Maori Portraits The Tattooed Spirit

Berlin’s Old National Gallery is opening a new chapter of art history with an exhibition showing Gottfried Lindauer’s 19th-century portraits of New Zealand’s Maori people.
Gottfried Lindauer's portrait of Paora Tuhaere.

Perhaps there have been press conferences at museums that took place earlier in the morning than this one – but almost certainly this conference was the most unusual.

Berlin’s Old National Gallery (Alte Nationalgalerie) called the media together on Tuesday at exactly 7:34 a.m, the precise moment of sunrise. Being in Germany, the sun was hidden behind thick November gray clouds. Minutes later, a small elderly man with thick white hair came out wearing a mantle of brown kiwi feathers draped over his shoulders.

The museum’s foyer echoed as Patu Hohepa, a Maori elder accompanied by two women also in resplendent shawls, started the ceremony with singing. A man wearing only a black loincloth and two white feathers on his head, walked up the stairs brandishing his stone weapon while sticking out his tongue. His chest and face were adorned with geometric tattoos.

Eventually the Maori, New Zealand’s indigenous people, headed upstairs with the country’s ambassador to Germany to a new exhibition. Elder Patu Hohepa stepped in front of all 48 paintings to establish contact with the spirits behind them and ask permission for the museum to show them.

Patu Hohepa, a Maori elder, stepped in front of all 48 paintings to establish contact with the spirits behind them and ask permission for the museum to show them.

The spectacular opening was a fitting event for an exhibition of Maori portraits by the 19th century German painter Gottfried Lindauer.

They show Maori in their traditional dress, covered in jade jewelry and carrying decorative weaponry. Many faces are completely covered in blue-black tribal tattoos. What at the time was largely reserved for ethnologists, Lindauer claimed for fine art.

The magnificent show is easily on par with the museum’s collection including works by Caspar David Friedrich and other German romanticists.

It also means that the painter Gottfried Lindauer (1839 – 1926) can no longer be ignored by art historians. The Old National Gallery brings together two worlds that had more contact with each other at the time than many could have guessed: Born in what today is Pilsen in the Czech Republic, Mr. Lindauer was trained at the Vienna Academy. Lacking work and hoping to escape military service, he immigrated in 1874 to New Zealand, where he discovered what would become his artistic leitmotif: the country’s indigenous people.

Lindauer and his greatest patron, the businessman Henry Partridge, quickly realized that an entire culture was threatened with extinction and being brutally marginalized by European colonists.

The artist, who showed his paintings in store windows because Auckland, located in the North Island of New Zealand, had neither an art market nor a museum at the time, and portrayed the Maori as equals to the Europeans. He painted them in a style reserved for the aristocracy and ruling class: a classic three-quarter angle with a sepia brown background or against a dramatically cloudy sky. The men and women subjects stare seriously, but they transport a vibrancy of intelligence and wisdom even 150 years later. Mr. Lindauer’s respectful portrayals of the Maori encouraged them to commission his work themselves, often using photos of their ancestors.

In Lindauer’s age, black-and-white photos of New Zealand’s supposedly wild and tattooed savages were extremely popular in Europe. Known as “Cartes de Visite,” they were meant to legitimize Christian missionary work and the violent displacement of the indigenous people by white settlers. But the Maori used them to remember their proud past and family members. Roughly a hundred examples are on display at the Old National Gallery. They are revered by the Maori as much as Lindauer’s portraits.

That’s because their relationship to the deceased is wholly different than that of the West. A spiritual tie to family members remains beyond death. The generational bonds are represented with facial tattoos known as Moko, which played a big role in the current Lindauer exhibition.

For each portrait to be shown, the respective family had to give its permission, which is why it’s the first time Mr. Lindauer’s work is being shown in Europe.

Patu Hohepa, the Maori elder in Berlin, said there was a spiritual logic that a part of Mr. Lindauer’s soul was also returning home with the exhibition.


To contact the author: [email protected]