Arts
Theo Schoon’s hand in our history

A month ago a 1960s carved gourd by Dutch émigré artist Theo Schoon (1915-1986) fetched over $70,000 at auction, seven times the pre-sale estimate.

In the last few years collectors have been catching up with this little known, but seminal, artist. His programme was so far sighted, so ambitious and in his lifetime, so seemingly impossible to achieve that it has taken the over half a century to provide some clarity as to Schoon’s endgame: no less than the uniting of indigenous art concepts with European modern art thinking into a synthesis that could only come from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Now is the perfect moment to consider Schoon’s contribution to our national culture.

Just after World War II, in a cave on the banks of the Opihi river north of Timaru in South Canterbury, the Dutch émigré artist Theo Schoon initiated a conversation that changed the direction of New Zealand art. In those damp South Island caves, described by Schoon as “New Zealand’s oldest art galleries” two young Pākehā artists came to the realisation that the centuries old Taniwha drawings were the key to creating a daring new chapter in the art of Aotearoa.

In the winter of 1946 Schoon had invited Gordon Walters to join him in the field to experience one of the most ambitious art research projects ever undertaken in New Zealand. For over four years Schoon survived on the most meagre of means in his pursuit of the Māori rock drawings found in caves throughout Otago and Canterbury. What he discovered and recorded is one of numerous enduring legacies defined by Schoon’s total immersion approach to fieldwork and his propensity to share his discoveries.

In the process Schoon established the model for a cross-cultural, multi-discipline art practice that was highly prescient. In the course of an artistic life spanning five decades Schoon’s oeuvre embraces art, applied art and literature: he was a published author, accomplished and refined painter and printmaker, photographer, ceramicist and carver of gourds and pounamu.

Theo Schoon cave art design, circa late 1940s. Photo: Supplied

The young Dutch artist had arrived in New Zealand at the outbreak of WWII and quickly connected to what can be described as the green shoots of New Zealand’s modern art scene. European, openly gay and quite the dandy, Schoon must have been impossible to ignore in wartime Wellington. Quite fearless, he obviously revelled in making a spectacle of himself.

“A cross between Nijinsky and Man Ray” is how Former Rotorua Art Gallery Director and curator John Perry recently described Schoon. Perry nudged Schoon back to New Zealand and staged the final exhibition during his lifetime (Theo Schoon, Collected Works in 1982).

Schoon is the very model of the seminal figure. His shapeshifting, cross-discipline, cross-cultural and even cross-dressing persona has made him near impossible to pin down and define. As a consequence his legacy has been fragmented. He is a fountainhead figure and the long tentacles of his reach have stretched into the homes, museums and the consciousness of New Zealanders since the 1940s.

After Schoon’s discoveries of the earliest forms of Māori art in the caves of the South Island, his attention became captivated by the dazzling variations of line inherent in kowhaiwahi and moko designs. It is this research, again freely shared, that ultimately resulted in Gordon Walters Koru paintings and the synthesis of modernist abstraction and indigenous imagery.

Although only four years older than Walters, Schoon was very much a pathfinder and mentor to the younger artist. In 1969 Walters recalled meeting Schoon: “In 1941 my meeting and subsequent friendship with Theo Schoon was perhaps the most decisive factor in my development. For the first time I had contact with an artist with ideas, trained in European art schools. From Schoon I had my first real training and began for the first time to work methodically and to think of myself as a painter.”

It is worth considering the nature of the New Zealand art scene in the post war period. It was a period that Walters considered sufficiently hostile to desist from exhibiting from 1949 to 1966.

The simple reality was that in the early 1950s Māori imagery and the cultural underpinning for kowhaiwhai, koru and other forms were not considered as subject matter for New Zealand art. The land in either traditional or modernist form was the only game in town. Artists such as Schoon, Walters and Milan Mrkusich were quite literally forced into hiding.

