Theo Schoon being interviewed at Tony Fomison’s house in Chamberlain Street, Grey Lynn, February 1985. Photograph by Marcel Tromp.

Book of the Week: That total asshole Theo Schoon

Anthony Byrt reviews an impeccably researched but somewhat tortured biography of Theo Schoon – only possibly a great New Zealand artist, almost certainly an anti-Semitic, misogynist, pretentious, belly-aching bitch.

Art history is a brutal discipline, which feeds off the corpses of nearly-rans: the artists and dealers and curators and muses and rivals who make up an artistic community, but who never quite had the chops themselves to do something genuinely new or revolutionary. Individually, these failures of transcendence are sad, often-forgotten facts. Collectively though, they serve a vital purpose, providing a rich compost for the genuinely important art to grow from.

The debate about Theo Schoon – a Dutch émigré artist who became a deeply complicated figure in mid-twentieth century New Zealand art – has always hinged on whether he’s master or mulch; whether his own artistic achievements belong alongside those of his peers like Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters or he’s better understood as a supporting actor in the trajectory of New Zealand modernism. Schoon’s most important contribution to New Zealand culture, by far, was his championing of Māori art forms as potential source material for a new New Zealand art, from rock drawings through to gourd carving. But as Damian Skinner’s impeccably-researched new biography shows, over and again, Schoon was also a prize-winning, standard-bearing bastard. This shouldn’t necessarily cancel out his achievements – many of the great innovators in our culture have been giant arseholes too. But if you don’t have any previous investment in Schoon’s cultural stature, Skinner’s book makes it difficult to forgive the artist his sins.

There’s a prevailing idea that Schoon, born in central Java to Dutch colonial functionaries then educated in the Netherlands, brought with him to New Zealand a kind of worldly sophistication; a first-hand understanding of exotic cultures and of European modernism – particularly abstraction and design, of which the Dutch were such great exponents. In fact, his own training in Rotterdam was conservative: lots of anatomical drawing, conventional oil painting and so on. This is an important detail, I think, because it laid the groundwork – even if Schoon would have been mortified by the description – for a lifetime as a gifted copyist. In fact, he already had a natural flair for copying before he got to art school: Schoon prided himself on his capabilities as a traditional Javanese dancer, a skill learned in childhood that he used to impress and bewilder audiences when he moved to New Zealand as an adult.

Schoon wrote of his plaster stamp designs: ‘Something old has been made new, in a legitimate and authentically creative adventure.’ These impressions in clay, made around 1984, were fired by Schoon’s friend and potter Len Castle. Private collection.

Schoon followed his parents to Christchurch in 1938, when he was 23. This is where we start to see what a dick he could be. Theo, the allegedly independent, free-thinking artist in his mid-twenties, lived at home with his Mum and Dad. Throughout his life, his parents, and particularly his mother, gave him money. And yet he unashamedly told people how awful they had been to him, though the exact injury they’d caused him is unclear. When his mother finally died in her nineties, he and his brother split the estate. Schoon was flush, and very happy about the fact.

But back to Christchurch. The young Schoon threw himself into the city’s burgeoning cultural life, meeting everyone that mattered – the whole “Bloomsbury South” crowd. Even though he “didn’t have a lot of time for women”, he got on well with Rita Angus. One of the most memorable and creepy images of the book is of Schoon, the flexible dancer, visiting Betty and Allen Curnow and “wrapping his legs around his neck so his body became a ball, rolling around on the Axminster carpet”, for the amusement of their five-year-old son Wystan. And this is arguably the most interesting aspect of Schoon’s life – his Zelig-like capacity to pop up in more talented people’s stories: Angus and the Curnows, McCahon, Walters, Margaret Orbell, Charles Brasch, James Baxter, Tony Fomison, ARD Fairburn, Pine Taiapa, Paratene Matchitt, Kees Hos, Len Castle, Barry Brickell. Janet Frame makes a weirdly brief appearance in the book’s intro, never to be seen again.

