Pilsen comeback for famous New Zealand artist

Photo: CTK

A special Maori ritual was held in front of the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen on Tuesday at the opening of an exhibition of Maori portraits by Pilsen-born painter Gottfried Lindauer. The artist, who was born in Pilsen in 1839, is largely unknown in the Czech Republic, but his pictures have become part of New Zealand’s national cultural heritage. The exhibition is being held in the framework of Pilsen- European Capital of Culture 2015 and what makes it exceptional is that the valuable portraits have never before been allowed to leave New Zealand’s territory.

Photo: CTK
I spoke to Eva Reitspiesová of the West Bohemian Gallery and first asked her to tell me a few words about Gottfried Lindauer:

“Lindauer was a native of Pilsen. He was born in 1839 in this city and as his artistic talent was revealed at a very early age, he decided to go to Vienna.

“He enrolled in the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and studied there. He was trained in religious and historical painting and this is the field of art he was devoted to during the first few years of his career.

“He established a studio in Pilsen, he specialised in portraits of local middle-calls citizens and he apparently established a good clientele here.”

So why did he decide to leave for New Zealand?

“There are several explanations why decided to leave his existence here. One reason seems that with the introduction of photography during the 1860’s there was a big competition of photo studios in Pilsen and he may have not had enough commissions for portraits.

Gottfried Lindauer,  photo: Public Domain
“Another reason is that he was a very anti-militaristic person and he wanted to avoid military service in the army. So these two reasons seem to contribute to his decision that he suddenly in 1874 he landed a ship in Hamburg and sailed to Wellington.

“Since then he spent the rest of his life, more than 50 years, in New Zealand painting portraits of local people - the Maoris, as well as the European settlers.”

The portraits later became part of New Zealand’s national heritage. How did that happen?

“The Maoris, like other people in the Pacific region, in general do not like to be portrayed. They do not like to have images of themselves. It seems that GL was such a special man, that he somehow managed to win their trust.

“Apparently he had some special personal qualities and he established a really strong rapport with the Maoris and they actually allowed him to make portraits of the tribal chiefs and other important personalities of Maori history.

Photo: CTK
“For Maori identity it is crucial where they come from to which tribe they belong and so the descendants always look up to their ancestor, to their great grand-father, and cherish him with deep emotions.

“They still consider them as living beings, so even nowadays the Maori talk to the depicted ancestors as if they were still alive and have very personal relationships between each other.”

You said that Maoris don’t like being portrayed, so I guess this is why the collection is so unique.

“Actually, Gottfried Lindauer was definitely the first painter who produced such a grand collection of so many Maori representatives. It is interesting that he was supported by a benefactor called Henry Partridge.

"Partridge actually built up the whole collection and nowadays it is called the Partridge collection. The portraits are displayed in the Auckland Art Gallery and some of them were loaned to Pilsen."

How difficult was the process of loaning the pictures?

“Yes, it was not an easy process and it involved several steps. We had to get the approval not only of the loaning institution, which is the Auckland Art Gallery, but most of all we had to obtain permission from the Maori descendants.

“These descendants are represented by a group called Hareawa, which is an advisory board within the Auckland Art Gallery. It is a group of Maori scholars and artists who are always invited for consultations.

Maori ritual,  photo: CTK
“It was them who had to decide whether they would trust us enough to let these portraits move to Europe for several months. And it was very clear from the very beginning that all this had a very personal basis.

“So we had to convince the Hareawa members that our intentions were clear and that we were ‘good people’. Only then they trusted us enough to make this loan happen and enable us to have the collection here in Pilsen.”

The exhibition Gottfried Lindauer – Pilsen Painter of the New Zealand Maori, will continue at the Gallery of West Bohemia in Pilsen until September 20.