Gottfried Lindauer

Gottfried Lindauer
Date of birth
05 Jan 1839
Place of birth
Pilsen/Czech Republic
Date of death
13 Jun 1926
Place of death
Woodville/Manawatu-Whanganui (region)/New Zealand
Gottfried Lindauer (1839-1926), along with C.F. Goldie (1870-1947), was the most prolific and best-known painter of Māori subjects, in particular portraits, in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries. He was born in Pilsen, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite his German-sounding surname, he was ethnically Czech and was initially named Bohumir.

Professionally trained at the Academy Fine Arts in Vienna, he migrated to New Zealand in 1874. Various reasons have been cited for this shift: a wish to avoid compulsory military service and the decline in portrait commissions as a result of photography, for instance. Lindauer's first portraits of Māori were painted in Nelson. A move to Auckland in the mid 1870s proved crucial. There he met businessman, Henry Partridge (1848-1931), who over the next 30-plus years commissioned from Lindauer numerous portraits of eminent Māori, both living and deceased, as well as large-scale depictions of re-enactments of traditional Māori life and customs. The aim of the project was to create a pictorial history of Māori at a time when it was widely, though mistakenly, believed that Māori were dying out, either literally or as a distinct cultural group.

Lindauer travelled extensively round New Zealand. He lived in a variety of locations besides Nelson and Auckland, notably Christchurch, Napier, where he was closely associated with the photographer Samuel Carnell (1832-1920), also a well-known portraitist of Māori, and finally, from 1889, Woodville. Lindauer also retained his European and, in particular, his Czech connections. He visited Britain in 1886 for the massive Colonial and Indian exhibition in London, at which 12 of his Māori portraits were displayed. The commissioner of the New Zealand pavilion was Walter Buller (1838-1906), otherwise a Native Land Court lawyer who represented both Māori and European clients, and an important patron of the artist. Lindauer and his family lived in Europe, mainly Germany, in 1900-02 and 1911-14, with short returns to Bohemia, as a result of which several of his Māori portraits were placed in public and private collections there.

Lindauer's portraits of Māori are diverse in their subjects and in how he depicted them. They can be presented full-length, half-length or in bust format for instance; frontal, body in profile or face to the front, as in his many portraits of Ana Rupene and her baby. Besides his portraits of eminent Māori, he produced many of little-known or ordinary Māori people, most of whom wear European dress, as would have been the case in their daily life. Most, but not all, of these were probably commissioned by the sitters or their families. In contrast, in Lindauer's Māori portraits for European patrons, most of the subjects, but again not all, are shown in traditional and ceremonial Māori costume; markers of exotic difference to European viewers many of whom would have had little personal familiarity with such appearances.

Lindauer could depict the same person very differently from one portrait to another. For instance, the famous chief Renata Tama-ki-Hikurangi Kawepo of Ngāti Te Upokoiri/Ngāti Kahungunu (c 1805-1888) is portrayed both in Māori dress, holding a mere, and in European dress in 1885 pictures. In the former (at Whanganui Regional Museum) he is idealised and does not show his actual age. Significantly he is depicted with two good eyes, even though he had lost an eye in the 1860s. The portrait of him in European clothes (painted for Partridge) is more realistic, in that he looks his actual, old age, one eye is appropriately disfigured and he is placed closer to the front plane of the painting, so that it is as if he is, almost, in our, the viewers' space. That is, Lindauer adopted differing modes of portraiture, according to the requirements of the commission or occasion.

Henry Partridge opened a gallery in Queen Street, Auckland, in 1901, which initially featured 40 of Lindauer's Māori portraits. By the time Partridge gifted his Lindauer collection to the Auckland Art Gallery in 1915, there were 62 portraits. These became the best known, most seen, by Pākehā, Māori and visitors to New Zealand, and most reproduced of Lindauer's portraits. The historian, James Cowan (1870-1943), the first and for a long time the only Pākehā historian, for whom New Zealand colonial history was not only or primarily a matter of European achievements, but one in which Māori were equally important, wrote a Descriptive Catalogue of the collection. He characterised it as 'unrivalled in the world' and a record of the 'old order', which in his opinion 'passed away forever' with King Tawhiao's death in 1894.

How Lindauer's portraits have been seen, understood and evaluated has, though, varied enormously, depending on their viewers' and owners' views, knowledge and needs, and on the different socio-cultural contexts of use. For many colonial Europeans, the portraits, besides representing supposedly vanishing Māori culture, functioned as ethnographic documents, providing an inventory of Māori physiognomy, moko, dress, artifacts and ornaments. For some settler colonists the portraits may well have been experienced too as kinds of trophy: emblems of settler colonial power over Māori. And subsequently Lindauer's Māori portraits have become valuable commercial commodities, financial instruments that can be profitably bought and sold.

The monetary commodification of Lindauer's portraits has concerned Māori since the late colonial period. For many Māori, especially the families and descendants of the portrayed, the paintings have very different values and meanings. They were and are experienced as embodiments of the presence, spirit and mana of the person, as links between the past and present, and as taonga that need to be protected, and which also protect people and culture. As the man who made the portraits, Lindauer too was held in high regard. The responses to Lindauer's paintings by Māori visitors recorded in the Lindauer Art Gallery Māori Visitors' Book testify to this.

Lindauer's personality remains rather elusive. He respected Māori people and culture. Reportedly he was an atheist or agnostic at a time and in a society when that was not common. His actions and career suggest that he was independent-minded. In some fundamental respects he lived on the margins of mainstream settler colonial society. He rarely exhibited at art society shows in New Zealand, and lived most of his life here in small towns. He was frequently misidentified as German, and during World War One was subject to some social ostracism and hostility because of his former 'Austrian' nationality. These experiences were very upsetting for him and his family.

Lindauer maintained close connections with a number of fellow Czechs, both in New Zealand and Bohemia - notably the leading naturalist and collector, Vaclav Fric, and the ethnographer, Vojtech Naprstek, and his wife, Josepha, founders of the Naprstek Museum in Prague. This Museum holds two of Lindauer's Māori portraits and two of his rare drawings of moko designs, as well as Māori artifacts and photographs of Māori subjects that the artist gifted to the Vojtechs.

The then-prominent Czech writer and global traveller, Josef Korensky (1847-1938) met up with Lindauer in New Zealand in 1900, having previously written an article on his work for the Czech periodical, Vesmir, in 1896. Korensky described the coming together of a Czech artist and Māori as 'incredible' in his 1905 book on his travels in Australia and New Zealand, in which he also stressed how Lindauer's portraits were used and valued by Māori - at a time when these dimensions of Lindauer's work were generally overlooked by Europeans in New Zealand: 'Say the name, Lindauer, and every Māori chief will nod his head…When you attend a funeral and visit the house of a chief, what do you see above the displayed corpse? You will see a painting, which is the true likeness of the chief. And who was the creator of this work? If you look at the corner of the …painting, you will recognize the artist's signature: Bohuslav Lindauer', Korensky wrote.

What is unique about Lindauer's portraits of Māori? Korensky, in Wellington, was elated by the fact that 'a Czech artist…was standing there in this far foreign land'. Lindauer's Māori subject pictures are the result of encounters between otherwise very different people. His paintings are complex inter-weavings of elements drawn from diverse cultures and societies - Māori, Czech, German, Austrian, English (his second wife, Rebecca Petty was English), French, and emerging Pākehā. In this respect an artist commonly criticised as conservative and old-fashioned can now be seen to have been ahead of his time.

Leonard Bell, Associate Professor, Art History, University of Auckland Te Whare Wananga o Tāmaki Makaurau