Fiona Pardington's new exhibition explores Nabokov's lust for butterflies

Artist Fiona Pardington. Photo/ Meek Zuiderwyk.

In her latest series of work, artist Fiona Pardington – recently knighted in France – zooms in on the frail, silky, fairy-like butterflies that the great Vladimir Nabokov once obsessed over.

In 1950s America, fans of literary smash hit Lolita were surprised to discover that immigrant author Vladimir Nabokov was also a lepidopterist. Butterfly-hunting being popular among posh 19th century Russians, Nabokov made his first kill aged six and might have done nothing else, had not the Bolsheviks upset his luxurious lifestyle. “Had there been no revolution in Russia,” he wrote, “I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.”

When his father was imprisoned, young Vladimir sent a butterfly to his cell. When Vladimir emigrated to the United States, he got a job as curator of lepidoptera at no less an institution than Harvard University. Lolita, mostly written during “lepping” expeditions, is aflutter with butterfly metaphors: “frail”, “silky”, “fragile” and “fairy-like”.

Artist Fiona Pardington’s new exhibition, Nabokov’s Blues: The Charmed Circle, features photographs of butterflies personally killed by Nabokov, as well as marginalia including the author’s notes recorded on the fly, upon mountain tops and meadows, while he was “panting in the sun and getting sunburn, in his walk shorts and long socks”; diagrams and doodles; and sketches made as Nabokov peered at his specimens through the “charmed circle” of his microscope – which is also what Pardington, in this project, has come to think of as her camera lens.

Much of Pardington’s photography practice in the last 15 years has been about re-presenting “dead” material for contemporary inspection, from plaster casts of Maori heads to birds, mushrooms and bottles she has used in vivid still-lifes. Her work has elevated these neglected items into objects of strange beauty. Her fascination with Nabokov’s specimens and archival material is, in some ways, a continuation of this approach, but the way these new photographs tip-toe up to abstraction make them also feel like a radical departure. The works are vivid and seductive enough to serve as an artistic echo of the intensity of feeling Nabokov himself experienced when he examined his beloved butterflies, magnified many times over in his lens.

A Nabokov fan since her teens, Pardington started “mooching around in the background” of Nabokov events with world expert Brian Boyd of Auckland University and other top-rung Nabokov scholars, soaking up their infectious enthusiasm for their multilingual, polymathic, synesthetic subject. “They handle the memories and the ideas and the stories like jewels,” Pardington says.

As well as writing an acclaimed Nabokov biography and other texts on the writer, Boyd had edited Nabokov’s Butterflies, an 800-page collection of his lepidopterological writings, and worked with lepidopterists in eight countries who have an interest in Nabokov’s research. He knew Pardington’s work already, and was excited by the idea of her turning her lens to Nabokov. “I knew not only what Fiona could do with wings, but what she could do with museum collections,” Boyd said at Pardington’s exhibition opening, “but I still didn’t realise just how much of a revelation Fiona’s work would be even to me, even though I’ve poured over his manuscripts more than anybody... Fiona’s eye makes Nabokov’s words, the look of his pages, let alone his butterfly catches, breathtakingly new even to someone who thought he knew them.”

 

But it wasn’t until Pardington found young American geologist Mark Smith that she could join Boyd and his fellow Nabokov fans in their obsession. Smith’s business, Macroscopic Solutions, specialises in high-res images for scientific researchers and photographers. The gear he assembled for Pardington fitted into a small backpack, allowing her to photograph macro images of Nabokov’s butterflies on site in Lausanne. (She also took photographs at Cornell University and at the New York Public Library). Smith assisted Pardington in Switzerland: they spent their days painstakingly compiling 400 photos into a single image, and in the evening they would go get a beer. “It was a real joy,” Pardington says. “It was the first time I’ve worked with someone else, apart from myself – [and I’m] really horrible to work with. I spend a lot of time lying around on the floor crying.”

 

It’s not that Nabokov simply liked butterflies. He adored them; lusted after them even, in a way that even now seems a bit edgy. His scientific descriptions are, Pardington says, “very poetic and very libidinous. He’s almost anthropomorphising the butterfly”. In an account of his, ahem, first time with the insect, he writes of wanting to possess it and make it his own. This unconventional interspecies passion was, says Pardington, “unbridled. And for a man who was so controlled, and so in control of language and his characters, it almost undid him.”

It’s also the stuff psychoanalysts dream of, only Nabokov would not have been caught dead near a shrink’s couch. He viewed Freud as an old phoney, and told anyone who would listen about how ridiculous his theories were. Pardington takes this criticism to heart – after all, one of her three dogs is named Freud – and, paradoxically, says she has a feeling that Nabokov might actually have had a natural affinity for psychoanalysis. “He might have thought Freud was a charlatan or a clown, but it’s really hard to deny the psychoanalytical precision of his mind.”

 

Nabokov’s “blues” are mostly specimens from the Polyommatus family, which he posited in 1945 came to the New World from Asia in waves over millions of years, a theory that was completely ignored. Pardington says, “He supported his family working at snooty places that treated him like an overcultured white Russian exile and didn’t take any notice of his brilliant discoveries.” But in 2011, he was posthumously vindicated by scientists, something that fascinated Pardington and triggered her interest in creating this series of works.

Pardington, who this year was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, and last year a Chevalier, a Knight of the French Order of Arts and Letters, hasn’t finished her work with Nabokov. In fact, she’s just been granted access to the collection at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where more of his butterflies reside. Boyd reckons Nabokov, who loved art and science, would have relished their conjunction in Pardington’s work. For her part, Pardington looks forward to discovering more of Nabokov’s writing about his obsession, one that consumed him so much that, in an act of immaculate curation, the great man’s final words were: “A certain butterfly is already on the wing.”

See Nabokov’s Blues: The Charmed Circle, at Starkwhite Gallery, 510 Karangahape Rd, until 22 July