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The Rediscovery of Theo Schoon

The Rediscovery of Theo Schoon


Theo Schoon, New Vision Gallery, Auckland, 1965


In his authoritative biography of Theo Schoon, Damian Skinner recounts the final visit of the psychologist John Money and novelist Janet Frame to his Grey Lynn home in the summer of 1966. The aptly-named Money was sponsor of several writers and artists and Frame had attended some of his classes at Otago University as part of her teacher training. In October 1945, after Frame wrote an essay mentioning thoughts of suicide, Money had facilitated her committal to the psychiatric ward at Dunedin Public Hospital, leading to eight years in various psychiatric institutions. Once she became famous, however, Money became an avid supporter of her work (he is referred to in her autobiography An Angel At My Table as John Forrest). Despite the fact that Money had also subsidized him financially for many years, Schoon had not replied to any of his letters and was not answering the phone. When Frame and Money arrived at his house on Home Street, they found the veranda overgrown with gourd vines and the interior filled with years of drawing materials, accumulated trash, and bags of clay, as well as plaster casts of feet and hands from antique statues. Assuming Schoon had moved out, they removed a handful of the notebooks, photographic albums, and art books they discovered stored under the house. Money never saw Schoon again, but took the few items he could carry back to his home in Baltimore.


Much more was lost with Schoon’s abrupt decision to decamp than Money realised. A few months before his visit, the house’s owner, Martin Pharazyn, had received a letter from Schoon declaring his deep unhappiness and his intention to leave Auckland. Pharazyn helped him pack up twelve cases of personal possessions, but when he returned a week later they had disappeared. Assuming that Schoon had removed everything of value, he contracted some workmen to take care of the remaining rubbish. When Pharazyn arrived at Home Street, he found three men burning Schoon’s paintings, prints, and drawings in the back yard. It turned out that Schoon and another friend had previously packed up his remaining artworks ready to be shipped to Rotorua and stored them under the house. Pharazyn took the pieces to the school art department to show his students, but shortly afterwards the building in which they were stored also burned down. Skinner sums up Schoon's career as a story of “devil-may-care courage in the face of conservative and provincial values, of bad luck and carelessness, poverty, a willingness to live in miserable conditions in order to pursue his artistic interests, and of extraordinary charm and generosity mixed with intolerance and sometimes cruelty towards those who disappointed him, or who didn’t share his beliefs about the best antidote for the ignorance and conservatism of New Zealand culture.”


Schoon (1915-1985) was born to Dutch parents in the East Indies and spent an idyllic childhood there. He attended the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and travelled widely across Europe, then returned to Java and set up an art studio in 1936 in Bandung. As well as producing publicity images for a Dutch shipping line, he created photographic folios documenting the local people, their lifestyles, and environment. With the threat of a world war looming, he and his parents emigrated to New Zealand, where he briefly attended Canterbury University's Ilam School of Fine Arts. Although generally unimpressed with the provincialism of the contemporary art scene, when he moved to Wellington in 1941 he came into contact with a handful of artists whose work he both approved of and influenced, such as Rita Angus (whose interest in Buddhist art and culture he initiated), Gordon Walters (with whom he shared a fascination for non-figurative painting), Dennis Knight Turner, and A.R.D Fairburn. Both Douglas MacDiarmid and Angus (who Money also supported) painted intimate portraits of Schoon during this period. Similarly, in the late 1940s, Schoon gravitated towards the experimental group of artists and writers behind the Dunedin literary journal Landfall, including Charles Brasch, Leo Bensemann, and James K. Baxter. By then an accomplished artist himself, elegant and openly gay, Schoon added an element of exoticism to the inward-looking nationalist project of New Zealand art and letters, lecturing on Indonesian art and architecture, and giving dramatic performances of classical Javanese dance.


