Maori Art Design Prints from Menzies "Maori Patterns" released

This afternoon NZ Prints have released the first of a series of prints of traditional Maori art designs first collected by JH Menzies at the end of the 19th Century.  Initially published in the NZ design classic "Maori Patterns: Painted & Carved" in 1904 what JH Menzies called "Maori patterns" make wonderful wall art today.  With plates from the original folio extremely rare and expensive NZ Fine Prints has reproduced a selection of designs from "Maori Patterns" in the original size on a superb watercolour paper.  The only difference from the original book plates is our series of prints of the designs from "Maori Patterns" are printed using the giclee process using extremely lightfast inks that will last for decades.  Below is Menzies original introduction to his book which offers a fascinating insight into both his motivations for collecting traditional Maori designs from meeting houses and also the mindset of a well-meaning but culturally insensitive Pakeha of the Victorian era. Although Menzies obviously admired the art of Maori  artists his assumptions about the past and future of art practice by Maori now seem extremely dated.

Introduction to Menzies' NZ Design classic "Maori Patterns: Painted & Carved"

Art Print of Design #7 from "Maori Patterns"
"Maori carving, as practised among the Maoris long ago, was a sacred work, as well as the beautifully painted patterns. Every design had  a name, and also a Karakia [ritual incantation] belonging to it, which had to be said while it was being carved or painted. No person was taught these Karakia necessary to the work, except a Rangatira [highly respected person]. Therefore no carving could be done amongst the Maoris except by a man of good birth. If any mistake - gross wilful mistake - in the pattern was made, then the work became very unlucky, both to the carver and also to the person who at any time owned the work done. In fact, a Hara [transgression] had been committed, and ill-luck would follow. It may be that the various patterns once had a meaning; I myself think that they had, but that the meaning was lost long ago, just as the meaning of most of the Karakias was probably lost long ago, too. [Menzies was quite incorrect here, his blithe assumption that the meaning of the designs was lost was symptomatic of his divorcing of the designs he collected from their origins, a separation that makes it difficult to trace where each design is from and its meaning. Menzies lumped all Maori art design together failing to distinguish that kowhaiwhai were specific to each iwi, not to Maori in general.].

I believe that the art has steadily advanced; for instance, it was at one time very shallow, and was composed of small triangular notches with lines drawn between them as seen in some of the oldest carving. Then the same patterns were produced more deeply, with straight lines as a ground pattern, instead of pricking, as done on other carving. Then the beautiful curved ground was introduced, turning itself round and round, the ends of the commas, if I may so call them [the design Menzies is referring to is, of course, the "koru"], which compose nearly all the patterns. Then this was improved upon by making these circular ground patterns with three lines and beads between the three lines; and then deep cutting was introduced to show up the pattern in places.

I wish, also, to point out that there is no trace of nature in Maori carving, it is entirely decorative - like Arab patterns. Then, as to the painted work, especially the many rafter patterns [kowhaiwhai], for nearly all the painted work was done in the roof, inside the Maori houses. In the arrangement of the two colours used, viz.: red and black - the red being a very carefully prepared hematite sifted through leaves, and finely powdered charcoal - both were mixed with fish oil. The pattern in the first and earliest work was shown by a light-colored wood, sometimes with a ground of red and black, so showing the pattern. Then as to the arrangement of these two colours, red and black. They, I think it is evident, were generally arranged so as to break the monotony of the design and a change was often introduced in each panel, or where the pattern repeated itself.

There were terminal patterns at the end of each rafter, at the bow of canoes, and in other places. The design was not, as a rule, made to fit into the space or rafter, but was cut anywhere, and a terminal pattern introduced to end the work. I think that the carving of even small boxes and weapons was painted always, in the old days, and were not finished till so painted. The very old boxes in the British Museum are so painted, as well as carved.

Design #12 from "Maori Patterns" - New Art Print
Maori carving was done in the old days, especially the beautifully and finely carved weapons and boxes, by old men. They sat on a sand-hill, or in some sheltered place, with a small boy to watch for enemies, and carved; they carried the work with them on a journey as well. Also there were guilds of carvers, who went from place to place, and charged a high price for their work, and when the work was finished, each man put his especial mark in one place in the house carved by them, with all the others so employed, in fact, their signatures.

Maori carving long ago was an exceedingly slow and carefully executed work, done without the aid of iron or steel tools; it was done with shells and greenstone, and sometimes burned out, I think, as well. Maori carving was very much admired by the Maoris themselves, and is still; it was of considerable value, as well, amongst them. I think that at the present day many of the young Maoris dread doing Maori carving, not knowing the Karakias; they considered it rather a doubtful art, surrounded by a risk of possible ill-luck [Menzies did not get this prediction right thank goodness!].

I have attempted to collect and perpetuate these beautiful designs, painted and carved, though many of the patterns could be both painted and carved amongst the Maoris. In fact, I think originally the painting was not blocked in, but painted in red and black lines, like the ground pattern in the carving. I have tried my best to very carefully reproduce these beautiful designs. I have carved most of them in wood and stone myself, and have been more and more struck by the good taste and art shown in them. They belong only to New Zealand, and are not found in the other islands inhabited by a people calling themselves Maoris in the Pacific.

I do not pretend that this is a complete collection. There are probably many more patterns, and it now remains for some Maori of good birth to improve upon what I have done; also I do not think that Maori art is composed only of carving and painting. Most beautiful work was done by the Rangatira women, and such work often took years to finish, and was of even greater value than the carving done by the men, and I do hope that some Maori woman of good birth and wealth will publish a book of Maori mat patterns (there are Maori women of means and good birth who could do so) before these beautiful designs are lost."

J. H. Menzies

All of this brand new series of art prints from "Maori Patterns: Painted and Carved" including the designs pictured in this article are listed for sale in the Maori art collection at New Zealand Fine Prints.  

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