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Did Pākehā painters Goldie and Lindauer exploit their Māori subjects?

Photograph of King Tāwhiao; portrait of Tāwhiao from 1885 by Gottfried Lindauer. Images/Supplied

Celebrated Pākehā portrait painters Charles Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer are said to be guilty of exploiting and romanticising Māori, but their subjects didn’t think so, and nor do the tangata whenua of today. 

Artist Charles F Goldie leafs through a book on his tea break. Perched on a chair in the studio, his model, Waikato chief Pātara Te Tuhi, waits patiently. To his left, propped up on an easel, is what seems to be a completed portrait showing the celebrated chief sitting staunch and solemn in full traditional dress, the large hei-tiki, shark’s tooth earring and woven cloak signifying an aged but noble chief.

For readers of the 1901 issue of New Zealand Illustrated Magazine, the portrait ascribes to the romantic notion of a dying race, one of Goldie’s “rest-home Māoris”, wrote one commentator, decked out in old-time cloaks, tiki and pendants. But there is something else going on here. Holding his cup of tea, Te Tuhi appears relaxed. Below the cloak are glimpses of the rangatira’s everyday attire – cuffed trousers and leather shoes. Behind the artist is a neat pile of folded clothes: hat, shirt, waistcoat.

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For Goldie, says Roger Blackley, associate professor in art history at Victoria University of Wellington, the photo would have been good publicity, showing the world he had this very famous rangatira as a model, “but it would be wrong to say Te Tuhi is simply a passive prop in Goldie’s colonising agenda”.

Such portraits undoubtedly fed into the conception of a doomed but noble race. As lawyer Richard Singer wrote in 1903, Goldie’s work presents “a true and a brilliant impression not only of the habits and customs, but of the very character, the very life, the idiosyncrasies of nature and of feature of the Māori – characteristics that in a few short years it will no longer be possible to represent, for the old chiefs and chieftainesses, and the old warriors whom this artist chooses as his models, are the last of their race; the tattooed man is dying out”.

Elizabeth Pulman’s photo of Rewi Manga Maniapoto; portrait of Maniapoto by Lindauer, based on Pulman’s photo. Images/Supplied

For the colonisers, of course, the “dying race” line was convenient. As Blackley says, “How do you solve access to Māori resources or land? You solve it by the disappearance of the owner.” But, although derided by many contemporary art historians, these Victorian-era paintings also carried and continue to carry considerable value for Māori.

This was made apparent to Blackley when, as a curator at the Auckland Art Gallery, the Te Māori exhibition ended its spectacular run there in 1987. A collection of Māori portraits by Bohemian-born artist Gottfried Lindauer generated an outpouring of emotion among Māori visitors. An accompanying exhibition of Goldie’s hyper-realist portraits of elderly Māori subjects was packed with awestruck Māori visitors. “Māori do have a real sense of ownership of this corpus of portraits,” says Blackley, “especially if they are related.”

Roger Blackley. Photo/Robert Cross/Listener

In his new book, Galleries of Maoriland, Blackley explores the strangely uncharted territory of Māori reception of such works. For them, these seemingly romanticised depictions of doomed “old-time” Māori were in fact testimony to survival, “and an essential link between past and present Māori culture”.

Certainly, Pātara Te Tuhi never considered himself part of a vanishing race. Te Tuhi was cosmopolitan, well educated and well travelled. Although he can be seen to perpetuate the romanticised myth of “Maoriland” in posing in clothes he wouldn’t normally wear, in Blackley’s thesis he was engaging in a mutually beneficial transaction, one that ensured his image was held for posterity. Based on his visit to galleries and stately homes in England in 1884, writes Blackley, Te Tuhi would have regarded Goldie’s portraits “as time travellers, a means by which he and others … could appear before audiences of the future”.

Although Goldie paid his models – a reported eight shillings a day – Lindauer worked largely on commissions from noted Europeans collectors such as Henry Partridge, who established the Lindauer Art Gallery in Queen St, and Walter Buller, who used his position as a magistrate in the Native Land Court to subsidise his portrait collection by taking a cut from each commission to accumulate his own collection free of charge. But the artist’s major patrons, says Blackley, were Māori, appearing at his door not in the traditional garb preferred by European collectors, but in immaculate European attire.