Although his formal art school training was traditional and conservative, his European sojourn had familiarised Schoon with the principles of the Bauhaus, the German art and design school that revolutionised twentieth-century art and taught that divisions between art and craft were illusory. The idea that both were equally valid forms of artistic expression profoundly affected Schoon, enabling him to experiment in many different media, including drawing, printmaking, painting, wood carving, potting, stone carving, jewelry, and photography. Throughout his life, he also drew inspiration from the abstract and geometric forms of customary Māori art. While Schoon compared himself to a “cat sniffing around in a strange warehouse,” his approach to ethnographic art has remained controversial - was it a sincere acknowledgement of previously overlooked indigenous artistic achievement, simply a matter of cultural appropriation, or outright pillage and plunder? The question will no doubt continue to provide fodder for academic dissertations and future debate, but Schoon himself never profited financially, supporting himself with a variety of menial jobs, including working as a nurse at Auckland Mental Hospital in 1949, where he shamelessly stole ideas and designs from a patient (Rolfe Hattaway); as a farmhand at the Mt. Albert Plant Research Station in 1952; and as an occasional bookbinder. He largely relied upon the generosity of friends like Money for accommodation and support.


Both a fastidious aesthete and an inveterate slob, Schoon was full of fascinating contradictions and always considered himself to be a social outsider - “I have nothing in common with the white New Zealand culture, which is Victorian and dead,” he told one correspondent. “But the Māori culture, decadent as it may be, still has colour, flavour, and that irrationality which never fails to baffle, astonish, and fascinate me.” His exotic childhood in the East Indies continued to influence Schoon throughout his career. He was a cantankerous and flamboyant bohemian who enjoyed dressing up in Balinese costume, sitting in full lotus position, and demonstrating the intricate hand movements of Javanese dance to anyone who was interested. Although Schoon enjoyed the support of a few close female friends, he generally disdained women, making sweeping comments about the superiority of gay men over women. According to Skinner, he claimed to be anti-colonial, yet many of his attitudes were based on colonial privilege - “He is racist, yet he could see things racists couldn’t see. He embraces outsiderness, then he complains endlessly about being an outsider. He is this bundle of extraordinary contradictions held together by this intense commitment to what he believes as an artist. He is committed and obsessive but he is both generous and horribly ungenerous.” Schoon led a peripatetic existence and wherever he lived - often in squalid conditions - he enjoyed creating a stir, often simply by wandering around in the Javanese-style clothes he made for himself. Although condescending at times, he was also a charismatic teacher and mentor, convinced of his artistic superiority and demanding that other artists take on the student role, even if they were older and more experienced.


Years after he came to New Zealand in 1939, Schoon continued to describe his Kiwi residence as a kind of exile, only made bearable by his chance encounter with Māori art, which grew into an obsessive fixation. Māori culture provided him with objects, ideas, and social patterns that evoked memories of everything he had left behind in Indonesia. He first became fascinated by the ochre and charcoal rock drawings that decorate the limestone caves of South Canterbury and North Otago during the mid-1940s. Rock art is generally defined as being one of two types: petroglyphs, or designs pecked into a rock surface using a harder stone; and pictographs, literally rock painting executed with dyes derived either from mineral or vegetable sources. These primitive colours were either daubed on using the fingers, painted on using brushes made of yucca fibres, or blown through a hollow reed over a mold, handprints being the most common in this style. Anthropological research has resulted in the identification of numerous regional styles, common design motifs, and even the relative age of certain panels, but the most compelling questions remain unanswered. Why was this work created, who was meant to see it, and for what purpose? Are these figures and patterns signs to be decoded, supplications to the gods, tribal symbols, or simply a form of prehistoric graffiti? Scattered across rough and inaccessible terrain, they are the earliest autochthonous art forms in New Zealand, but had previously been considered of little aesthetic interest, with ethnologist Roger Duff dismissing them as mere “doodling.” Schoon, however, was struck by their originality and convinced the Department of Internal Affairs to employ him to document them from 1945-48. Under the direction of the Canterbury Museum, he spent three years tracing, drawing, and photographing the pictographs he found in Canterbury and Otago. It was a labour of both love and obsession, with Schoon sleeping in limestone shelters and leaky farmers’ huts and enduring limited funds and frayed relationships with his sponsors. On several of his trips to these caves he was accompanied by Money.