Schoon was lucky so many of them were as patient as they were. He managed to offend or deride many of his friends and peers at some point or other, through shitty behaviour or paranoia, but often because he could be an absolute blowhard. Artists like Len Castle, though impressed by Schoon as a presence, kept him at arm’s length because, as Skinner writes, he “had an overwhelming, often overpowering desire to direct the work of others.” In one encounter with the master carver Pine Taiapa, Orbell, who was there too, had the impression that “Taiapa wasn’t paying a lot of attention to Schoon’s ideas, and that was an issue: Schoon liked to talk and he liked to instruct other artists.”

Above: Schoon’s signature on the wall of a rock shelter in the Valley of the Moa, Craigmore. Photograph by Michael Dunn, 2003. Michael Dunn collection

Years later, Schoon sent a letter to Francisca Mayer containing total fabrications about Taiapa, including that he lived in a hovel. As Skinner writes, in one of his best and most candid assessments, Schoon’s outright lies meant that “Taiapa was no longer an actual Māori artist whom Schoon visited in May 1961, but a cultural trope – the demoralised native craftsman, so far gone that he couldn’t even accept help when it came in the form of an enlightened Dutchman who happened to have all the artistic answers.”

As Schoon got older and more bitter, his advice to other artists became worse. When the much-younger Brent Hesselyn decided to travel to Bali, Schoon sent him endlessly dull instructions (which Skinner gives far too much space to) about how to capture the cultural life of Southeast Asia, culminating in this utterly banal corker: “You will eventually learn, to sit like a spider in your web, waiting for your prey, after having chosen your position, with great care and cunning.”

Schoon spent a lot of his later life in Australia, from where he bitched and moaned and snarked about how New Zealand was a cultural hellhole in which he’d found himself exiled (by voluntarily, as a grown man, following his parents, and then staying). A stint in a Sydney old people’s home as the resident gardener “brought out all his worst character traits, including his anti-Semitism.” His what? “This is one of 13 hospitals owned by a private firm,” Schoon wrote, “Jewish run, and they have all the tricks of the nation.” If anti-Semitism really was a character trait and not just a nasty one-off brain explosion, then Skinner, having raised it as a spectre, should really unpack it, but doesn’t.

Instead, there’s a constant push-and-pull: Skinner wants to be honest, but also wants us to care about Schoon and his legacy. How, then, does he redeem his allegedly anti-Semitic, definitely misogynistic, easily injured, often pretentious, anti-social, amazingly bitchy subject? With a lot of difficulty, it turns out. But there are two aspects of Schoon that really do matter to twentieth-century New Zealand art. The first, though Skinner doesn’t spell it out in exactly these terms, is his incredible eye. It links everything of value in the book: Schoon’s copying abilities, his ability to imitate Javanese dancing with such precision, his recognition of the overlooked value of Māori art, and his photography, especially of the central North Island’s geothermal region.

When he wasn’t staring at his own navel, Schoon occasionally looked up long enough to recognise the best work among his peers. Well before they made their most important paintings, Schoon told the curator and soon-to-be art dealer Peter Webb to “[w]atch out for Walters and McCahon…They are going to do some real painting in this country.” His eye is also what also allowed him to recognise the huge potential in the drawings of Rolfe Hattaway, a schizophrenic patient Schoon encountered while working as an orderly. Schoon showed the drawings to Walters, who, in retrospect, shamelessly ripped them off (as one senior artist put it to me recently, Walters just coloured in Hattaway’s compositions). Schoon also introduced Walters to Māori rock art, and arguably beat him to the draw with his own kōwhaiwhai-based paintings.

