of Melbourne, 2001, p 59.

(4) Robertshaw in an interview with Slutzkin, April 1994, quoted in Kerr, p 58.

(5) As above.

(6) FWL Esch makes no suggestion that the portrait’s subject matter was contentious. ‘Revolution in art: comparison of entries’, Pix, vol 14, no 9, 26 August 1944, p 14.

Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Quinn, Sally. "Freda Robertshaw" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 314–315.

SALLY QUIN is Curator, The University of Western Australia Art Collection, Perth.

Freda Robertshaw appears in