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The Dutch immigrant who built a bridge between European and Māori art

Theo Schoon. Photo/Supplied

Theo Schoon cast himself as an outsider, but his true legacy is revealed in a definitive new biography. 

Insufferable. Inflexible, intolerant and frequently insensitive. Indonesian-born Dutch artist Theo Schoon was relentless in his denigration of a Pākehā culture he saw as “ignorant, provincial, derivative”; he was dismissive of women and critical of contemporary Māori artists. But he was also generous, inspirational and, argues art historian Damian Skinner, one of the most influential figures in the story of 20th-century New Zealand art and culture.

“While he was truly awful at times, he was also mesmerising and charismatic and filled with the kind of generous knowledge that people could really profit from. He is a genius, if you believe in that word, but he is a flawed genius and he is not consistently a genius. He offended almost everybody, but his generosity and excellence as an artist mean you just had to look over that.”

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Skinner does. His new biography is a compelling and decisive overview of Schoon, who died in 1985. It begins in 1915 in Central Java, where Schoon was born into a privileged colonial Dutch household in a city infused with Javanese culture. Sent back to the Netherlands for “proper” schooling, including a formal arts education in Rotterdam, Schoon experienced the outsiderness that would become part of his identity.

He and his family fled to New Zealand as Japan entered World War II. In Christchurch, Schoon gravitated to the group of artists and writers driving literary journal Landfall, including Charles Brasch, Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann and James K Baxter. By now an accomplished artist, elegant and openly gay, Schoon added an element of exoticism to the inward-looking nationalist project of New Zealand art and letters, giving lectures on Indonesian art and architecture and dramatic performances of classical Javanese dance.

In 1945, when he encountered Māori rock art, he found an artform closer to the modernist experiments in abstraction and so-called “primitive art” than the realist paintings adorning New Zealand’s public art galleries. Relatively unknown outside anthropological circles, dismissed by some as mere doodles, these drawings and carvings spoke to Schoon of traditional ritualistic art practices in which he, as an artist, was able to participate.

Schoon at work on a gourd. Photo/Supplied

As Skinner writes, “Schoon was laying the foundations for what would become one of his enduring personal myths – a story of personal and artistic transformation driven by his encounter with these ochre and charcoal images on rock walls.”

Under the direction of the Canterbury Museum, he spent three years tracing, drawing and photographing the rock drawings of Canterbury and Otago. It was a labour of obsession, with Schoon sleeping in limestone shelters and leaky farmers’ huts through wind and rain and enduring limited funds and fraying relationships with his sponsors. Inevitably, he came under criticism for touching up faded drawings with a greasy crayon, a regrettable practice that came to dominate his legacy. But he succeeded in bringing this extraordinary archive of threatened images to the attention of other artists, including a young Gordon Walters, and the entire country – in 1947, his photographs were featured in the Listener, headlined “New Zealand’s oldest art galleries”.

“He brought it to artists, artists put it in their work, people like [ARD] Fairburn promoted it, then it turns up in placemats and biscuit tins,” says Skinner.

Schoon predictably took the credit. “I laid the foundations for it,” he wrote, “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.”

Reconstruction of a Māori rock drawing. Photo/National Library

Was Schoon responsible for Walters’ use of the koru motif? For Fairburn’s rock art-inspired prints? For Colin McCahon’s swing to Māori art? “It’s hard to say,” Skinner says. “Certainly Pākehā New Zealanders were becoming more open to things they weren’t open to before. So he is a vanguard of a wider cultural moment; he is right there at the front.”

At Auckland Museum, he became fascinated by the carved gourds of early Māori, recognising in their intricate designs similarities with tā moko, kōwhaiwhai and modernist abstract painting.

“He knows nothing about gardening, but he throws himself headlong into a 10-year experiment to create the perfect patch of dirt in which gourds will flourish, because he wants something to carve, because he is interested in moko.”

As always, Skinner writes, Schoon spins “a fascinating tale of himself as an artistic outsider who had never intended to stay in New Zealand, but had got caught by the Māori rock drawings and was slowly transformed into an abstract artist who was now consumed by his search for the perfect gourd”.

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.

Condescending? Absolutely. But at a time of little understanding of, or interest in, Māori art and culture, he was unique in his determination to bring Māori and European art together to create something entirely new. In 1969, captivated by the design possibilities of pounamu, he moved to Hokitika to work at Westland Greenstone, joining a small group of contemporary carvers including long-term friend and maybe lover Peter Hughson. He lost his job when he refused to carve heitiki for the tourist market. Such forays into carving – and photography and ceramics – defied the cultural hierarchy that placed art (painting) above craft (everything else). “That is the joy of him,” says Skinner. “He just goes where he needs to go. It is glorious and brilliantly chaotic.”

And endlessly contradictory. He loved Māori art and “risked his health, wealth and reputation to promote it”, but was critical about the people who did it. He made sweeping comments about the superiority of men, particularly gay men, over women but enjoyed the support of close female friends. He claimed he was anti-colonial but many of his attitudes were based on colonial privilege, says Skinner. “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 – that is the story, really.”

THEO SCHOON: A BIOGRAPHY, by Damian Skinner (Massey University Press, $60)

Split Level View Finder: Theor Schoon and New Zealand Art, Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, Titirangi, March 7-May 31, 2020.

This article was first published in the January 5, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.