For a long time, Schoon has been a convenient counterpoint to Walters. Walters transformed kōwhaiwhai into his “bar-and-ball” motif: a gesture of appropriation by a member of the dominant Pākeha culture that’s still disputed. By contrast, Schoon is often held up as a revivalist; someone who reinvigorated Māori traditions and raged against a colonial culture that failed to recognise the artistic treasures its racist attitudes overlooked – rock art, whakairo, kōwhaiwhai, pounamu carving. Unsurprisingly, the book’s best writing by far is about Schoon’s engagement with Māori art and craft, given Skinner has previously written books on whare whakairo and Māori modernism. He’s upfront about what Schoon learned – and took – from Taiapa; he tackles the great Schoon controversy – that he retouched some of the rock drawings he discovered – head-on; and he’s excellent on Schoon’s commitment to bringing back to life the customary techniques of gourd cultivation.

Rolfe Hattaway’s drawings, often carefully dated by Schoon in black ink, were treasured by Schoon as evidence of the extraordinary creativity that could be found in places like a mental hospital far beyond the art world. Private collection.

Schoon could grow gourds, he could carve, he could make meticulous copies of tā moko and kōwhaiwhai. And yet Skinner shows that although he went to enormous lengths to raise the profile of Māori art, he approached it with his own self-important colonial baggage.

“Part of the problem,” Skinner writes, “is that he subscribed to the belief that the meaning of another culture’s art could be understood through looking and copying. There was no need for anything else, such as understanding the language of the artists, their history, or their beliefs and values. Schoon didn’t think he needed to speak Māori, or study with experts in Māori art, in order to understand Māori art. He believed he had discovered and decoded the design system that underpinned all the different art forms, whether tā moko, kōwhaiwhai or whakairo rākau, wood carving. Once he mastered that, there was no difference between him and an artist who was Māori, who did speak the language, who did know history and subscribed to Māori ways of seeing the world. What mattered most were how well you could manipulate the rules of the system, and the artistic excellence of what you did with it. On that score, Schoon had no doubt that he was a true master.

“Schoon thought Māori art was dead, so he proposed a way for a new generation of Māori artists to use what was left of their culture and make something new with it.”

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This wasn’t part of the problem. It was the whole problem. Late in his life, Schoon thought Balinese art had been irreparably damaged by “western rot” too. In fact, what he didn’t like was change. Schoon’s attitudes were underpinned not by modernist attitudes of progress and translation, but by reactionary ones that stemmed from his lack of self-awareness. Schoon thought he could save Māori culture because, in his words, Māori were “a very demoralized and artistically impoverished” people. “It sounds condescending because it is,” Skinner writes. “Not surprisingly, Māori didn’t rush to welcome an artist who was so convinced he offered the best antidote to an illness they didn’t think even existed.”

Schoon’s insistence that other cultures should be frozen at a perfect point of his choosing is precisely why McCahon, Walters, Ralph Hotere and others zoomed straight past him. Rightly or wrongly, they became translators and transformers of Māori art, by merging it with Western forms to create a distinctly New Zealand modernism. And yet here again, we get the book’s inner conflict, because Skinner opens his conclusion by writing that “For all his delusions, vanity and petty hates, Theo Schoon was also a disciplined critic of his own life, and capable of great insight into what he believed in and what he had achieved.” The entire book suggests the opposite.

For all his belly-aching about what a provincial backwater New Zealand was, Schoon was witness to the evolutions of Angus and McCahon and Walters, of Taiapa, Selwyn Muru, Arnold Manaaki Wilson and Paratene Matchitt, of Frame and Brasch and Curnow and Baxter. Maybe this is where his eyes ultimately failed him; his copyist dogma preventing him from recognising that the cultural revolution he claimed to want was actually happening – and passing him by. There’s no question Skinner’s book is a thorough, much-needed, candid piece of scholarship, but it doesn’t make the problem of Schoon any simpler. If anything, it’s put all the pressure on the survey exhibition Skinner is curating this year with City Gallery Wellington’s Aaron Lister. The art’s now got a hell of a lot of heavy lifting to do to convince us that Schoon really does belong in the clouds, among the greats of New Zealand art, or whether he’s better left under the ground, feeding the roots.

Theo Schoon: A Biography by Damian Skinner (Massey University Press, $60) is available from Unity Books.


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