Wild flowers, hand-picked, adorning the bodies of the cloistered lovers are a gentle thread in DH Lawrence’s once scandalous story of Lady Chatterley’s affair with the gamekeeper.
“In using flowers, it is hard not to be sentimental,” says artist Jan Nigro. “They’re a good way to soften the story and there is quite a lot of tenderness between [the lovers]. I read a small piece where she places forget-me-nots on his red pubic hair and I thought, ‘What a gorgeous combination!’ Attitudes towards their love affair have changed – it’s absolutely acceptable today – but I didn’t want to do the sexual part. I just wanted to wriggle inside and take up the flower bit.”
We’re in Nigro’s white, light-filled Takapuna apartment. The slight woman viewing the world through huge tinted spectacles is talking about her forthcoming exhibition based on Lawrence’s novel. Sunlight spills onto a round table covered in pastels and tubes of paint, and across a rug, made to Nigro’s design, showing a female bather naked and languorous. “She’s dreaming of her lover,” explains Nigro.
Innocence and fantasy, sexual licence and societal restraint, the ambiguity of desire, of looking … for seven decades, Nigro has used the nude to explore social mores within a range of different media and styles: the dense colouration of oil on board, the pale tracery of pencilled hair, thin ink-washes depicting skin and water, flattened figures adrift on primary colour fields, collages of images, often the nude broken down, juxtaposed to create a sense of estrangement, a vulnerability both male and female.
“A dressed person tells you a lot about them, about the period they lived in, but when you get to the nude you get to the real person.” At each step of Nigro’s long career – no year counts, she doesn’t want people saying, “How clever that she has lived all these years and still remains an artist” – she has pushed the boundaries of accepted art practice, rebelling against what Auckland Art Gallery curator Ron Brownson once described as “a male-dominated and landscape-centric New Zealand art world”.
Forty years ago, she tells me, she painted a nude, a “very modern-looking nude”, that was bought by Auckland Art Gallery but deemed too shocking for the art-viewing public – it was over two decades before Sunbather was shown. “It was very hurtful and frustrating. That was another reason I wanted to do Lady Chatterley’s Lover – it’s like getting back a little bit.” Another act of painterly revenge: in 1985, her exhibition Apple for the Teacher toured the North Island. The title piece, used on the cover of her 1996 autobiography, shows a schoolgirl hiding behind the lid of her desk, shielded from the suspiciously red stem of the apple.
“It’s that idea of children bringing something to the teacher – mine is a little bomb. When I was in high school, we had two very firm teachers. I was terrified of them.” Elsewhere in her work, the reluctant self-portraitist appears as a peacock, stiff-necked and radiant blue. “When I was about 13, I used to sit on the sea wall in Napier and long to be a peacock. It is a vain, noisy creature. The peacock is always me – sort of raucous but for me not having the courage to speak out.” Nigro, who has, through her art, always spoken out, was born Betty Aislabie in 1920 in a house in Gisborne that struck her later as a “Tennessee Williams depression cottage”.
She showed an abiding interest in drawing and the human form, and persuaded her mother to let her study art through Correspondence School before enrolling at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts to study under Archibald Fisher, John Weeks and Lois White. It was 1936. Betty was just 17. She studied the composition of Titian and Tintoretto, the draughtsmanship of Augustus John and Stanley Spencer, but her earliest work shows a keen appreciation of colour and line that earned her an award at Elam and a place on the cover of the Arts in New Zealand in 1944.
This was a time, she says, when South Island artists were moving to Auckland, when “New Zealand was beginning to look beyond the idea of landscape from the early days – the Kelliher art prize and all that stuff. There was a strong group of male painters trying [to get] the general public to accept contemporary painting. For some reason, the women had to be far better to be accepted.”
On moving to Australia with her husband, former fellow arts student Gerry Nigro, she 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 colour, light and vibrant vernacular of artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker.
After a brief return to New Zealand, during which she began a series of paintings based on the fairground clown, the Nigro family moved back to Australia, this time to the Gold Coast, where she focused on rural women and aboriginal “love girls”. “The only way they could get any attention was sexually – they were lucky if they had a husband who treated them well but many were treated badly. Also women like Russell Drysdale’s The Drover’s Wife – paintings like that made a big impression because they were women right out in the wilderness, in the heat of Australia.” Here, Nigro also began her Pioneer mixed-media works, incorporating found artefacts as figurative symbols of the first European settlers, a series she continued on her return to New Zealand.
“We lived in Northcote, on the shore, and the westerlies used to blow in from the sea and there would be old bedheads, all kinds of peculiar objects that, with a bit of imagination, you could imagine as people. The pioneers became their instruments – that was all that was left of them, really.” The series was popular. As with her earlier clown works, people wanted more. But general popularity was not an easy fit. “I hate my clowns now. They were too popular – for a long time.”
Based for 25 years on Waiheke Island, an active contributor to the emerging women’s movement, Nigro returned, repeatedly, to the human figure. She is not a portrait painter – “a portrait is just showing one person, it doesn’t show them fitting into society”. And she avoids landscape: “A landscape is so large. I can’t see it being reduced on a small piece of paper. That’s why I sneak collage into my paintings.”
So she returns to the topography of the nude, carving out a place for the genre within New Zealand painting, asserting the relevance of the human form in exploring the world we live in. Men watching women, men watching men, the human form – be it a patient, a victim (including murder victim Jennifer Beard) or model – held in the critical gaze of the analyst, the predator, the artist. And bathers, always the naked or semi-naked bathers, steeped in the sensuousness of sun and water, colour and light. It has been, she says, a battle to have the nude accepted in New Zealand, a battle that has kept her determined “to get them out of the bedroom and into the lounge”.
Has that battle been won? “In Australia, there’s more acceptance of the nude, and they are assessing the figure in American art. But like Tracey Emin [does], you have to do something with the figure. It’s starting to be won here – I would say the nude is coming back.”
LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, Jan Nigro, Jane Sanders ART Agent, Auckland, October 19-November 19.