Theo Schoon's photograph of a Rotorua mudpool formation, circa mid 1960s. Photo: Supplied

It was a period of internal exile for many New Zealand artists. Schoon ultimately became a casualty as repeated curatorial rejection was cited by the artist as the major contributor to his departure from New Zealand in 1972.

But two decades earlier Schoon simply pressed on. His response was to go deeper, to intensify his study and to operate on many fronts - most of which took place well outside the frame of the canvas. In the early to mid 1950s Schoon undertook research whose creative DNA still powers large sections of the New Zealand cultural environment. With no institutional support, practically zero financial assistance and but a small handful of confidantes and fellow travellers these wilderness years reveal Schoon laying down the template for a research based art practice that is now taken for granted. Extensive field research – tick. Multimedia presentation – tick. Strategic collaborations – tick. Rigorous documentation – tick. It may sound like the bio of a biennale savvy contemporary artist but Schoon’s program was a solo project - freelancing in the best sense of the word.

As a young art student in Rotterdam in the 1930s Schoon was exposed to the latest European ideas in the hothouse atmosphere of the booming Dutch port city. Many of his teachers at the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische were proponents of the Neue Sachlichkiet (New Objectivity), most notably photographer Piet Zwart.

In pursuit of his own synthesis of Māori imagery and modern art principles Schoon, in the fifties and sixties, applied himself to a vast range of media and modes of production: photography, ceramics, carved gourds, pounamu carving, printmaking and last but not least painting.

His opportunities to exhibit or to engage with public institutions let alone the public were few and far between. He left New Zealand embittered in 1972. He returned briefly before his death for the 1982 Rotorua exhibition but returned to Australia just prior to his death in 1985.

In the early 1980s Ron Brownson, senior curator at the Auckland Art Gallery visited Schoon in Australia to secure works for the Gallery archive. He was then and remains today a firm believer in Schoon’s special position in the New Zealand discourse, “From my curatorial perspective, Theo was as a catalyst and mentor for New Zealand's most influential modern artists. He experienced a more rigorous art education than them and that made for daily experimentation and critique. Attending the Rotterdam Art Academy was like studying at Holland's version of the Bauhaus. Crossovers between media was expected and demanded. Theo's art is staunch, clever and culturally diverse. Sometimes his art is naughty and even raunchy, never an easy coupling for New Zealanders. He was both Dutch and Javanese in his creative temperament, a potent queer mix of East and West.”

That Schoon was a polarising personality cannot be disputed. Friendships made in the spirit of artistic or spiritual questing frequently became severed in tragic and saddening circumstances. Schoon’s Bohemian lifestyle meant key works and bodies of research were lost or distributed to the wind. But although his lifestyle was different, his work scattered and he enjoyed or endured a relationship with New Zealand that could be described as diffident at best he has not been completely forgotten. Art historian Michael Dunn writing just a year after Schoon’s final New Zealand exhibition during his lifetime (Rotorua, 1982) made the case for Schoon clearly in saying, “Today the battles Schoon had to engage in single-handed through the fifties and sixties seem eminently worth fighting for. His attempts to broaden out the base of contemporary art in New Zealand appear far-sighted.”

Thirty years later it is a position that Dunn still holds as he explained in a recent discussion, “He was very competent across a range of media in a way that was uncommon at the time. He showed the interface between craft forms and photography and painting. For him art was seamless. He didn’t see any barrier between media. That is one of the reasons why I compare him to Picasso. Part of the tragedy is that he was a much bigger artist than many of his contemporaries, extremely well informed, far ahead of his time. My belief is that his legacy is still there to be discovered.”

In 2017 the definitive Theo Schoon exhibition is still to be curated. The career monograph remains alas unwritten. But if those two events were to take place we would see that Theo’s voice has spoken to a new generation of artists. The contemporary artists of Aotearoa revel in the synthesis that Schoon spoke of.

His ambitions for this country are at last being realised. His life’s work can be seen in the context of nation building – active citizenship at its finest.