Every painting tells a story

By Dionne Christian

Gottfried Lindauer, Maori children playing knucklebones - a game they call koruru or ruru.
Gottfried Lindauer, Maori children playing knucklebones - a game they call koruru or ruru.

"Art gallery goes in search of lost Lindauer portraits."

It was the sort of headline to intrigue lovers of art, mystery, history and television's The Antiques Roadshow (where experts examine and value antiques and collectibles and, every so often, someone learns Nana's chipped china vase or great-uncle's watch is worth a small fortune).

Who hasn't imagined what it would be like to de-clutter the attic, the garage or hall cupboard and discover a long-lost artwork?

In July, Auckland Art Gallery appealed to the public to help them find more than 100 original paintings by prolific 19th century artist Gottfried Lindauer. They wanted people to take a closer look at the portrait on their grandparents' mantelpiece or check under the bed in the spare room ... just in case.

A fair few did so - the gallery received inquiries from 46 people and was able to identify Lindauer paintings from England, Australia and New Zealand.

Curator of Maori Art, Nigel Borell, says many didn't tell them where the paintings were found but two came from Rotorua, where they'd been stored in a garage belonging to a descendant of one of Lindauer's subjects.

"Most people had an idea their painting was significant, although not all were sure they were by Lindauer," says Borell. "They were, of course, always very pleasantly surprised when they were confirmed as bona fide Lindauer portraits.

"We had a couple bring a portrait in their checked luggage from Australia, brought it to the gallery and showed it to me. Turned out it was a Lindauer."

He says the stories of how people inherited their portraits were all slightly different in their own way. A number were bought at auction during the years; others were handed down through generations.

Nine of the found paintings are in Auckland Art Gallery's summer exhibition, The Maori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand, which includes a total of 120 works by the celebrated artist.

They feature prominent historical figures and rangatira, including the second Maori King, Tawhiao, of Ngāti Mahuta, Tamati Waka Nene, James and Isabella Dilworth and Bishop Selwyn, from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The guest curator of the exhibition, Ngahiraka Mason, says the Lindauer portraits have always been popular with gallery visitors, but The Maori Portraits is an unprecedented opportunity to see such a large number together.

It also offers glimpses into our past, after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and the New Zealand Wars, as Europeans began to arrive in greater number and the Native Land Court started to investigate titles to Maori land.

"People had started to make enough money to want to commission a portrait, so Lindauer, who arrived here in 1874, was in the right place at the right time," says Mason.

"He was easy on the eye, exotic, novel and talented, so that would have made him appealing to Pakeha but, coming from Bohemia [it's now part of the Czech republic] he was also something of an outsider, which meant he may have had an affinity for the types of issues facing Maori.

"It's our history, but it's really not too long ago and there's very little distance between the desire to want to have your portrait painted and the desire we see today to take selfies. That's image-making on steroids, but similar thought processes are at work."

She says Lindauer's work is also significant because, although he trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and painted in the European Nazarene style, his focus was on New Zealand subjects and backdrops. "It was the beginning of a new identity created through art and culture."

Lindauer lived, worked and travelled extensively around New Zealand, forging a friendship with businessman Henry Partridge who commissioned numerous portraits of eminent Maori from him. Partridge wanted to create a pictorial history and record of Maori, believing they were a dying people.

Gottfried Lindauer, Heeni Hirini and Child, 1878.
Gottfried Lindauer, Heeni Hirini and Child, 1878.

Mason says despite this belief, Lindauer's portraits were nearly always bright, vibrant and crackling with life. Heeni Hirini, previously known as Ana Rupene, was his most famous subject. A woman of mana, she was Ngati Maru from Manaia on the Coromandel and Lindauer painted her and her infant son up to 30 times. Ten of these portraits can be seen in the exhibition.

"The child symbolises hope for the future," says Mason. "They look happy; there is hope in their eyes. Every painting tells a story."

And frequently that story extends to the paint and canvas itself.

Identifying Lindauer: His Materials and Techniques is a companion show alongside the main exhibition. Led by Auckland Art Gallery's principal conservator, Sarah Hillary, it examines Lindauer's techniques and provides new insights into his methods.

She says Lindauer used photography more extensively than previously thought, painting from photographs or directly over them, as well as experimenting with new ways to project photos on to canvas.

In 2013, Hillary was one of those called upon to help authenticate a portrait bought at auction by the Turnbull Library for $75,000 and supposedly painted by Lindauer of a Maori man named Hoani or Hamiora Maioha.

Colonial art expert Roger Blackley, of Victoria University, cautioned against the purchase, saying it was not a genuine Lindauer; Hillary analysed the painting and concluded the paint used contained titanium dioxide, which was not available as an artist's pigment when Lindauer was painting.

"Lindauer's brushwork was also markedly different," she explains. "It was more obvious, there was more texture."

Identifying Lindauer includes the forgery as well as a work by the other famous painter of Maori, Charles F. Goldie. Hillary says this allows visitors to see them side by side, to "compare and contrast" and spot the differences.

Borell helped identify a number of the Lindauer paintings brought to the gallery this year. He says the process starts with simply looking at an image.

"A lot can be garnered just by looking at a painting and, from there, we will bring the painting into the conservation lab for examination. We then take an infrared photograph of the portrait, which helps show what is under the paint layers. If it is a bona fide Lindauer, this will reveal characteristics of the artist's paint technique and practice."

Living descendants of many of those depicted in the portraits will travel to Auckland from around the country to take part in talks and discussions throughout the exhibition, sharing stories of their ancestors and, where possible, explaining the relationship to Lindauer.

Works in The Maori Portraits are arranged by iwi, from the top of the north island to the bottom of the south. Iwi are represented by region: Te Tai Tokerau; Waikato, Tainui; Hauraki, Marutuahu; Mataatua; Te Arawa; Te Tairawhiti; Te Matau a Maui; Taranaki; Whanganui; Te Wai Pounamu and Ngāti Toa, Te Ati Awa.

- NZ Herald

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