A most “vigorous afterlife”, Roger Blackley

Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The  Māori Portraits
Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope (eds)
Auckland University Press and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, $75.00,
ISBN 9781869408565

This extremely elegant book, with its unusual, tall-and-thin “hyper-portrait” format, brings the artist Gottfried Lindauer and the principal collection of his works into the 21st century. It achieves this by foregrounding Māori perspectives, by emphasising Lindauer’s involvement with photography, and through the diverse range of scholarly perspectives by which the collection is explored. With contributions from Czech and New Zealand art historians, curators and conservators – both Māori and Pākehā – the book is a scholarly triumph for the Auckland Art Gallery.

Produced in association with an extensive exhibition staged at the gallery last summer, it represents the culmination of a major research enterprise that has given us a website (lindaueronline.co.nz), a television documentary series (Behind the Brush), and exhibitions displayed in the European cities of Berlin and Pilsen over 2013-14. At the heart of the entire project is the influential cycle of Māori portraits that was commissioned by the collector Henry Partridge and formally accessioned into the Auckland Art Gallery in 1915. The 62 oil portraits of Māori celebrities by the immigrant Bohemian artist are arguably the most famous Māori portraits in existence and, together with eight large scenes of everyday Māori life, represent the largest single collection of this artist’s work. The book both documents and contextualises the collection.

The project has been led by Ngahiraka Mason, curator and co-editor of the book, who profiles Lindauer’s importance for the Māori world. Czech art historians Aleš Filip and Roman Musil contribute a fascinating account of Lindauer’s early years and characterise his portrait style as “Biedermeier”, a balance between realism and idealisation that “if possible conferred authority or prestige on the sitter”. Ironically, given the extensive use he made of photography as a painting aid in New Zealand, they suggest that photography’s impact on the Bohemian portrait painting industry may have been a contributing factor in his emigration. Lindauer’s deployment of photography is tackled head-on in an essay by Ute Larsen and Jane Davidson-Ladd where, rather than a crutch, its use is seen as a mark of his modernity. It had long been rumoured that Lindauer actually painted over photographic enlargements; now we know that these painted “bromides” cost half the price of regular oils. Conservator Sarah Hillary confirms that his usual practice was to project photographs with the aid of an epidiascope, to establish both composition and details (underdrawing that can be tellingly absent in fakes). In an essay on his little-known Pākehā portraiture, Davidson-Ladd further discusses the “photographic effect” through which Lindauer achieved what the period termed “a speaking likeness”. According to Davidson-Ladd, there were many more portraits of Pākehā than of Māori.

There is a sense in which the intensity of focus on the Partridge Collection is a decided strength of the book. In the central body of illustrations, digital photography reveals the collection in a marvellous new light. There is a useful tabulation of works sorted by date (whereas the illustrations are sequenced by tribal district), and painstaking research has linked the considerable number of posthumous depictions to the photographs from which they derive. The engaging biographical approach inherited from James Cowan’s earlier publications, which significantly relied on Māori informants, has, in the hands of Mason and Nigel Borrell, been firmly grounded within a Māori world-view. Mason is, however, incorrect when she asserts that Partridge was “the earliest collector of portraiture produced in Aotearoa New Zealand”, for that status belongs to Sir George Grey, who patronised an earlier generation of colonial artists including George French Angas and Joseph Merrett. But the very public roles played by Partridge’s collection – including its repeated exhibition and publication – places it into a very special category. Leonard Bell’s essay is particularly effective in teasing out the complex web of meanings borne by the collection. Describing their “vigorous afterlife”, he points out that the paintings “have functioned primarily and most valuably in terms of social ritual and historical memory, and less as objects assessed for their merits as ‘fine art’. ”

Viewed from another perspective, however, and in light of the book’s self-description as “definitive”, the emphasis on the Partridge Collection is problematic. That is because it serves to mask the existence of a yet more extensive and varied collection of Lindauer’s portraits. These are the works commissioned by Māori clients – an example of indigenous patronage of a Pākehā artist that, as Bell suggests, was exceptional for its time. Despite the numerous references to this patronage, there is no real attempt to explore the differences manifested by many of these works in relation to those collected by Partridge. For example, when Mason draws a comparison between the posthumous 1895 portrait of Pāora Tūhaere in the Partridge Collection, where he is bedecked in Māori regalia, and the Auckland Art Gallery’s 1878 depiction of “the young chief dressed in formal Victorian clothing”, she fails to suggest that the latter portrait was likely to have been a commission from Tūhaere himself. In this way, the portrait that loomed over the coffin at the chief’s tangi is effectively hidden in full view. While there were certainly Māori clients who requested depiction in full customary dress, the distinguishing hallmark of many Māori commissions is either a completely Pākehā wardrobe, or a hybrid combination of Māori and Pākehā accessories. In her essay on “Victorian and Māori Dress in Lindauer’s Portraits”, Chanel Clarke pays close attention to three portraits from the Auckland Museum collection that occupy different positions on this clothing spectrum and argues that this diversity shows “the fluid and dynamic nature of the Māori world at that time”. Ngarino Ellis’s essay on personal adornment meanwhile illustrates the portrait of an unknown Māori woman who exemplifies cross-cultural hybrid chic.

To reflect on Lindauer’s publication history, and on the evolving art-historical reception, is to realise how closely this artist’s posterity is yoked to the Partridge Collection. The first, extremely modest publication appeared in 1901 – a sequence of short biographies to accompany the gallery of portraits that Partridge had recently opened above his Queen Street shop. Cowan developed these into the considerably more sumptuous Pictures of Old New Zealand (1930), in which all 70 works were reproduced as sepia half-tone illustrations. Though based on a single collection, this was arguably the first monograph to be devoted to a New Zealand artist and included accolades from Māori relatives excerpted by Cowan from the visitor’s book maintained in Partridge’s gallery. Though this was the only full documentation of the collection, later 20th-century publications introduced colour reproductions while invariably adapting Cowan’s picturesque, but dated, commentaries. Pākehā art history had meanwhile turned its back on Lindauer’s “photographic” work, relegating it to an ethnographic cul-de-sac. Nevertheless, over the succeeding half-century came the growing recognition that the Māori reception of Lindauer and his work evidenced a very different trajectory, in which the artist had suffered no diminution of prestige whatsoever.

Alongside Goldie, Lindauer occupies an invincible place in New Zealand’s collective consciousness. We gasp when works are stolen, or when they fetch stratospheric prices in the marketplace. We shed tears in the presence of an ancestor and marvel at family resemblance. This stylish book, in placing Lindauer’s principal collection within a rich historical context, is solidly grounded both in kaupapa Māori and innovative art-historical research. In other words, it is a taonga.

Roger Blackley teaches in the art history programme at Victoria University of Wellington.

Tagged with: , , , , ,
Posted in Art, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
Search the archive
Search by category