Art Talk with Keir Winesmith
Freda Robertshaw’s 'Composition'
Hi, my name is Keir Winesmith, and I'm coming to you from Ngunnawal country, and what is now Canberra, although I grew up in Gadigal and Wangal country. I am the Head of Digital at the National Gallery in a position supported by Tim Fairfax. I'm a let's say middle aged white man with a beard, largely undifferentiated, I look like many other men of my age. I'm here to talk to you today about Freda Robertshaw's work Composition.
I hadn't heard of Freda Robertshaw, I'd never seen a work by her before, in fact, I saw this one. She mostly painted still life in the 1930s and '40s. She did a lot of landscape painting in and around Sydney, Gadigal country, where she and I both were born and both grew up. It was this work, was the first of hers that I encountered when I was in the Know My Name Part Two exhibition and I saw it to be beautifully modern. And in fact, it had elements that I saw really familiar as someone who spent a lot of time with technology. So I've worked with Illustrator and Photoshop and many other photo manipulation softwares. I’ve built video games and played lots of video games, especially avant-garde and strange ones. And the imagery in the work, for me, had a kind of present tense, a kind of a contemporary feel, although it was made in the 1940s at the end of the second World War.
The work itself is a kind of series of parts. And for me, is a modernist piece, very different from her other works, which were very, let's say, neo-classical, or almost conservative in their compositions. The thing that I like about it is that it's a work of its time. It's at a time when the camera was evolving and becoming almost ubiquitous. Only a few years before this was painted, the Polaroid came out with the first instant camera. And so people were looking through lenses in a way that they weren't before. Back to the work though.
What excites me about it is that it's a series of paintings within paintings, almost like a mise-en-scène from cinema or from any of the photo manipulation software that you might use on your phone to pastiche different images together, or to affect them, or play with them. One of the paintings within the painting is this landscape which reminds me actually of Gadigal country west... Sorry of Dharug country, west of Sydney. You can zoom in again and see her mark, which, in a way, is the mark of an illustrator, or a kind of an art designer, which is what she went on to become.
As we jumped around the painting there's other marks. So there's a quill that's sort of been left to its own devices, it's created its own rhythm, or the native flower. Although the flower itself is missing so the native leaves, which to me looks like a banksia. Interestingly, she painted some very vibrant and colourful still lives of flowers, and this is not one of them.
But at the center of the painting, the kind of portal into it, is the bit that I've fallen in love with. It grounds the painting, it grounds the eye. It's rich and it's luscious, but it's also a portal into another world. There's something beyond the canvas, in this case it's clouds, but the canvas itself seems to have a texture like it is mirrored. And it's got these set of occlusions using the sort of Photoshop filters that became, famous and ubiquitous 60 or 70 years after this was painted. So a multiplication of the image, occlusion of the image, action of the image.
And as someone with degrees in computer science and art, I love how computational and mathematical it is. How it mixes the human feeling of looking with the computational breakup of space, and lines, and colours, and textures. It's a painting that reveals itself to be not the thing you're looking at, but a representation, a series of marks of things that you look at. It's got its own internal logic. One that I, myself, can't diagnose or break down, but I'm sure if Freda was here now she could explain it to me. Like all great paintings, it's a mixture of marks and ideas, and it leaves space for you to interpret it and look at it with your eye. And for me, I see math and I see art, my two favourite things. Thanks.
Keir Winesmith, Head of Digital discusses Freda Robertshaw’s Composition (c.1947) on display in Know My Name: Australia Women Artists 1900 to Now.