Recently we enjoyed “The Story of Aboriginal Art,” an informative and fascinating exhibition of Australian wildlife by contemporary Aboriginal artists. Now let’s move to neighbouring New Zealand, to admire the magnificent Maori portraits of the 1800s by Bohemian artist Gottfried Lindauer. Mind you, Lindauer was Bohemian by nationality, not by habit, and was born in Pilsen, an important town in Bohemia (now in the Czech Republic), then a province of the Austrian Empire.
At 16 he began a 7-year study of portrait painting in Vienna, under several notable professors. However, on reading an article by a fellow Bohemian on the beauties of this remote land and the nobility of its people – the Maori – he took ship for New Zealand in 1873 and launched into the portraiture which became his life’s work. A year after his arrival in New Zealand he met English businessman Henry Partridge – who often used to accompany James Mackay, Magistrate and Civil Commissioner for the Thames-Ohinemuri district, and a man deeply versed in Maori lore, into remote villages, where he learned to know and admire the old-time Maori. Their dignity and kindly hospitality to those whom they trusted appealed to Partridge strongly. But like many people at the time, he could see that a whole way of life was passing, and he was determined to do something about it.
Many Maori believed that the making of a likeness took something from the living person, and viewed an artist or a camera with superstition and mistrust – an attitude even now observed in several cultures. But Lindauer’s simplicity, gentleness and sense of fun broke down such doubts
The opportunity came when he met Lindauer and saw his sketch book, though the majority of the artist’s portraits were painted from life. That was one of the features of their partnership – their ability to enlist the trust and cooperation of the Maori people, a fact particularly remarkable in that the Maori Wars had just ended. The last clash with Te Kooti had been just 2 years before Lindauer’s arrival, and there was still much bitterness between Maori and Pakeha (white) settlers. The main bone of contention was land – the Maori had it and the increasing number of Pakeha arriving under Wakefield’s settlement scheme wanted it. However there were also frequent hand to hand battles between tribe and tribe, with weapons like the spear and the mere, designed to kill, and involving land or resources, or to increase mana (respect), or to gain revenge.
Often Partridge and Lindauer went off into the wilds for the latter to paint some magnificently-tattooed old rangatira (chief) or chieftainess of whom they had heard. And much of the value of Lindauer’s work for the historian lies in the fact that his paintings are not of anonymous Maori, but of men and women whose stories are known as part of the formative life of New Zealand. He painted his sitters with meticulous accuracy. He recorded in exact detail not only the features and bearing of the old chiefs and chieftainesses, but also their insignia of rank, their weapons, feathered cloaks, ear ornaments and the intricate tattoos which were as personal to them as a signature today. As studies in ta moko (tattoo) alone the portraits are of great ethnological value, also for the light they throw on Maori customs, housing constructions, implements, weaving, and other arts and crafts. The dominant feature of the pictures apart from their true-to-life skin tone is their accuracy and painstaking fidelity, and herein lies their immense historical and ethnic fidelity.
Over the years, hundreds of old-time Maori have studied these pictures intently, often communing so closely with the subjects that they have burst into impassioned speeches, as if they were speaking to living people. As it happens, many Maori believed that the making of a likeness took something from the living person, and viewed an artist or a camera with superstition and mistrust- an attitude even now observed in several cultures. But Lindauer’s simplicity, gentleness and sense of fun broke down such doubts, and likewise the rigid antagonism that many an old chief still nourished towards all Europeans.
His work attracted attention in many places abroad. About a dozen of his pictures were displayed in the New Zealand Court at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, U.S.A, and in fact the painting of Ana Rupene and her child was awarded a gold medal by the committee of the Palace of Art, besides bringing offers of purchase from several American and European museums. Perhaps it was the youthfulness of mother and child, plus the excellent feminine style of ta moko on Ana’s lips and chin that attracted so many buyers. However, as Lindauer’s patron, Partridge refused all offers, because his whole purpose in commissioning the collection was to provide an historic and ethnic record of the Maori race for New Zealand.
The tattooists were called “tohunga ta moko”, and like the person being tattooed, were considered tapu -sacred. One considers that the latter must have been a person of considerable courage,but according to the record of an official of the New Zealand Company watching the process, “The man (being tattooed) spoke to me with perfect nonchalance for a quarter of an hour, although the tohunga continued to strike the little adzes into his flesh with a light wooden hammer, and his face was covered with blood.” Originally the tohuga ta moko used a range of uhi (chisels made from albatross bones, attached to a handle and struck with a small mallet), while the colour was produced from natural dyes. However, in the late 19th century needles replaced the uhi – a quicker method less prone to health risks. Many of the design motifs were universal, especially the spiral elements on the forehead, and from the nose and mouth. The remaining elements were carefully chosen to accentuate and enhance the individual features, giving meaning and expression to the mataora – the living face.
Lindauer captured some crucial moments in the social and political experience of the Maori.
Who was the kingmaker? Who introduced the idea of ‘Kiingitanga’? This was principally the idea of high chief Wiremu Tamihana Tarapipipi te Waharoa, a Christian convert (William Thompson), who visited England in 1851, was presented to Queen Victoria and returned to New Zealand with the idea of forming a Maori kingdom (though he held no hostility against the Pakeha and was loyal to the queen), with one king ruling over all tribes.This would give them a measure of self-government and prevent the sale of their land for mere trifles.
Lindauer, besides his skillful use of light, has certainly captured the nobility and dignity of this king, with his calm face, his elaborate tattoo, and the symbols of royalty in his feathered cloak, his earrings and the huia feather in his hair, though high-born chiefs often wore the dried skin and beak of the huia (now extinct) as an ear ornament. In his hand, the mere, made of greenstone, a type of jade, is the proof of his warriorhood, this weapon being used to strike the base of the enemy’s skull in hand-to-hand warfare. The tangi (funeral) after his death in 1894 was one of the largest in memory. The same family bears the kingship today.
His work has been praised for its capturing of the skin tone of his subjects, and the dark, often greenish background of many of the portraits detracts nothing from them. The same applies to the portait of Paora (Paul) Tuahere, which with his rather heavy tattoo is quite a contrast to that of the King, and is enhanced by the contrasting colour of his cloak. He was born in about 1825, and was a nephew of the famous warrior Apiai te Kawau. On the death of Apiai he became the most influential chief of the Ngati-Whatua tribe of the Auckland area, known to the Maori at that time as Tamaki.
Meanwhile, the tattoo of Tamati Waka Nene (Baptismal name Thomas Walker) is both intricate and flattering, quite appropriate for one of the most colourful figures in New Zealand’s history. Unlike the portraits of many Maori notables, the colourful sky surrounding him really sets off this faithful likeness, and his amiable appearance, as he stands in his cloak of black bird feathers, firmly holding his lightly carved war weapon. The eye in this carved insignia is of paua shell, the paua being native to New Zealand, where it is still used frequently to decorate the carvings at which the Maori excel.
As for the ladies, Rangi-Topeora was a famous poetess, and ariki-tapairu of the Ngati-Toa tribe. The title ariki-tapairu indicates that she was the first female child of a family of rank – and a woman of sacred attributes. She was celebrated for her waiata aroha (love songs), which are sung to this day, and also for her cursing chants in which she expressed the utmost hatred and contempt for her enemies. We see her here in a cloak made of the finest handwoven flax, while round her neck she wears 3 hei-tiki – intended to represent the form of one’s ancestors. Their colour matches admirably the ta moko on her lips and chin. Lindauer has done a fine job in capturing not only this, but also the various textures and tones of her ageing skin, all this enhanced by the colours and patterns of her magnificent cloak. In her latter days, she was baptised by Bishop Selwyn, and chose the name of Kuini Wikitoria (Queen Victoria) for herself, and Arapeta (Prince Albert) for her husband. Nothing less would do!
A complete contrast to all is found in the fair-skinned, un-tattooed face of Sir James Carroll, son of the chieftainess Tapuke of the Ngati-Kahungunu tribe and an Irish trader. He was born under a cabbage tree on the banks of the Wairoa River, and rose to be Acting Prime Minister during the absence of Sir Joseph Ward. Lindauer has presented with finesse the contrast between his fair skin and his elegant, dark clothes, not to mention his obvious intelligence. His mild expression gives no hint of the bravery which as a schoolboy of 13 caused his mention in despatches concerning pursuit of the notorious Te Kooti and his cohorts.
Lindauer has, of course, received much praise from many quarters for his true-to-life presentations of the chieftains of the Maori race. Tribal leader and politician Tukino declared, “Towering like the kauri above the other trees, the pictures bring forth the praise and admiration of the present generation, when they gaze upon the faces of old.”
But who could give higher praise than statesman and politician Sir Maui Pomare? He referred to Lindauer as one who “stands alone in his art, a tohunga in his profession […] which gives birth to praise and to memories of the countenances of our predecessors, whom we behold no more.”