Dionne Christian is the NZ Herald’s arts and books editor

Gallery exhibition brings families face to face with history

When Dr Benjamin Pittman walks through Auckland Art Gallery's Maori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand exhibition, he doesn't see paintings of distant historical figures.

Instead he comes face to face with pictures of his ancestors (tipuna).

Lindauer, the country's most prolific portrait artist, painted Dr Pittman's great-great grandfather Eruera Maihi Patuone in 1874 and great-great uncle Tamati Waka Nene in 1890. Both portraits were painted from photographs after the deaths of the two Ngati Hao chiefs.

Dr Pittman's family has never owned the paintings. Instead, they were among 80 portraits donated to Auckland Art Gallery in 1915 by businessman Henry Partridge. Partridge, a friend and business associate of Lindauer's, made the donation on the proviso Aucklanders raise £10,000 for the Belgium Relief Fund.

Dr Pittman says his family had photographs of Patuone and Waka Nene and, as a teenager with a keen interest in whakapapa and art, he travelled to Auckland Art Gallery to see the portraits whanau talked about.

"It was a strange feeling to see them colour rather than in sepia or black and white photographs," he says. "It was quite impressive to see real painting in a grand gallery. I could recognise odd family traits in them; like the arms reminded me of my dad's arms.

"I was interested to see how Lindauer had taken the photographs and idealised them but that's something portrait painters have done throughout history. They didn't have very clear moko in the photographs and, again, I was interested in the extent to which Lindauer had to create these because every moko is unique and has its own design."

More recent research has revealed Lindauer painted from photographs more often than was earlier thought.

Dr Pittman says naturally seeing the pictures among the current exhibition, which features 120 portraits of Pakeha and Maori, makes him proud. However, he's thrilled not only to see his own tipuna but other historical figures to whom they had links to.

"It's significant because visitors can come to see this collection and learn of some intriguing stories and connections."

He suspects visitors would be amazed to learn that Patuone was reputed to be around 108-years-old when he died in 1872. Dr Pittman says his great-great-grandfather must have been as tough as they come to have survived wounds received in battles as well as illness and the rigours of old age.

While Dr Pittman has long known his tipuna were painted by Lindauer, Auckland Art Gallery security attendant Shelley Te Haara was surprised to find a portrait of one her ancestors among the collection.

Ms Te Haara, whose family comes from Ohaeawai in the Bay of Islands, was working at the gallery when 44 Lindauer paintings returned to New Zealand from a 2015 exhibition at the Gallery of West Bohemia in the artist's hometown of Pilsen in the Czech Republic.

They had previously been exhibited in a record-breaking show at the Old National Gallery in Berlin, visited by more than 143,000 visitors. Ms Te Haara says she felt quite emotional when the portraits came "home" and told her father, Barry, there was one of a Heta Te Haara.

"Dad told me, 'yes, he's an ancestor' and I thought, 'yup, take away the moko and beard and that's my dad; the likeness was that clear'."

- NZ Herald

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