Given Schoon's sexual orientation, it is worth noting that, late in his professional career at Johns Hopkins University, Money became notorious for his belief that gender was learned rather than innate when it was revealed that his most famous case was fundamentally flawed. In 1966, a botched circumcision left eight-month-old David Reimer without a penis. Money persuaded the baby's parents that surgery would be in his best interest and Reimer underwent an orchidectomy in which his testicles were removed, he was given the name Brenda, and raised as female. Money further recommended hormone treatment, to which the parents agreed, and published a number of papers reporting the reassignment as successful. Reimer's case came to international attention when Rolling Stone published an article about him in 1997. Money was also critical in debates on pedophilia, stating that there was a difference between sadistic and affectional pedophilia which he claimed was about love, not sex - “If I were to see the case of a boy aged ten or eleven who's intensely erotically attracted toward a man in his twenties or thirties, if the relationship is totally mutual, and the bonding is genuinely totally mutual ... then I would not call it pathological in any way.” Money asserted that affectional pedophilia is caused by a surplus of parental love that became erotic and is not a behavioural disorder, taking the position that heterosexuality is just another example of a societal, and therefore superficial, ideological concept. In July 2002, Reimer's brother died from an overdose of antidepressants. Two years later - after suffering years of severe depression, financial instability, and marital troubles - Reimer committed suicide by shooting himself in the head with a sawed-off shotgun and his parents publicly blamed the deaths of both of their sons on Money's methodology. As his Parkinson's disease worsened, Money donated a substantial part of his art collection to the Eastern Southland Art Gallery in Gore - maybe more out of a sense of guilt and shame than personal generosity.


Fortunately, Money was not the only person Schoon exposed to the South Island pictographs. As early as 1941, he also introduced Walters and Fairburn to these rock paintings, encouraging their interest in modern abstract painters like Paul Klee (the Swiss artist and Bauhaus instructor) and Juan Miro (whose biomorphic paintings Schoon had encountered while studying in Rotterdam), and showing them how to appreciate the ancient cave sites from the avant-garde perspective European modernism. Predictably, and with more than a hint of envious resentment, he took the credit for their rediscovery of Māori art - “I laid the foundations for it,” he claimed, “and explained an artistic system, which I knew would function extremely well, in the framework of formal abstract art, and Gordon proceeded to make one bloody smasher after another - under his own steam.”


Schoon himself painted a number of canvasses in the style of rock art from the Kaikoura area, but his forms are cleaner and more rigorously uniform. Employing a stripped-down vocabulary of pattern and line, Schoon felt he had tapped into an ancient spiritual force and transformed them into carefully arranged linear designs. In a 1947 article for the New Zealand Listener reflecting the primitivist influence of Klee and Miro, he wrote “Again and again I have found the most surprising and original creations - major artistic feats - which border on the uncanny frozen music in which the very soul of the mythopoetic Polynesian has been crystallised.” As Caroline Vercoe has suggested, “his early immersion in Javanese culture further contributed to his belief that indigenous art offered a purer form of the mystical truths of the universe … Schoon's paintings reflect his his forward-thinking philosophy that fusing a Māori art and European modernism would open up fruitful new paths for modern art in New Zealand.” The scale of this achievement has been overshadowed by the fact that Schoon often used grease crayons to retouch many of the original rock drawings he discovered, even leaving a two meter long signature on one cave wall in an astonishing display of entitled self-importance.


However sacrilegious this may appear on the surface, Schoon and Walters were highly impressed by the petrographic economy, usually one tone of black or red painted on the pale limestone surface. Many of the rock drawings were of single figures viewed either in profile or head on, with no illusionism, no sense of perspective, and no painterly handling - just a subtle design entirely dependent on shape, line, and pattern. They particularly admired the visual counterpoint that connected the simplified figures to the ground, so that positive and negative shapes both played a compositional role. Back in his Wellington studio, Walters relied on Schoon's photographs to rethink his own work and effect a radical change of style. Knight Turner first encountered the drawings in several magazine articles generated by Schoon's documentation and discussed therm extensively with Schoon when they lived in Auckland in the 1950s. The rock drawings were a critical element in the way all three artists grappled with European modernism, but while Walters and Knight Turner treated their compositions as a series of discrete motifs stacked one upon another in a shallow pictorial space, Schoon tended to create a sense of visual ambiguity and depth of field by using parallel lines that complicated the relationship between foreground and background.


