Summer Holidays #3: The Portraits of Gottfried Lindauer (1829-1926)

Heeni Hirini and child, 1878. This was one of Lindauer’s most famous works, and he reproduced it numerous times.

When the classically-trained Bohemian artist Gottfried Lindauer arrived in New Zealand in 1874 it marked the beginning of one of the most significant eras in New Zealand’s artistic history. Lindauer set up shop as a portrait artist in the nascent British colony, producing exquisitely detailed paintings of some of the more prominent colonists, and wedding portraits for middle-class couples. But it wasn’t long before he came to be intrigued by another set of artistic subjects: Maori rangatira (chiefs) and other Maori people of note.

One hundred years later, and the Auckland Art Gallery has put together an exhibition of over two hundred of Lindauer’s portraits, along with eight large (over 2m x 2m) works depicting scenes from life in Maori villages of the time.

Having seen the exhibition advertised on television, and being familiar with the small handful of Lindauer’s paintings displayed in my local museum, I was determined to visit it while I was in the area, and I was not disappointed.

Pre-European Maori sported a particular form of body-art: the tā moko, or tattoo. Women wore it upon their chin and, sometimes, upper lip, and men upon their entire face and, sometimes, upper thighs and buttocks. Unlike modern tattoos, which are applied with an electronically-powered needle, tā moko were chiseled into the skin by a tohunga (priest, shaman) and rubbed with a dark, green-black pigment. A plaster mask, taken from life, of one of the subjects, gives an idea of just how deeply the lines were incised, for the grooves were deep enough to register in the plaster, and the experience must have been excruciating: one of the large canvasses shows a young rangatira receiving his tā moko. He is curled on his side, tense with pain, his fists clenched in agony as one tohunga wields the chisel and another sits nearby chanting the karakia (ritual prayers, incantations) necessary to the tapu (state of sacredness) of the task. Nearby, in contrast, a dog is also curled, but in relaxed slumber, heedless of the human drama around it.

Tohunga Ta Moko at work, 1915

Maori art in all its forms seems to have intrigued Lindauer, for not only is each subject’s moko (each moko was unique to its wearer) captured in detail but so too are the carved bone or greenstone pendants around their necks an in their ears and the woven cloaks about their shoulders. On another large canvas he captured a group of Maori women at work weaving such cloaks, and he seems to have made a conscious effort to cram the scene with as many different Maori art forms as possible: not only the cloaks, but the moko on the women’s chins, the flax skirts about their hips, the carved posts of the house, the woven panels of the walls and the sinuous kowhaiwhai patterns on the beams.

Gottfried Lindauer, Self Portrait (year uncertain)

It is this attention to detail which makes Lindauer’s work so appealing: here, in earthy colour (Lindauer used a restricted palate to create extraordinarily life-like shades) and near-photographic detail (he sometimes projected photographs of his subjects onto the canvas to guide his hand) are the faces of people now long gone but immortalised forever through the work of an immigrant painter from Bohemia.

No Ngatiporou au. I tae mai ki konei tangi ai ki nga tangata nunui o era o nga ra – o te houkuratanga o te tangata. He hanga ahuareka ki te matakitaki te ata whakairo a te tohunga pakeha – ano kua ara katoa mai i te mate. Me whakawhetai tatou ki te tangata nana i pupuru nga ahua o o tatou kaumatua hei taonga mo enei ra e tu mai nei.

I am of the Ngati Porou tribe. I have come here to lament over the great men of other days, the people brought before us coloured as if they were living. Pleasing to the eye is the shadow-carving of the European artist – it is as if they had all arisen from the dead. Thankful are we to the man who has preserved these pictures of our elders, our old chiefs, as a treasure for the years that are to come. (Translation from Cowan)

  • Apirana T. Ngata (later Sir Ngata), prominent New Zealand politician, lawyer, and Maori advocate
    Lindauer Art Gallery Visitors’ Book, 26 June 1901

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