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Hamish Coney: Before and after

The exhibition Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art at Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi opened in early March, a week before the world changed. The gallery is open again - Hamish Coney suggests a post lockdown visit might provide a lens through which to view the future.

In the course of a little meandering research I came across this soundbite from the legendary Australian art critic Robert Hughes discussing the enfant terrible of the 17th century Italian Baroque, ‘Caravaggio was one of the hinges of art history: there was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same.’

Then, as I was putting the finishing touches to this article I was distracted by the news that the Godfather of electronic music, Kraftwerk founder Florian Schneider, had just passed away. The great and the good of the music world struggled to articulate his legacy, “to say he was massively influential and changed the very sound of music, is somehow still an understatement”.

In the context of New Zealand culture in the second half of the 20th century The Dutch émigré Theo Schoon (1915 – 1985) had a similar effect. He rocked our world. For all the ‘noise’ that has surrounded Schoon the personality – as in mad, bad and dangerous to know, the artist that emerges from this exhibition is one who gave infinitely more than he took. 

The curatorial duo of Schoon biographer Damian Skinner and City Gallery, Wellington’s Aaron Lister make this point explicit in their inclusive ‘team’ approach to exhibition-making. As a point of difference to any other survey of a modernist New Zealand artist you will have seen in the last few years, this ‘commonwealth’ approach is instructive and, just maybe, a game changer.

Recent public gallery blockbusters for Gordon Walters, Frances Hodgkins, Colin McCahon and Louise Henderson have deployed significant curatorial firepower into the mid 20th century, loading plenty of ammo into what is referred to as the ‘canon’. The reward for the art viewer is a fresh appraisal of what critic and writer Francis Pound described as  ‘the Invention of New Zealand’. The risk is that we get stuck in a cultural groundhog day, mooning over the past, lauding the already anointed or privileging shop-worn hierarchies. It takes a village to raise a child goes the saying. The same applies to all the myriad ‘inputs’ that generate the artistic ‘outputs’ in our public collections. No less that one Colin McCahon was sensitive to this point, frequently namechecking his influences… Piet Mondrian, Giorgio Bellini, Milan Mrkusich and Gordon Walters were all the subject of swooning fanboydom.  

This Schoon survey makes manifest how closely linked our canon makers were in the second half of the 20th century. Theo’s ‘team’ includes some pretty notable players: Rita Angus, Gordon Walters, Len Castle, Dennis Knight-Turner, Para Matchitt, Ans Westra, Rolfe Hattaway, Arnold Wilson, Selwyn Muru, A.R.D. Fairburn and McCahon himself. 

Suddenly, some 35 years after his passing in 1985, after almost slipping off the radar, Schoon is back in the game. The first few 21st century blips registered in 2012 when the epoch defining collection of Les and Milly Paris was offered at auction. There amongst a hit parade of works by Hotere, Walters, McCahon, Illingworth and Binney were no less than 14 works by the Dutch artist.

A new generation of collectors joined the dots, drawing the conclusion that Schoon was a seminal figure, maybe even the missing link. Since that time the focus on New Zealand modernism in the post war period has gathered momentum via a phalanx of large scale survey exhibitions. This renewed focus has been supported by publications such as Len Bell’s Strangers Arrive (Auckland University Press, 2017) which charts the contribution made by a wave European artists, many Dutch and many Jewish,  fleeing WWII. It’s in this context that Schoon makes landfall in Aotearoa, finding his feet in an environment very different from the colonial Indonesia of his childhood or the experimental scene he encountered as an art student in 1930s Rotterdam. Blown off course somewhat, by the early 1940s the ‘hinge’ was coming out of his chrysalis.

Image 2: TN [Theo] Schoon, 21 June 1943, Wellington, by Spencer Digby Studios. Spencer Digby/Ronald D Woolf Collection. Gift of Ronald Woolf, 1975. Te Papa (B.076010)

On the evening of June 21, 1943, Theo Schoon was busy getting his freak on in the studio of Wellington photographer Spencer Digby on Lambton Quay. Schoon and Digby, a dapper Englishman, who had carved out a reputation in the capital as a portrait photographer, collaborated that night to create a suite of images that explodes with a future as yet unwritten. Notions of gender, portraiture and performance were detonated that winter’s night as Schoon, quite literally, danced to the beat of his own (Gamelan) drum. Across a dozen immaculate mis-en-scene photographs Theo enacted the sinuous gestures of Balinese dance, learnt as a boy in the then Dutch East Indies. Decades before the fact, Theo is vogueing in wartime Wellington.  

Some 77 years later, the nerveless sangfroid of these images still dazzles. Unapologetically queer and continental when that word meant much more than breakfast, Schoon rolled with the poise of a film star and the cultural nose of a bloodhound. Over the next five decades until his death in 1985 Schoon’s choreography continued across New Zealand, from his first forays into Tangata Whenua’s earliest manifestations, then doubling back into the gathering modernist discourse that emerged in the 1950s. 

Those shape-shifting images of Theo busting moves in 1943, were rediscovered by Auckland Art Gallery curator Ron Brownson in the mid 2000s.  For six decades the negatives lay dormant like mammoth bones in the permafrost of the Digby Studios archive. But Schoon was setting out his stall that chilly night. Today the self-designated outsider, the non-conformist, the queer icon, ‘the cat sniffing around in a strange warehouse’ is the subject of a level of scrutiny that has resulted in a biography, this current exhibition and a forthcoming documentary by filmmakers Jan and Luit Bieringa, who jokes, “I’m sure there will be a musical next.”