Gordon Walters, Dennis Knight Turner, and Theo Schoon, Wellington, 1942


Schoon moved to Auckland in 1949, staying for a while with A.R.D. Fairburn. The following year, he relocated to Rotorua, where he began a series of photographic studies of mudpools and silica formations around Rotorua and Taupo. The film-maker and writer Martin Rumsby often accompanied Schoon during his explorations in the Waiotapu geothermal area, writing - “Theo told me that nature worked in repeating cycles - that was his theory. So, if he wanted a particular design in the mudpools, for example, then he would wait and count them out. That is, a particular form may appear with every seventh ‘plop’ so, once he had seen it he would count out how many formations it would take to reappear then photograph it.” Schoon revisited to Auckland in 1952, where he continued to explore ethnographic art forms, especially Māori designs employed in moko (facial tattooing) and kowhaiwhai (the ceiling rafters of meeting houses), as well as growing and carving his own gourds. He moved to the East Coast in 1961 to study traditional techniques with the Māori carver Pine Taiapa and entered the orbit of artists like Paratene Matchitt, which connected him to other pākehā curators and academics like Margaret Orbell, who was researching and writing about Māori art during this period. In 1962, Schoon published an article on growing gourds in the Māori magazine Te Ao Hou, but sold most of them to tourists and few have remained in New Zealand. His gourds were conservative compared with new work by emerging Māori artists but, with characteristic arrogance, he believed he had a “greater regard for the finer points” of Māori tradition than Māori themselves. Nevertheless, they were the only artwork by a pākehā to be featured in an exhibition of Māori art held at Turangawaewae marae, Ngaruawahia in 1963. Two years later he returned to Rotorua, where he continued to photograph mudpools and other geothermic activity.

Schoon shifted his focus again in 1968 when he began carving pounamu (greenstone jade) and moved to Hokitika, where he was employed by the Westland Greenstone Company in 1970, joining a small group of contemporary carvers, including his possible lover Peter Hughson. Receiving a grant from the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand, he devoted himself to serious academic research into jade carving techniques, including a fruitful trip to Hong Kong, but was dismissed from his job in 1971 when he refused to carve heitiki for the tourist market. He then moved to Sydney, where he wrote a book entitled Jade Country, an admixture of travelogue, personal reminiscence, and design manual, published in 1973. Schoon returned to New Zealand in 1982, but returned to Sydney in 1985, where he died, impoverished and largely overlooked, in a Salvation Army hospice in Randwick aged 69.


A 1982 exhibition in Rotorua inaugurated the start of a long overdue reassessment of Schoon's art in various media. Michael Dunn was one of the first critics to appraise his career accurately, claiming in an article for Art New Zealand that Schoon “must rank as one of the most formidable talents to have worked in this country in the past thirty years.” Dunn's insights are worth quoting at length:


“The artist himself, not one to suffer fools gladly, left for Australia in the early 'seventies, angered by years of neglect, hostility and lack of patronage. He was forced to watch third-rate talents reap rewards denied to his far more substantial achievements in the arts. It is doubtful whether there was a single work by him in a public art gallery at that time.


Paradoxically, Schoon was vilified for his efforts to extract something from what he saw as the only major artistic tradition available in this country - Māori art. Unsatisfied with tokenist gestures towards Māori culture (now so widespread in the arts) Schoon set out to learn the hard way precisely how Māori art was made. He applied himself to the task with a consuming passion and energy. His study did not take weeks but years. It was not made exclusively in the sheltered environment of libraries and museums but backed up by footwork around the country in search of any vestige of a living tradition.


