Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Spirits reaching across time

Fine Arts

Gottfried Lindauer, "Eruera Maihi Patuone" (1874), oil on canvas. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Gift of Mr. H.E. Partridge, 1915. Photo: FAM/SF
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It may come as a surprise – or perhaps it won't – that the most esteemed historical portrait painter of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand, was a late-19th, early-20th century Vienna-trained Czech named Gottfried Lindauer, who migrated from his native Bohemia to the other side of the world in 1874. Though why he relocated remains something of a mystery, he arrived on New Zealand's shores to find a scant number of professional artists operating in the country. Once there, he cornered the market, developing a thriving practice and becoming the preeminent portraitist of high-ranking male and female Maori.

Between 1874 and 1903, a period of socio-political upheaval, aggressive colonial settlement and cross-cultural exchanges between settlers and native residents that weren't all sweetness and light – some renowned chiefs led battles for land and mineral resources appropriated by the British – Lindauer worked from mostly posthumous black & white studio photographs that he sometimes embellished with props. Live sitters had the option to choose their own adornments. In an age that predated the advent of color photography, the forceful realism and intense detail of Lindauer's paintings, depicting several generations of venerated Maori leaders, chiefs, peacemakers, warriors, elders and businessmen, both living and deceased, astonished the populace then, and can still pack a punch today. To say that the 31 lifelike representations of formidable personages now on display at the de Young Museum have presence is a gross understatement. They seem to reach out from the past, conveying their spirit and complex personalities across the centuries. The works are hung in simple golden frames side-by-side on the perimeter of a deep blue-green gallery, in the manner of family forebears presiding from on-high on the walls of a great ancestral mansion.

The portraits not only preserve the subjects for posterity, they also document a time, place and culture that feel very far away from our own. Some subjects wore customary Maori clothing for sittings during a period when many regularly dressed in European attire. Tattoos denoted tribal identity and status. Full-face tattoos were chiefly symbols for men, such as the elaborate one belonging to the fearsome, white-haired, bare-chested conqueror Taraia Ngakuti Te Tumuhuia (1874), who wields a tomahawk and practiced cannibalistic rituals on his vanquished enemies. Warlike and the last of the so-called conquestor chiefs, he fought to maintain control of his lands until his death. Fully-tattooed lips, which sound more painful to acquire, signified women of stature such as Pare Watene. The dark-haired beauty, wearing a traditional decorative pendant and holding a green, spatula-shaped club, looks robust in an 1878 photograph-based portrait, though she died at the age of 41.

Gottfried Lindauer, “Pare Watene” (1878), oil on canvas. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Gift of Mr. H.E. Partridge, 1915.

The subjects' fascinating personal stories and the cultural and leadership roles they played are posted alongside their images, and it's the historical aspect of the show that is its most compelling attribute. There are quite a few powerful women among this august assembly, and the exhibition leads off with one of them, Kuiniora, Daughter of Rangi Kopinga-Te Rangi Pikinga, an influential chief, who advocated peace and land rights for her people. Looking aged and melancholy in this rendering, she has a customary cloak draped around her shoulders and a prominent pair of carved greenstone pendants, signaling her rank, hanging from her neck. But Lindauer's most famous works are his multiple portraits of Heeni Hirini, a woman carrying her infant son on her back. He returned to the subject many times, producing some 30 versions over the course of 24 years.

Gottfried Lindauer, “Tamati Pirimona Marino” (undated), oil on canvas. Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Gift of Mr. H.E. Partridge, 1915.

Cutting a dashing figure in profile, decked out in finery and feather ear ornament befitting a warrior, the undeniably handsome chief Kamariera Te Hau Takiri Wharepapa, captured in Lindauer's 1895 portrait, participated in an actual event that occurred in 1863. He was one of 14 Maori who endured an arduous 100-day sea voyage, below deck in the ship's cargo bay, to England, where they were presented in full regalia to the Prince and Princess of Wales, and met Queen Victoria. Some members of the party, unhappy with their treatment, did not fare well. One perished in England, and two died on their way home. But Kamariera survived, took a British housemaid for a wife, returned to New Zealand, and lived to tell the tale.


Through April 1.


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