Theo Schoon: A biography by Damian Skinner (Massey University Press, 2018), 336 pp., $59.99
Émigré artist Theo Schoon, whose life intersected with important cultural moments in New Zealand’s art history, made occasionally impressive, dominantly weird and sometimes godawful art. Vainglory and vanity, the hokey and the profound, independence and jealousy combined in Schoon’s character in such unexpected ways that one despairs of sorting them out. In his new biography Damian Skinner has valiantly attempted to do so and has drawn extensively on a rich resource of interviews and archival materials from here and elsewhere. But reading Skinner’s tale of Schoon’s tale of himself, you feel that Skinner has never been able to warm to his subject and there is a certain perversity involved in the undertaking. It is as if Skinner gritted his teeth and said to himself ‘I just have to finish this despite …’
In reviews to date of Skinner’s biography, Anthony Byrt has described Skinner’s subject as ‘a total asshole’; Hamish Coney acknowledged that he was ‘a polarising personality’; Sally Blundell awarded him three ‘i’s’: ‘Insufferable, intolerant and frequently insensitive’; and Douglas Lloyd Jenkins believed him to be ‘arrogant, thoughtless, ungrateful, dismissive, compulsive and, to cap it off, he had little interest in personal hygiene’. To that we simply need to add an exceptionally inflated sense of self-worth. You could not say, as Dr Johnson said rather laudably of Alexander Pope, that Schoon had ‘the felicity to rate himself at his real value’. Damian Skinner has attempted intrepidly to unmask that ‘real value’. Nevertheless, Schoon, despite his sympathetic biographer, achieves his own damnation by way of a deep unpleasantness promiscuously expressed. His racism, anti-Semitism and ugly misogyny bleakly enshrouds the achievements of his art – for the moment at least.
Born in 1915 in the village of Kebumen in Java, Indonesia, in what was still known as the Dutch East Indies, Schoon was a product of colonial privilege. As a teenager he was dispatched ‘back home’ to Rotterdam for a ‘proper education’ at the Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen (Academy of Fine Arts and Technical Sciences) of which American abstract expressionist Willem de Kooning was a later more famous alumnus. Skinner rightly points out that Schoon was not trained in Bauhaus principles, nor did he produce examples of modernist painting; his technique was ‘reminiscent of the sugary soft drawings of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch artist notorious for his forgeries of Vermeer and Franz Hals’.
On Schoon’s return to Indonesia in 1936 he painted for tourists in the romantic style known as ‘Beautiful-Indies’. Upon his arrival in New Zealand in 1939 Schoon was to (mis)represent his training and style as something different, something closer to the original Bauhaus ideals. Possibly a stronger modernist influence on Schoon was the photographer Piet Zwart (1885–1977) who worked in the applied arts department of the Rotterdam Academy and who, using the abstract aesthetics of Bauhaus photography, paid attention to visual rhythm, acute angles and cropping. Is this one of the reasons why Schoon’s later photography is so strong?
Schoon brought his artistic gifts to New Zealand along with his knowledge of European art but also his accumulation of losses, including a helpless fascination with himself. The attendant pressures of his everyday existence together with a profligate lifestyle and his irascibility pretty well wrecked him, and I came away from this biography with a gigantic sense of waste. To go back over his life fills one with a certain sadness. Schoon was precocious in a wide range of crafts (jewellery, ceramics and, in one prodigious instance, the traditional carving of gourds), an inveterate participant in cultural debates around modernism, and a pushy mentor to a number of younger artists and craftspeople. His painting tended to be copyist, but his photography was exceptional. The craft works he produced convey a buoyant creative personality that his paintings, overly strained with formality, do not. It is not surprising that Gordon Walters’ precise delineation, incorporation of figure/ground dynamics, piquant detail and refined use of colour all became aspects of Schoon’s later painting style – it was a case of the master mastered by the pupil. Intellectual responses are known as opinions, and Schoon had them and had them. Nevertheless, he was not an ideologue, his opinions were doggedly personal, and often this meant being so aslant that there was a certain crankiness and homespun feel to them. Nonconformity can be a tiresome eccentricity or arise from a genuine scepticism about the arrangements of society. It started out as the latter with Schoon but soon morphed into the former.