Charles Goldie in his studio with Pātara Te Tuhi in 1901. Photo/Supplied

Again, dismissing such portraits as documents of colonial racism ignores the extent of collaboration by Māori participants. These paintings recorded not a fading culture but, for his Māori clients at least, an assertion of mana tūpuna (ancestral prestige).

Not all Māori wished to be immortalised by the brush or, increasingly, the camera. Te Whiti o Rongomai III, the prophet of Parihaka, forbade photographers at his marae. Ngāti Maniapoto chief Rewi Manga Maniapoto initially resisted a photographed portrait, telling the Taranaki Herald it was not proper “for a great chief’s likeness to be sold for [one shilling]” but eventually he submitted to the lens. His favourite photograph, produced by Elizabeth Pulman’s Auckland studio, showed his prized diamond ring and this photo was later used by Lindauer for a portrait commissioned by Partridge. The completed painting revealed an impressive dog-skin cloak and rare whalebone weapon – but no myth-busting diamond ring.

Tāwhiao, the second Māori king, on the other hand, embraced portraiture. In 1894, his funeral procession was marked by the unveiling of a life-sized portrait before a crowd of thousands. His 1885 Lindauer portrait was based on a photograph taken by Sydney photographer Henry King the previous year.

Illustration of Māori warriors performing a haka at the New Zealand Banquet at the Holborn restaurant, by Samuel Begg. Image/Supplied

Blackley rescues others from the dogbox of post-colonial theory. English immigrant Augustus Hamilton, lambasted for his traditionalist attitudes towards Māori artists, campaigned for the Māori Antiquities Act to regulate the international trade in Māori artefacts. Wellington composer Alfred Hill, fascinated by Māori laments and poi songs, acknowledged his close working relationship with Māori, as Goldie had done. Journalist James Cowan, despite adopting a florid and overly nostalgic tone, gave voice to Māori perspectives on the radical changes unfolding during colonisation.

Māori also played a part in the early 20th-century craze for model pā and re-enactments of traditional culture. Romanticised and inaccurate as such model pā may have been, writes Blackley, they were Māori enterprises. The idealisation implicit in these re-created ancient pā served a variety of purposes, both commemorative and as tourist attractions. As well as the modest payment given to participants, projecting a utopian past, he says, could serve the interests of Māori communities “in a challenging colonial present”. Even if they were presenting their story as the ancient past, he says, their participation was reminding everyone that they were there, part of modern New Zealand.

A portrait of Ena Te Papatahi by Charles Goldie.

But Māori interests were sidelined in the brisk trade in taonga. As a result of the fervent work of art buyers, politicians, Native Land Court judges, military officers, amateur diggers and brazen tomb raiders, taonga were gifted, bought, stolen and sold. This process saw even the most important taonga tuku iho – heirlooms handed down from ancestors – reduced to mere curios exhibited in an “inert illustration of prehistory” with no explanation or provenance. Especially if the mode of acquisition was “irregular”, writes Blackley. “Taonga could shrug off their provenance to become generic examples of Māori art, as opposed to individual pieces with historical meaning.”

As the first Māori doctor, Māui Pōmare, said in 1908, “The stone axe has been loosened from its handle; the spirals and works of art cut by our stone and obsidian are no longer to be seen in the Māori village and kāinga, but only in the pākehās’ house of antiquity, the museum.”

Even gifted items were not always given the care they deserved. Blackley describes the discovery, covered in this magazine in 2011, that previous taonga and other artefacts gifted to the Imperial Institute, later the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, were found on the British antiques market with no provenance or proper deaccessioning process.

In this beautifully illustrated book, Blackley argues for the retrieval of these colonial-era portraits and taonga from ethnological collections acquired before modernist art hit the national art scene. Rather, he says, they deserve a place in a more inclusive art history that acknowledges the historical importance of Māori patronage of Pākehā artists “as well as the qualified support of Māori for an ethnologically informed New Zealand art”.

Galleries of Maoriland: Artists, Collectors and the Māori World, 1880-1910, by Roger Blackley (AUP, $75).

Images supplied by Alexander Turnbull Library, Auckland Art Gallery, Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Christchurch Art Gallery, State Library of New South Wales.

This article was first published in the January 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.