In the process Schoon became a leading authority on the art of the Māori - not perhaps in an academic sense, but from sheer first-hand knowledge of surviving examples. Using his camera as a tool, Schoon built up his own reference file of negatives of carvings, tattooed beads, rock drawings, rafter-patterns and greenstone ornaments. Very little escaped his sharp eye and incisive analysis. From this basis Schoon gradually evolved his own works. In doing so he broke some of the rules laid down in fine art circles. How could a serious artist take photographs? Gourd growing could have nothing to do with art. And carving in greenstone - surely that must be a sad sign of artistic depravity!


Today the battles Schoon had to engage in single-handed through the 'fifties and 'sixties seem eminently worth fighting. His attempts to broaden out the base of contemporary art in New Zealand, in retrospect, appear far-sighted. And Schoon, despite his search for personal advances in his work, was in no sense isolationist in his attitudes. He tried hard to share his ideas with other artists - especially younger ones who were not firmly set in traditional moulds.


The influence of Schoon on New Zealand contemporary art is far greater than is popularly realised or acknowledged. Part of the reason for this is a conscious downplaying of his contribution. Who, for example, knows that Schoon was for some years a friend of Rita Angus and one of the main sources of her interest in Buddhist art and culture? One of the most important areas is the role played by Schoon in the development of non-figurative painting. His influence on the early work of Gordon Waiters is now better known: but his contacts with other painters, such as Denis Knight-Turner [sic], is little studied. It was Schoon, too, who provided A.R.D. Fairburn with the ideas for paintings and screen prints made in the late 'forties and 'fifties.


In terms of his own achievement, it is difficult to decide which area of his artistic practice is the most important. Certainly the photographs of the thermal areas near Rotorua must rank very high. Schoon spent years, from sun-up to sun-down, recording effects of light, colour and texture on mudpools and surrounding areas of thermal activity. These photographs show how far removed his vision is from that of the tourist or the superficial glance of the spectator.


It is the eye for the unexpected, a detail, a texture or a fleeting pattern caused by a mudpool bubble bursting, that Schoon looked for and captures with his lens.


His paintings and drawings also look amazingly fresh and inventive. Today they would still be challenging: when exhibited nearly twenty years ago they were simply unintelligible to New Zealand audiences. Schoon used his profound knowledge of line and shape acquired over the years to distill images of apparent simplicity which yet reveal a sophisticated handling of shape, space and pattern.”


Theo Schoon's Mural for Rotorua Post Office, 1982


Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art at Wellington's City Gallery is the first major multimedia retrospective of his work to be assembled since the Rotorua show. Curator Aaron Lister says it is the result of two years of intense research, locating and assembling as many pieces as possible - “His work is all over the place in the sense that he worked in painting, photography, carving, print-making and drawing. There is a lot dispersed far and wide … he gave a lot of it to friends, but of course many of those friends have now passed on.” Despite being dubbed the “Picasso and Braque of New Zealand art” by one critic, Schoon had a fraught relationship with Gordon Walters, whose work is currently on show at Te Papa. Lister says it is a unique opportunity to see works by both artists simultaneously - “It's ... amazing to have these two artists who worked so closely together, both as friends, then as enemies.” After Schoon's death, Te Papa purchased his extensive archive (some 16,000 items including artworks, sketches, letters, newspaper clippings, photographs and negatives, and correspondence) and mounted a partial exhibition in 2008.


Schoon's versatility was extraordinary, refusing throughout his career to separate ‘art’ and ‘craft.' The works displayed at City Gallery illustrate all of his major artistic interests: carved gourds and pounamu greenstone, Māori and Indonesian art, as well as designs for ceramics, paintings, prints, and photographs. These works not only provide a fresh perspective on the powerful and unique work of this extraordinarily versatile artist, but also bring into question the ulterior motives behind supposedly philanthropic donations. Another major collection of Schoon's work forms part of the John Money Collection at the Eastern Southland Gallery in Gore, consolidating the controversial artist's position as a pioneering New Zealand artist and enthusiastic proponent of Māori art. Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art is at Wellington's City from 27/7 to 3/11, with a curator's tour at 11 AM. A series of short talks and lectures will take place on the weekend of August 17/18.

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