The Bieringa’s BWX productions will soon release a feature length documentary entitled Theo on Theo. In a Newsroom exclusive you can link to a preview excerpt here (note add password: Theo1 if required).

Split Level View Finder, on show until June 14, is a hell of a ride, charting perhaps the most singular journey in all of New Zealand art history. Theo’s name is on the door but this is a group show energised by the call and response between a dozen artists. It’s also a back-to-the-future, multi-media experience that explores Schoon’s lightening in a bottle Bauhaus inspired practice. From the studio and suitcase of the one artist issued painting, photography, ceramics, gourd (hue) and pounamu carving and the full gamut of graphic work including a suite of magical prints created in conjunction with printmaker and New Vision Gallery founder Kees Hos.

Installation view Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand art at Te Uru Gallery, Titirangi. Photo by Sam Hartnett, courtesy of Te Uru

Incredibly, it is only Schoon’s fourth significant gallery exhibition since his first solo show at New Vision in 1965. In the intervening years it has been slim pickings: the final exhibition in his lifetime curated by John Perry at the Rotorua Art Gallery in 1982, a body of work relating to his ‘automatic’ drawings inspired by his observation of the schizophrenic patient Rolfe Hattaway at Lopdell House in 1997, a suite of photography at John Leech Gallery in 2001 and those collections that have surfaced in auction catalogues since 2010. 

It has taken over 30 years to fashion a place for this strange cat within the contemporary discourse. However, many of the central issues Theo poses remain unresolved, as co-curator Lister acknowledges, “I want Schoon to emerge from this show to be even more complex, fraught, and interesting than he was before. The exhibition doesn't seek to make a hero, or smooth over the practice. It tests his relationship to our art history and to culture today, asking hard questions of it and of us.”

Perhaps the hardest question, then and now is: can Pākehā legitimately deploy signs, signifiers or Māori content in their art practice? This exhibition provides evidence for both the defence and prosecution of that proposition. The interrogation of how and who engages with Māori cultural imagery or intellectual property has been a source of static since the 1980s. 

But Schoon was in this space by himself, as a Pākehā, from the 1940s so some credit for the sincerity and longevity of his programme can be accorded. It certainly was in December 1963 when Theo was the lone European artist invited to exhibit at Mahinerangi, the Kingitanga Wharenui during the First Māori Festival of the Arts at Tūrangawaewae Marae in Ngāruawāhia. This moment is captured by fellow Dutch émigré, the photographer Ans Westra. Her images of Schoon presenting a lecture about hue and discussing these with the Māori modernist artist Para Matchitt possess a strange ‘coals to Newcastle’ quality that twangs on this viewer’s cultural banjo. Given the tenor of subsequent debates on the topic of cultural appropriation, these photographs are the visual equivalent of queasy listening. 

Ans Westra, Theo Schoon at the First Māori Festival of the Arts, 1963. Image Courtesy Suite Gallery, Wellington and Auckland

Today, half a century away, the image of a Pākehā artist lecturing Māori on their own patrimony can appear to contravene the protocols of cultural safety that have become codified in the 21st century. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Theo was invited onto the Marae in 1963. Or that Theo’s influence on the emerging cohort of Maori modernist artists in the 1960s is clearly evident in the first contemporary artwork by a young Māori painter acquired for the national collection, Selwyn Muru’s Kohatu of 1965, itself a direct variant of the cave paintings, ‘discovered’ by Schoon in the 1940s. 

On this subject I can only invite the viewer to take Schoon at his word. A prodigious correspondent, his early letters reveal him to be engaged with Māori culture and art in a away no Pākehā artist had been previously. It was a transformative encounter, ‘…like falling on your head. As an artist these…made such a profound impression on me that I could scarcely think of anything else from that day. I was immediately struck by the high artistic quality of these drawings.” 

Installation view Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand art at Te Uru Gallery, Titirangi. Photo by Sam Hartnett, courtesy of Te Uru

The kōrero of cross-cultural practice, which Schoon played such a significant part in initiating, is ever-evolving. Artists are inexorably drawn into the heart of the debate. And that is where we find Theo today. In 2018 for the opening exhibition at the new improved Te Papa Michael Parekowhai’s immense installation Détour employed a one for all, all for one approach to crafting his installation. He augmented his own work with that of a range of artistic avatars to assist him in narrating a 21st century version of whakawhanaungatanga: Parekowhai’s conceptual godfather Marcel Duchamp, the Surrealist Man Ray, Colin McCahon, Frances Hodgkins and Molly Macalister representing pioneer modernist figures. 

At the very heart of Parekowhai’s installation was a suite of drawings and photographs by Schoon of whom he said in a rare interview, “I wanted to include artists who came out to the antipodes to find a better life. I think this desire to find a new home is an interesting position. If we only played in our backyards by ourselves all the time and didn’t let others come in to see what we have, we’d lose sight of what is actually of value to us. That’s why I’ve included Theo Schoon, who made so much work about the Māori art he encountered here.”

As the arc light of the debate has swung back onto Schoon, he has been called a lot of names and singled out for some pretty rough treatment. But what this exhibition so elegantly reveals is that he was not alone. For many of our most revered canonical figures his journey and ‘discoveries’, contentious though they may be today, were decisive to the point they changed both those individuals and the culture. Theo was the hinge around which others swung into a deeper appreciation of the New Zealand experience.

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