Born in Gisborne in 1920, Jan Nigro is best known for her figurative paintings, drawings and collages. Her name appears in scholarship and commentary of both Australian and New Zealand art.
There are certain characteristic elements that run through much of Nigro’s work. One of these is her intuitive and uninhibited use of colour – from the rich, subtly varied palette used in the Pioneer paintings, to the bright, often violently contrasting colours of more recent works.
Another characteristic found in many of Nigro’s images is a fragmentation of figures and objects. She often worked in collage, which by its very nature lends itself to a certain disjunction of the various components that comprise to form the finished picture. In her paintings and drawings quite separate images are often isolated and/or juxtaposed, resulting in effective dislocations of scale and spatial relationships. Images often look as though they have been cut out and pasted down – shadowless, sharply outlined, flattened against the background. Figures appear with heads or limbs missing; snippets of landscape are arranged like tourist snapshots on an album page.
Nigro studied at Elam from 1936 – 1938, under the aegis of Archibald Fisher. Fisher’s teaching emphasized the study of the human figure, and though Nigro would later reject his stylistic conservatism, the human figure has remained at the core of her work ever since.
Not long after World War II Nigro and her husband, also an artist, travelled to Australia with their small son. The approach to colour of artists such as Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, and the importance of Australian history, folklore, and folk heroes – the sense of an antipodean vision in Australian painting, undoubtedly had a significant influence on Nigro’s work. Her Australian experience not only meant ‘chucking out Europe’ in terms of style and attitudes to art; it also helped her to see her own country more clearly.
In 1952 the Nigros returned to New Zealand. Jan Nigro exhibited successfully on a regular basis in both public and private galleries until her death in 2012.