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Book review: Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand: The Māori Portraits

One of Gottfried Lindauer’s portraits of Maori: Pare Watene (oil on canvas, 1878). Photo/Partridge Collection/Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, gift of HE Partridge, 1915

A significant book on the work of one of our “old masters” is ravishing.

Only New Zealanders would name a sparkling French-style white wine after a Czech boy from the heart of Pilsner beer country. Gottfried (“Bohumír”, as his mother would have called him at home) Lindauer, for all the 19th-century beetroot-and-gravy palette and waxy textures of the Vienna Academy, was born in Plzeň, Bohemia, in 1839.

We, of course, know him best for his portraits of Maori – often yoked to the name of CF Goldie as our two “old masters” – the subject of Auckland Art Gallery’s exhibition Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand: The Maori Portraits (which runs until February 19 next year) and the beautifully produced companion volume of the same name, published by Auckland University Press.

It’s a gorgeous book. Superlatives pale – it’s ravishing. There are wonderful essays by Auckland Art Gallery curators Zara Stanhope, Nigel Borrell and Ngahiraka Mason, Chanel Clarke of the Auckland War Memorial Museum, University of Auckland art historians Jane Davidson-Ladd, Ngarino Ellis and Len Bell and indigenous educator Kahutoi Te Kanawa, providing ample context for Lindauer from the perspectives of Maori whakapapa and kaupapa and Pakeha art history. Conservator Sarah Hillary’s contribution on Lindauer’s techniques and materials is a rare and special treat.

What hasn’t got sufficient appreciation is the empathy and identification underwriting why Lindauer’s portraits of Maori are so sensitive and humane, a far cry from the melancholic impressions of a dying race conveyed by Goldie. Throughout the 19th century, inspired by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic reforms, the Slavic peoples of Habsburg Europe chafed against Austrian rule and the imposition of German as the official language of state. The Hungarians, who had their own kingdom and significantly more autonomy than the Bohemians or Moravians, had their famous Diet of 1844, declaring Magyar their official language.

Czech nationalist resentment seethed away from 1818 to World War I, though this, bar a few radicals, was largely a jockeying for equivalence with Hungary rather than full-blown independence. Frantisek Palacky’s 1836 history of Bohemia and Moravia, for example, was suppressed by Habsburg censors for being too nostalgic over the Hussite period as the beginning of Czech identity, and from 1848 to 1914, we see the rise of nationalist anti-­German political parties and tensions in the Sudetenland.

The upshot is that Lindauer certainly understood what it was like to be a second-class citizen in one’s own land, a fact ignored in the essay by Czech art historians Aleš Filip and Roman Musil. A firmer editorial hand would not have gone amiss, either – the English phrasing and over-explanation are jarring when what was really needed was a more in-depth discussion of the Czech and Austrian art-historical context.

Also, given that some of these works were borrowed from other collections, why was the relevant information not included with the image texts?

These cavils aside, it may be the most important book on historical New Zealand art this year.

GOTTFRIED LINDAUER’S NEW ZEALAND: THE MĀORI PORTRAITS, ed Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope (Auckland University Press, $75)

This article was first published in the November 12, 2016 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.