Artwork Description / Detail
Te Wharekauri Tahuna, Ngati Manawa (Tuhoe) tribe, appeared in several portraits by Charles Goldie. A priest (tohunga) from the Galatea district near Murupara, during a visit to see him Goldie took several photos from which he later made a series of important works. These include several versions of portraits that he completed from 1910 onwards, entitled A Noble Relic of a Noble Race and Thoughts of a Tohunga, of which excellent examples are in the Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa Tongarewa respectively.
The various portraits show Te Wharekauri either in profile or full-frontal, either with a white white wispy beard or clean shaven. However there are features common to all the portraits: the greenstone ear pendants, the cloak and the fine tiki suspended from his neck on a cord. The sculptor Nelson Illingworth had already modelled Te Wharekauri in 1908, and a reference to this in a newspaper clipping kept by Goldie inspired the artist to visit him soon after and take the photographs that Roger Blackley says “were the basis for the various subsequent portraits of Te Wharekauri“. Because Goldie based all his portraits of Te Wharekauri on the same photos, the subject appears to be the same age in all versions. A late version of A Noble Relic, auctioned in 2008, was said to be Goldie’s last work painted in 1941. Clearly, Wharekauri Tahuna was significant to the artist.
Interestingly, one portrait of Te Wharekauri won Goldie an Honorable Mention at the Paris Salon in 1935. The painting, also called Thoughts of a Tohunga, was referred to in the New Zealand Magazine of 1941 as follows: “Another, whose portrait by Goldie was a revelation to the art world in Paris and London, was the ancient warrior and tohunga Wharekauri, whom Goldie found in Whirinaki, on the border of the Urewera Country. He was at least a 100 years old – not the only centenarian in the artist’s sitters – he had been a cannibal like many of his contemporaries.”
The current example is strongly lit from the viewer’s left and shows the tohunga’s features in shadowy profile with the light illuminating and dramatising his finely-painted facial moko. The tactile grooves of the moko cause the viewer to veritably ‘feel’ the chisel indentations, an illusion brilliantly conveyed by the artist’s brush. As a French authority on tattooing said in a letter to Goldie in 1935, “You have proved that art and documentation are not incompatible”.
In all the versions, Te Wharekauri looks downwards, his eyes half closed as if in meditation or communication with the spirit world. The pooling of shadow under his eyebrows intensifies the mood of introspection and inner thought, seemingly disengaging him from reality. Goldie enhances the illusion of our proximity to the sitter by cropping the image to head and shoulders and projecting the head in three dimensions with strong chiaroscuro, adding volume. As is usual with Goldie, the differing textures of the hair and beard, the tattoo and skin, the polished surfaces of the greenstone and the varied textures of the cloak contribute to a work of rich visual interest. Indeed, the consummate skill immediately apparent in this painting encapsulates everything one expects in a classic Goldie of his finest period.