A young girl enters Elam in 1936 and wins the prize for most
improved figure work; she graduates in 1938. December 1945 her work adorns the cover of “The Arts in New Zealand”. After World War II she settles for a time in Australia and in 1950 she is placed 5th equal with Fred William’s in the inaugural Dunlop Australian Art Prize won by Sidney Nolan. In the same year the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, acquires her work. 1952 Auckland Art Gallery purchases a painting and goes on to add more of her work into the collection in the 1970s, as does the National Gallery (now Te Papa Tongarewa). Nigro is the first woman representative of the Committee of Management of the National Gallery 1970-73. Exhibiting with New Vision, Barry Lett, RKS galleries at the forefront of the dealer world. On the cover of the 1985 winter issue of Art New Zealand with a major survey of her work held at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery. 1993 MBE for services to the Arts. Survey shows one at the Hawke’s Bay exhibition centre honouring an artist who had lived in the Bay during the 1931 earthquake the other A Portrait of Jan Nigro, opened at the Portrait Gallery, Wellington 2001 and toured to the Rotorua Museum of Art and History 2002. Subject of a Mercury Lane Production documentary.
These are not the incidents in an artist’s life, these are just a few from the list of ongoing achievements for a female artist who chose to focus on the figure in a male dominated and landscape centric New Zealand art world, which often looked offshore for impetus.
Throughout her career Jan Nigro has focused on the local, she is aware of trends and art developments overseas, but what interests her most is the human psyche. What was happening in the country and how were New Zealanders thinking about it? Her work is rich with subject matter from events that have galvanized public interest. There are the series on the World Wars; the 1970 murder of Jennifer Beard in South Westland (a young woman who was attacked and not found till days after her death, remaining still an unsolved case.); the Crewe Murders 1970; Whina Cooper’s march to protest against Maori land loss in 1975.
Nigro is recognized for never shying away from sexuality in her
subjects it is part of life and she has observed great changes from the restrictions of her youth to the 60s that reveled in sexual freedom. 1986 The Homosexual Law Reform Act was passed. The 1990s brought with it increased freedoms and acceptance. Yet despite this and centuries of the nude as a subject attitudes to depictions of the figure nude is strangely still a taboo subject. By the removal of clothes does the figure become vulnerable or empowered? Why is a female considered more acceptable as nude than a male? Nigro has said, ‘Naked and nude: there is no difference between the naked and the nude, but the public thinks so. Clothes give people a period in time but when you strip them, the body is quite universal.’
It can be easy to forget the paths that Nigro has forged. When we remember to assess with the time period in mind and the world that she forged her art career in we find an artist who has stayed true to herself. Always looking for challenges, exploring new mediums, re-assessing her subject, observing, mindful of society’s attitudes, faithful to the figure as her constant source of inspiration.
She has rightly been acknowledged as of one of our most prominent female figurative painters. Ron Brownson suggests this is because she has a “huge heart for the truths within other’s lives” and describes her as “one of New Zealand’s bravest and insightful artists."
Her work is her testament; it is rich with humanity, full of life.