Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art, City Gallery Wellington, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

The past is a fucked up place: Theo Schoon, reviewed and reconsidered

Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art is the exhibition that sparked a protest over issues of cultural appropriation and institutional representation. Theo Schoon is a divisive historical figure. But is his art any good? Martin Patrick reviews.


See also: Lana Lopesi on The debate over Theo Schoon, who built his career on the backs of Māori artists


British novelist LP Hartley once wrote that “the past is another country”, but it’s also an exceedingly fucked up place if scrutinised unflinchingly with 21st century eyes. In Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art, I kept sensing a certain cognitive dissonance, a creative contradiction at every turn. Theo Schoon (1915-85) was born in Java to Dutch parents, and his transit back to the Netherlands and then to Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia inscribes aspects of colonial history in his own life trajectory. Irascible, cosmopolitan, and gay, he was an outsider within the broader culture but a friend of such art and literary luminaries as Rita Angus, Betty and Allan Curnow, and Gordon Walters.

The exhibition involves six thematic rooms across the upper floor of the gallery. Initially one encounters Schoon’s painterly extrapolations from sacred Māori rock drawing sites that borrow as much aesthetically from Paul Klee or Joan Miró. A valuable catalogue contribution by artist and curator Nathan Pohio (Ngāi Tahu) lends historical context to the sites in question, noting the 1848 signing of the Kemp Deed: “This saw 13,551,400 acres sold for £2,000. […] The Deed ended Ngāi Tahu’s access to the mahinga kai routes, the noa and tapu sites, and the traditional art practice of drawing and painting within the caves. It devastated Ngāi Tahu’s economy and separated them from their whenua.” This information places a sombre shadow over any later acts of “preservation” such as Schoon’s 1946 commission to record the sites, with no Ngāi Tahu consultation.

Theo Schoon, Manchu Diadem, 1965. Fletcher Trust Collection.

A reconstruction of Schoon’s 1965 solo show at Auckland’s New Vision gallery follows, involving abstractions that now appear dated. They’re almost caricatures, distinctive mainly for the way they resemble the serviceable but dull modernist paintings of squiggles, grids, and splotches that often clog up provincial museums. More interesting is his process of automatic drawing while in a trance state. I prefer his photographs of mud pools which echo the approach of the American photographer Minor White, coincidentally another gay modernist with mystical tendencies.

A consistent presence in Split Level View Finder, as significant as any aesthetic influences, is the glaring amount of white male hubris. So we also glimpse a period in which Schoon and Gordon Walters both lift imagery directly and without credit from an institutionalised diagnosed schizophrenic  whom Schoon met when working as an orderly at Avondale Mental Hospital. Some of the best works in this exhibition, which is nominally Schoon’s, are by other artists, as in this case with the elegant pencil drawings of Rolfe Hattaway.

Theo Schoon, Mud pool, c 1966. Hocken Collections Uare Taoka lo Hākena, University of Otago.

In the remaining large gallery is an intriguing glimpse into a bygone era of Māori modernism. It could have been a much larger portion of the show, to its benefit. It’s fascinating to see what Māori artists made of/with European abstraction, making this narrative even more entangled. As does the mural by Schoon which has hung for three decades in Rotorua’s Whakaturia Marae, and Ans Westra’s photographs of Schoon documenting his presence as an invited artist at the 1963 First Festival of Māori Arts at Tūrangawaewae, Ngāruawāhia.

His gourd carving gained such attention and respect from the organisers that the festival guide stated: “[Schoon] has identified himself so thoroughly with the mauri of our culture, that his niche as an exponent and an authority is undisputed”. It’s important art-historically to reconsider Schoon and Walters working from the koru, and how with the latter it became a signature motif, albeit a controversial one. The fact that Walters, whose name now graces Aotearoa’s preeminent art prize, was indulgent of Schoon’s behaviour and frequently did the same gives one pause. A fine smaller Walters painting is included here, but the vibrant sculptures and paintings of Selwyn Muru, Arnold Manaaki Wilson, and Paratene Matchitt offer welcome breaks from Schoon’s contorted cultural appropriations.

Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art, City Gallery Wellington, 2019. Installation view. Photo: Shaun Waugh.

Recently a group of protesters, including several of the sharpest students I’ve had the privilege of working with, argued that Schoon’s racism is enough to scrap this exhibition. While I truly respect their activism, my training as an art historian leaves me wary of such absolutism. Just as these emerging artists are in the process of defining their own artistic paths, it might seem especially infuriating to confront an artist who felt he had the right to appropriate and even own the traditions of others, whether Javanese dance or Māori arts, when that right was not his.

The American critic Hilton Als wrote in a recent review that “the complications of being human preclude ‘straight’ or uncontradictory behaviour: there is a great deal of truth in nuance and ambiguity. And yet we are living at a time when nuance and all the confused intentions, desires, and beliefs that go along with it are considered less a way of understanding human frailty than a failure of ‘accountability.’” I found this a highly resonant observation as I tried to wrap my head around Schoon’s manifold contradictions. It’s difficult for me to articulate my feeling that if an artist comes as close to another culture as Schoon managed to do in certain of his artworks, it’s hard to reconcile that with the tidy epithet “racist”.

Theo Schoon, New Vision Gallery, 1965.

Schoon made statements about his work that ranged from intriguing to patronising, arrogant to ridiculous. In a radio interview, included in the exhibition, Schoon expounds upon his belief that Māori art was a code that could be cracked, even by a Dutchman. On one level this allows that Māori customary practices involve a sophisticated aesthetic system, but it simultaneously illustrates the mistaken belief that Māori aesthetics can be isolated from the holistic complexity of te ao Māori, comprising te reo, whakapapa, and whenua. Most ignoble was Schoon’s assertion that Māori art needed some kind of outside stewardship, having lost its way, and by inference that he himself could occupy that role.

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To their credit, co-curators Damian Skinner and Aaron Lister are clearly not trying to make this exercise unproblematic. Some will not agree, but you can’t please everyone in troubled times, in or out of the art world. The curators have framed the exhibition through in-depth research and contextual information, often taking the form of well-chosen companion artworks, as in the exquisite reciprocal portraits by Schoon and Rita Angus from 1942. The curators also note how contemporary Schoon’s movement between modes of practice seems when seen through modern eyes. I also think about how charged the practices of our most interesting artists are today, and the protests that – as one example – the works of Luke Willis Thompson have elicited.

Theo Schoon was a ravenously curious aesthete, enamoured by European abstraction and Gamelan music, Buddhist temples and Māori carving. Such visual curiosity is a key element of artists’ engagement with the world. But coupled with a corresponding lack of self-reflection and empathy for others, that voracious attentiveness led to an unfortunate myopia in Schoon’s practice. Whether that should consign his works to museum storage areas is for others to decide, but we currently have an opportunity to consider issues of art and ethical responsibility that will continue to linger, whether we are addressing the case of Schoon or not.

Theo Schoon, Basic Arawa Pattern and Bird Motif, 1975. BNZ Art Collection.

Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand Art is at City Gallery Wellington until November 3.


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