Book Review: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The Māori Portraits

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_gottfried_lindauers_nzGottfried Lindauer was a Bohemian immigrant with an artistic eye and a pragmatic business sense. A keen traveller, he combined his love of painting, photography, travel and an inquisitive desire to learn more of the Māori people. This book is a celebration of the 67 portraits of Māori completed from the 1870s on.

In 2016, the Auckland Art Gallery staged an exhibition of the Māori portraits by Lindauer and commissioned this book to accompany the event. While sometimes such publications are little more than picture books with captions, I was delighted to find this publication an extensive analysis of all aspects of the works. Here we can read the background, the setting, the sitter, the painter, the journey of the completed work and finally the place held by the painting among the people for whom it is taonga. This extensive research takes the reader far and wide. I was fascinated to read about a retrospective of his work held in his hometown of Pilsen, the capital of West Bavaria, in 2015. Here we see the training and development of his art. We also investigate the links with Goldie, another familiar portrait painter of Māori. The sharing of subjects and photographs is clearly shown in the illustrations, which make this book a pleasure to read.

Lindauer also did more than just draw what he saw. He was interested in the cultural practices of the Māori, in the meaning of facial markings, the hair, the dress and the person. He showed respect for the mana of his subjects and did much to foster positive relations between Māori and European. There was a desire among many tribes to record their respected elders in a painting and Lindauer was the chosen artist for many of these.

While the background information adds depth to the works, it is the quality of the paintings that I was drawn to. Each artwork is fully explained and linked to the overall story. While the ownership of some works is contested, so is the identification of the subject. This book was, I suspect, a work of careful diplomacy. Such portraits are far more than a picture on the wall and this is clearly communicated. I recall while staying on a local marae, being invited to the Big House. Here I entered a room with floor to ceiling portraits of the families through the generations. In the dark recesses at the top corner, I may have spotted a Lindauer or a Goldie. But that was not important in this context. Here was a living memory, a treasure, a taonga.

So too is this book.

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The Māori Portraits
by Gottfried Lindauer, edited by Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408565

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