Nerli: An Italian Painter in the South Pacific
Auckland University Press, $79.99,
According to the traditional mythology of New Zealand art, the annus mirabilis of 1890 heralds the arrival of professionalism and modernism in the figures of the Dutchman Petrus van der Velden, the Scot James McLauchlan Nairn and the Italian Girolamo Pieri Nerli. These three diverse artists together represent the belated arrival in the colony of impressionism, carrying a lower-case “i” and at a distinct remove from the French original.
Christchurch-based van der Velden cloaked the southern mountain passes with a turbulent and penumbral gloom, perversely favouring in his paintings the reverse of what would normally be considered “impressionist” weather. Rodney Wilson’s intensive work on van der Velden’s oeuvre culminated in a sumptuous catalogue raisonné, the ultimate format of art-historical connoisseurship. Nairn, who settled in Wellington, is far more plausibly an “impressionist” but has been less well served by the traditional monuments of exhibition and publication. Te Papa, whose storerooms hold a considerable portion of Nairn’s oeuvre, recently missed an opportunity to mark the centenary of his death (and the occasion of his first retrospective) in 1904. Such an event, especially if branded with that magical word “impressionist”, might have exerted considerable public appeal. A proper book on Nairn is a real lack on the bookshelf of New Zealand art history.
The third and most elusive of these artists, the aristocratic Italian who signed his paintings with florid arabesques, has finally received adequate homage in Michael Dunn’s striking book. Unlike Nairn or van der Velden, Nerli secured a foothold in Australian art history as a more or less influential associate of the young Australian impressionists – the so-called Heidelberg School.
Nerli’s status in New Zealand art has a different genealogy, beginning with a particular and rather limiting role as the bohemian teacher who introduced Frances Hodgkins to a looser handling of watercolour. Nerli’s retrospective was organised in 1988 by the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, a 35-work exhibition that toured widely in New Zealand and furnished the most comprehensive publication on Nerli to date. Curator Peter Entwisle’s catalogue includes a listing of 204 works under the title “Towards a Catalogue Raisonné”, but the usefulness of the compilation was restricted both by the frustrating design and by the inclusion of a number of suspect works.
As a footnote in Dunn’s new book explains: “Some of these attributions were made without consulting me, even though the catalogue was based largely on my first-hand research and study of works in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and the United States.” Such inclusions, no matter how valuable they may be as contributions to the histories and typologies of forgery, could only damage the reputation of an artist whose works are universally admitted to be uneven in quality.
Michael Dunn’s book, with its 41 full-page colour plates and many other illustrations in colour, sepia, and black and white, at last exposes Nerli’s body of work in its eccentric complexity. The cover image presents an atypical oil sketch, a beach scene with women and children at leisure said to date from around 1888 when the artist was resident in Melbourne. This is the crucial period for the Heidelberg painters, whose debt to Nerli has been a matter of some debate.
A major problem here stems from Nerli’s disinclination to inscribe dates on his works, meaning that it is difficult to determine whether Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder influenced Nerli’s landscape practice or vice versa. Given that Streeton and Conder were in awe of Nerli, some kind of influence would seem inevitable, but the latest generation of Australian curators and academics have downplayed Nerli’s influence in late 1880s Melbourne or Sydney. The current fashion is to see Nerli’s sunny beaches and rainy street scenes as later, and therefore non-influential. But by never dating his work, and by constantly moving on, Nerli can himself be seen as contributing to his currently shaky reputation.
Dunn’s essay on the paintings emphatically reminds us that Nerli’s art deals with much more than landscape. There are the Bacchanalian orgy paintings (a legacy of academicism), the figure paintings including the variations on lovers in a landscape, and a very wide range of quite wonderful portraits. The fashionable female portrait recurs throughout Nerli’s work, beginning with The Sitting of 1889, a large-scale painting of an elegantly attired young woman posed within his own opulently furnished Melbourne studio.
With its deployment of Japanese and Persian artefacts, Nerli’s studio exudes up-to-the-minute aesthetic fashion and suggests one reason why Conder told his friend and later biographer Rothenstein about his memorable early brush with Nerli. I was disappointed not to see a personal favourite among Nerli’s portraits, the Lady in Green from the Auckland Art Gallery. A life-sized standing portrait is an unusual format in colonial art and, while her outfit might be positively frightful, it is also convincing as a document of nouveau-riche Auckland fashion in 1897.
Nerli’s most remarkable category of portrait is the least formal of all, the depictions of fellow artists. The best is the small portrait of W M Hodgkins, Frances’ father and the first owner of the painting, who looks to be in a slightly seedy condition. Nerli, in common with Nairn and van der Velden, was partial to an alcoholic drink. At Vailima in August 1892, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to a correspondent of his first encounter with “Count Nerli”, adding, “said to be a good painter also a drunkard and a sweep and looks it”. Stevenson eventually warmed to Nerli, writing Scots-dialect doggerel in his honour while the painter documented the sweat on the writer’s sickly complexion. Stevenson was unquestionably Nerli’s most famous sitter, but the painting in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery is scarcely Nerli’s “masterpiece” as claimed by Peter Entwisle. Of equal interest are the many variants of the Stevenson portrait, in oils, watercolours and pastels, produced by Nerli for purchasers who might be led to believe that theirs was the “original”. You could say that Nerli created his own earliest forgeries.
Auckland University Press is the only academic press in New Zealand regularly producing art-historical monographs that combine serious scholarship with genuine pictorial panache. The present format of opening essays followed by a generous sequence of colour plates, each accompanied by a judicious commentary, mirrors the art-museum model of exhibition catalogue to considerable advantage. That a book can be highly readable and immaculate in footnoting its sources is worth noting by publishers who too often allow authors to get away without proper referencing. The square format, employed in Dunn’s earlier books on New Zealand painting and sculpture, is particularly effective for artists whose works employ extremes of both horizontality and verticality.
I’ve enjoyed becoming reacquainted with a slightly disreputable old friend, but on Nerli’s behalf I am worried by the variability of some of the works reproduced in this book. Nerli’s technique involves a dry, patchy handling of paint, deployed with deliberate, controlled brushstrokes – a distinctive handling that links him to the Macchiaioli or “splotchers” of 19th century Italy. It is a way of painting that arrives with him from Italy and continues into the rainy city scenes that are his most original Australian works, and it is still evident in the late works.
Nerli’s output is admittedly uneven, as he works across a range of genres and makes concessions to a colonial market, but his painting style is remarkably consistent. In this context the beach scene reproduced on the cover of Michael Dunn’s book, with its expressive deployment of large areas of fluid paint, looks as if it were by a different hand. If Dunn is right in his suggestion that direct open-air painting energised Nerli’s painting style (and plate 34, the marvellous At Rotorua currently displayed at Te Papa, certainly backs him up), what are we to make of the supposedly contemporary New Zealand beach scene in plate 31?
Its stolidly topographical approach reveals none of the splotchy paint handling of At Rotorua, and, if it is by Nerli, it must be counted as an aberration – either not produced on the spot or else on a tremendously “off” day. Perhaps it is remarkable that both of these beach scenes were acquired by Australian art galleries in 1979 – a time when the Heidelberg painters were becoming increasingly hot property in the art market. Could these paintings in fact be relatively recent forgeries of Nerli’s most popular format of landscape? Or do they instead represent further evidence of the erratic humanity that makes Girolamo Pieri Nerli one of the most enigmatic and endearing of our turn-of-the-century artists?
Roger Blackley teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington.