Gottfried Lindauer's portraits are given depth and personality in a new series on Maori Television, writes Scott Kara

As a little girl growing up in the 1930s, Rebe Mason found the paintings of Maori people hanging on the walls of her grandfather's house frightening.

"They scared me silly," she remembers with a laugh. Her grandfather was artist Gottfried Lindauer, who is most famous for his portraits of a diverse range of Maori, painted during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

"I went straight from the maternity home to my grandfather's home (in Woodville) - he wasn't there though, he died three years previous. That house, the walls were covered with paintings, and the whole of my life, wherever I've been, there have always been paintings."

Rebe, a delightful lady with a great passion for her family's history and her "Papa's" paintings, is one of the stars of new Maori Television documentary series Behind the Brush.


The seven-part series, directed by Julian Arahanga (Songs From the Inside), tells the stories behind the Maori in Lindauer's paintings. It also tracks the life of Lindauer, who was born in what is now known as the Czech Republic in 1839, and later arrived in New Zealand in 1874, dying at 87 in 1926.

Through a mix of interviews and dramatisations, each episode documents three tupuna (ancestors). What makes the series unique is that as well as art experts and academics having their say, the main stories are told by descendants of those in the portraits. It's these fascinating, at times shocking, and often hilarious stories that drive the programme - as well as real characters, like Rebe.

As Arahanga puts it: "We have lots of experts talking about Lindauer and his life journey, but it's always good to have somebody with a heart - and she brings plenty of that."

One of Rebe's favourite paintings is what she calls "The Woman and Child", but is officially titled Heeni Hirini and Child.

"They (the paintings) were like part of the family. My grandfather really loved people and that came out in his paintings. And he really loved the Maori, and he enjoyed them as people."

Lindauer's paintings are not to be mistaken for the ones by C.F. Goldie, because although their careers overlapped, Lindauer came first.

Rebe is diplomatic when it comes to the Goldie versus Lindauer debate. "They were from different generations, although there was some competition. A lovely family story is that Goldie said to Papa, 'How do you get the skin tone?' And Papa said, 'Just add a bit of dirt."'

Lindauer left his homeland to avoid being called up to the Austrian army. ("For a second time - because he didn't like it the first time," says Rebe.) He thought he was boarding a boat to America but found himself in Wellington.

Once here, says Rebe, he started painting the portraits mainly because he needed money, and was commissioned by businessman Henry Partridge and a number of prominent Maori chiefs to do them.

"He was not a rich man and lived hand to mouth most of the time - and when he really needed money he would paint another one of The Woman and Child," she says.

Behind the Brush reveals mostly little-known stories about everyone from Maori King Tawhiao Te Wherowhero to ruthless warrior chief Topine Te Mamaku from the Whanganui area, but one of the best stories to come out of the series is that of Te Paea Hinarangi, told with verve and passion by her descendant, Hone Tarawhiti.

Te Paea (also known as Guide Sophia) was there when Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886, and there is a lovely story about her giving her hei-tiki to a young girl who was scared as they sheltered from the eruption. Remarkably, the tiki was returned to Te Paea's family by a relative of the little girl more than 100 years later.

More importantly perhaps, she set up the first tourism ventures in the Rotorua area, taking visiting dignitaries and VIPs out onto Lake Tarawera.

"She represents - apart from being an early pioneering woman who carved out her own niche in guiding and tourism - she personally for me represents strength," says Tarawhiti, who followed in her footsteps and runs his own tourism operation in Rotorua.

Raised in the Far North, she moved to the Rotorua area with her husband, and as well as raising 17 children, she still had time to - as Tarawhiti puts it - "invent her own form of employment and economy".

"She found a way to live her life and then was able to entertain the dignitaries of the world, the son of Queen Victoria, Governor Grey, people like that. Telling Te Paea's story is like a time capsule being opened up," he laughs.

For Arahanga, who worked closely during the production with the Auckland Art Gallery, which has 76 Lindauer paintings, the series is about piquing people's interest in history and inspiring them to look at their own whakapapa.

He admits the format offers only bite-sized looks into these people's lives, and you could do an hour-long episode on each of the subjects.

"But for me personally, part of television's role is to trigger people's imaginations and inspire them to go to their library or, even better, go and see their kaumatua, or their auntie and uncle, and ask them questions about their tupuna."

And if you do happen to do some research in history books, don't be surprised if you find some information contrary to the stories their descendants are telling.

"We could have easily gone to the history books and regurgitated the same old stuff," says Arahanga. "But having family members tell the stories may disagree with the history books, but there's a value in how stories are retold within families and passed from generation to generation."

Arahanga first saw Lindauer's paintings in books while at school (though they could have been Goldies, for all he knew) and later he had a friend who had plastered his walls with prints of the portraits taken out of the book Gottfried Lindauer: His Life and Maori Art.

"I said to him, 'Are those Goldies?' Because that's what everyone thinks. I said, 'He does all those old Maori people, doesn't he?' But then you find out, no, in terms of the whakapapa of those New Zealand artists, Goldie was actually quite some time after Lindauer."

You can tell that making Behind the Brush has been both a labour of love and enlightening for Arahanga. He launches into explanations about painting techniques, how the industrial revolution changed Maori and how Lindauer and his contemporaries had to evolve with the advent of the photograph - because people no longer had to sit all day and pose.

"The portrait painters had competition and you can see in the whakapapa of painting how portraiture started getting finer, and this, combined with the industrial revolution, meant you no longer had to mix your paints by hand, and now you've got the big industrial steam rollers smashing the pigments into dust and you've got much finer paints and the portrait starts to mimic the photograph and that's how you get people like Lindauer who painted photo-realistically," he says, sounding chuffed.

"Man, I've learned so much on this project."

What: Behind the Brush, a seven-part series documenting the stories of the many Maori featured in painter Gottfried Lindauer's portraits

When and where: Tuesdays, 8pm, Maori Television