nude loving painter Jan Nigro dies

She has explored the female gaze like no other New Zealand woman artist before her when it came to depicting the male nude.

Jan Nigro has just died. Betty Aislabie was born at Gisborne in 1920, survived the Napier Earthquake and as a seventeen year old enrolled at the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1937. Her teachers were Auckland’s key art tutors of the period – Archibald Fisher, John Weeks and Lois White. While at Elam she meet her husband contraversial artist of the time Gerry Nigro. Gerry for a brief time was infamous for depicting two naked men in a painting entitled unconscious revelation. After World War Two they moved to Australia where Gerry was a salesman who legend has it sold a vacuum cleaner to a house with no power. Meanwhile Jan painted and exhibited in Sydney and Melbourne, where she was championed by leading exponent of modern art George Bell. “She has the remarkable faculty of being able to seize on the most fleeting moment, the most fugitive expression,” wrote reviewer (later Queensland Art Gallery director) Lawrence Thomas in 1950, “… while retaining the subtle sense of evanescence.” It was here that she encountered contemporary art through the vibrant colour and light of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker. This vibrant colour and light was to became a characteristic of her life’s work.

Returning to New Zealand Gerry made himself financially independent through property development. For a man of the times he was incredibly supportive of his wife’s art career. While they were living in Rotorua with four young children they had a housekeeper. They moved to Waiheke Island where for twenty five years the pair lead a life as bohemian artists at a modest beachfront bach at Onetangi Beach. On the Island she befriended artists much younger than herself such as Mark Hutchins, Jane Zusters, Valeska Campion and Sanjay Theodore as well as participating once a week in a city life drawing group orginally started by Terry Stringer. For seven decades, Nigro has used the nude to explore social mores within a range of different media and styles. This inspiration and her commitment to figuration stayed with Jan for life. Like Austin Deans, Jan worked up until the end and had a great capacity to engage with life. She was exceptional for a woman artist of the 30’s in that she combined marriage and children with art making. I can think of no other New Zealand woman artist of her era that successfully managed this. She had a gift for friendship and was a woman who lived her life as an art adventure delighting in the human body. In the 90’s feminist artists rejected literal depiction of the human body meaning the work of artists such as Jan was off the hip hop and happening curatorial playlists. Lita Barrie’s 1986 Remissions/Toward a Deconstruction of Phallic Univocality left Nigro’s work in a cultural hinterland. She has made many memorable works and is overdue for re assessment .

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  1. 1

    You may like to read my eulogy for Jan Nigro.


  2. Megan McIndoe (nee Ireland) #

    With sympathy to the Nigro family .

    I was saddened to read of Jan’s death but have fondest memories of her and great admiration for her wonderful art.

    I treasure 3 of her early paintings.

  3. Mary Neilson #

    We miss you Jan. The memories are precious.
    Thank you.