In the words of gallery director Rhana Davenport, The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand is “the most significant exhibition of Māori portraits to ever be seen.”
Curated by Auckland Art Gallery’s former indigenous curator of Māori art, Ngahiraka Mason, the exhibition is the culmination of over five years of intense preparation and consultation with both Lindauer’s family and the descendants of those ancestors whose portraits were painted by the Czech artist. In July, the gallery put out a call asking people to 'look in their attics' for the hundred or so works thought to be missing. They discovered another 45 paintings.
Mason describes the landmark show as a hokinga mai for these tīpuna.
Emigrating from Vienna in 1874 where he had studied Fine Arts, Gottfried Lindauer felt marginalised as a foreigner in New Zealand but managed to build significant rapport with Māori, forging relationships that lasted a lifetime and resulted in the production of some of the most iconic images of Aotearoa’s indigenous peoples. Mason describes Lindauer as an “underlying hero who understood his privilege” whose paintings speak volumes on the experiences of Māori in the late 19th century, through what they portray and also omit.
Gottfried Lindauer, The Time of Kai, 1907, oil on canvas, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mr H E Partridge, 1915
Lindauer is often critiqued for representing his Māori subjects in idealised form; clothed in ceremonial kakahu and dressed with traditional adornments such as hei tiki or mere. And while this can be seen as accommodating the European fetish for the exotic other, it implies that Lindauer was the only authoritative voice in his creative process. Many Māori of the 19th century were entrepreneurial; they understood photography and commissioned these portraits from the artist themselves. It must also be noted that Lindauer’s artistic expressions were not confined to a classicised rendering of Māori culture; he also depicted Māori in European dress, a much more realistic illustration of what the figures would have looked like at the time. The two portraits of rangatira Renata Tama-ki-Hikurangi Kawepo of Ngāti Te Upokoiri and Ngāti Kahungunu are prime examples of this. Both painted in 1855, one portrait shows the chief arrayed in traditional dress and gripping a mere. The other depicts him more realistically in European clothes and with his disfigured eye (painted over in the previous portrait). In both works the aged rangatira exudes mana and commands reverence. The differences between the two reflect more than anything, Lindauer’s ability to tailor his paintings according to the requests of the commissions he received.
For the exhibition the works are hung according to iwi; Mason says she wanted above all “to reinforce whakapapa” and to emphasise familial ties of each of the tipuna to their uri or descendants. Tracing these connections and having the input of whānau and hapū whose ancestors would be on display was an integral if sometimes tricky process to negotiate. “Everyone’s a uri and you can’t deny anyone’s claim to descendancy,” says Mason. She says the gallery was very proactive in this respect and also ensured those descendants would be among the first to view the exhibition, giving them a chance to mihi to their tipuna before it officially opened.
Gottfried Lindauer, Heeni Hirini and child, 1878, oil on canvas, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of Mr H E Partridge, 1915
In terms of Lindauer’s artistic practice and training, the show also offers never-before seen insight into the artist’s method of painting. Long held in contention, the exhibition proves that Lindauer worked from photographs as much as from life, replicating and embellishing the images in paint. Exhibition-goers will be able to compare the portraits with the exact photographs of rangatira that inspired them. Forgeries of his work will also be displayed, further emphasising the artist’s unique and almost impenetrable style.
In light of recent cultural appropriations of Lindauer’s paintings and other portraits by C.F Goldie on cushions, coffee mugs and shower curtains—an act that outraged Māori worldwide—Mason believes that the role of Māori now is to educate others on such issues. However this begins with a “rewriting of our own histories.”
Privileging Māori voices within the gallery is a wider goal of Mason’s curatorial practice and the overriding message of the exhibition. In her own words, it is important for “Māori to recognise the power and agency” they have in negotiating relationships among themselves and with non-Māori. Speaking both to the great challenges these tīpuna faced in their time, as well as to their triumphs, Mason believes “our treaty stories are not the sum of who Māori are.” The beautifully crafted portraits Lindauer painted show “a richness and a depth to our ancestors” that is not often seen. And according to Mason “their korero is ongoing” and is as lasting as the mana they are instilled with. These taonga, or “carvings of the 20th and 21st century,” reveal narratives that go beyond established conversations on Māori-ness. In short they show “their humanity,” a notion that intrigued Lindauer as an artist in the 1800s and which has continued to captivate generations of viewers up until today, both Māori and Pākehā.