Last week I found myself having an art history lesson with a class of 8 year olds. At first I was a bit put out that the peace that I was enjoying in the Art Gallery was disturbed but I was soon captivated by the observations that these young minds were making.
We were sitting in the Maori portrait gallery. The class was arranged in a semi circle sitting cross legged on the floor in front of a wall of oil paintings in thick wooden frames while I sat behind them on a sofa in the middle of the room trying not to look interested. The portraits we were looking at were by Gottfried Lindauer, a name perhaps better associated with a glass of bubbles in New Zealand. I suspect that even the children knew that such is the prominence of Lindauer sparkling wine at Christmas, birthdays and all other celebrations.
Lindauer (the artist) painted portraits of important Maori proudly dressed in their ceremonial cloaks, feathers in their hair, weapons in hand. The teacher gave her class 20 seconds ‘looking time, no talking’ and then asked what they noticed in the portraits. The first response was from a little girl with long blond curly hair. “ They all have the same coloured lips” she said.
“Yes they do” replied the teacher, explaining to the class that all the people in the paintings were wearing moko (tattoo) on their faces which told the story of their family and their life.
“As the people get older their moko grows because they have more story to tell ” she said. I could tell that she’d lost them at that point. The boys were more interested in the intricate greenstone tikis worn by some of the people in the pictures and the girls were whispering to each other that the ladies looked scary. I had to agree. The teacher explained that the people who had been painted had important jobs and they were wearing clothes and jewellery that showed us how important they were. The children noticed the cloaks and the feathers and the tikis. One of the boys said that they looked brave and his teacher agreed and smiled. “They were leaders” she said and another boy added “You have to be brave to be a leader”.
All the children recognised the portrait of Guide Sofia and they knew that she was a brave leader. They knew that she worked as a guide for visitors at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua because many of them had been there to see the bubbling mud and the geysers and they knew that Guide Sophia was a very brave lady because she had sheltered lots of people in her house when Mt Tarawera erupted and destroyed the Pink and White Terraces of Lake Tarawera in 1886.
Lindauer’s paintings are so good that they look like photographs. I’m not sure that the class fully grasped the idea that these were paintings that took hours and hours to paint. In this digital age, this is a truly incredible concept but one day they will know and they will appreciate the Lindauer portraits even more.
After leaving the Auckland Art Gallery, I stopped at an exhibition of Charles F. Goldie portraits called “As Rembrandt would have painted the Maori” on its final day. Goldie was from a different generation to Lindauer (he was 56 yrs when Lindauer died in 1926) and his portraits are perhaps more celebrated than Lindauer’s. A Goldie portrait is even more like a photograph than even Lindauer could manage. The detail is extraordinary, but the golden light that suffuses a Lindauer portrait is missing. Goldie portraits hang alongside Lindauer’s in the Art gallery so it is possible to compare the techniques of these most famous portrait artists. We should give thanks to them both for the remarkable way that they have captured a part of our history on canvas.
Categories: New Zealand