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‘Maori Portraits’ grace de Young

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“The Maori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand” recently opened at the de Young with special guests including visitors from New Zealand and Bay Area residents of Maori ancestry. (Courtesy Janos Gereben)

Museum exhibit previews are rarely emotional, but a recent one for the de Young’s “Maori Portraits” show was an exception. In a moving “hongi” ceremony, visitors from New Zealand, Bay Area residents of Maori ancestry and museum officials embraced, touching forehead and nose together.

Max Hollein, director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said the exhibition’s 31 portraits constitute a national treasure, “a living connection to the past” and tell “the story of what art can be.”

Austrian-born Hollein pointed to the vast international links involved in “The Maori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand,” which opened last week and is on view through April.

Lindauer was born in 1839 in Pilsen, Bohemia (later part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, now in the Czech Republic), studied in Vienna, and moved to New Zealand in 1874, where he lived until his death in 1926.

A foreigner deeply involved with native culture and embraced by the Maori, Lindauer became an acclaimed artist in New Zealand, specializing in portraits of the country’s indigenous people.

Curator Christina Hellmich, who emphasized the importance of “cross-cultural interactions” and of immigration, said Lindauer captured the likenesses of important historical figures among several generations and that the exhibition pays tribute to them.

The most striking aspects of the portraits are ever-present tattoos (“Ta moko”). Faces and bodies are covered with symbols denoting tribe, origin, rite of passage and status. Men have full facial tattoos, women had their chin, lips and nostrils marked.

Capt. James Cook, among the first explorers from the West, described what he saw in 1769: “Spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance… The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination.”

Painted between 1874 and 1903, the portraits show Maori rangatira (men and women of esteem and rank), warriors, politicians, diplomats, tour guides, landholders, entrepreneurs and traders.

One less formal painting is “Heeni Hirini and Child,” a portrait of a woman with an infant on her back. Lindauer’s most famous work, it was awarded a gold medal at the St. Louis World Fair and, as the artist’s favorite, is one of 30 versions he painted over a span of 24 years.


The Maori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand
Where: de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays–Sundays; closes April 1
Admission: $10 (youth) to $15 (general)
Contact: (415) 750-3600, deyoung.famsf.org

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