A question we need to ask is: Why Schoon now? One ‘political’ factor might be the recent surge of interest in and recognition of Gordon Walters, with the 2017 survey exhibition Gordon Walters: New vision touring the country. At the time of the Headlands exhibition, over 25 years ago, Rangihiroa Panoho, notoriously and somewhat perversely, proposed a ‘good Schoon’, who respected Māori artistic motifs, and a ‘bad Walters’, who appropriated and stole them. Francis Pound’s recuperative response in The Space Between plugged for Walters as a sensitive cross-cultural ‘translator’ and almost wrote Schoon out of the picture. Another ‘social’ factor entails identity politics. Schoon was homosexual, openly so, which would have taken considerable courage at the time, and no special sleuthing is needed to winkle out his desires from his art.
One of the most arresting aspects of Schoon’s character was his genuine interest in power. And for him power did not lie, as it does for most artists, in comradeship (apart, that is, from his role as guru) or the approval of the avant-garde. Also he cared nothing for chicness, for the usual intellectual celebrity world. He was indeed independent, but he also wanted to count, to have importance. He declared he did not want disciples; nevertheless he proceeded to gather them about him: Gordon Walters, Dennis Knight Turner, Rita Angus (possibly), later Peter Hughson, Brent Hesselyn and Kelvyn Anderson. But he would only play Stalin to their Malenkovs. He was the supremo and they had to play the obsequious gofers. Margaret Orbell, Walters’ wife, who early on travelled the country with him researching kōwhaiwhai in regional wharenui, noted with some resignation that Schoon ‘just had to lecture everybody’. Schoon was only four years older than Walters, who described his encounter with Schoon in 1941 as ‘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 a powerful acknowledgement.
If his faults were unfortunate, at least one must say that retribution was not slow to come. Schoon had what he thought was going to be a breakthrough manifesto exhibition in the New Vision Gallery in 1965. It included carved gourds, paintings and photographs, a fusion of traditional Māori art forms and modernist aesthetics. Gallery-owners and fellow Dutch immigrants Kees and Tine Hos were keen supporters and they understood his background. After all, they had named their gallery after Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy’s Neues Sehen. But the show was a flop; only one relief print sold, purchased by friends, and interest in Schoon’s work, particularly his painting, never recovered. A year later, Gordon Walters did have a breakthrough show at the same gallery with important sales. And Schoon never really forgave him, declaring in a letter to the editor of the local Herald that, ‘The history of paintings by Gordon Walters begins with me. It is based on my first 10 years of field work, exploring and recording New Zealand rock drawings. Gordon Walters pored over this material right from the beginning. He also followed my analysis and synthesis of Maori design in the following decades.’ In a subsequent edition Walters was forced to counter: ‘In the 1950s I studied Theo Schoon’s work, but equally Theo Schoon pored over my work. He requested and was given my permission to use the motif which occurs in my recent paintings.’ So Schoon fell out with Walters, although later there was an uneasy reconciliation. His other friends and admirers became disillusioned. He was passed over (rightly one must say in retrospect) for the academic position of photography lecturer at Elam School of Fine Arts. (How would he ever have worked alongside students and colleagues?) But it was something that rankled with him in his letters for the rest of his life.
The real reckoning of Theo Schoon has yet to begin. The reaction so far has been perfunctory and stilted and Skinner’s biography will inaugurate a new reappraisal. A good part of the hesitancy (and it is there in Skinner’s biography) is that, among other things, Schoon was a great comic character: Frank Sargeson or Ronald Hugh Morrieson would have had a field day with him. The carefully cultivated aesthetic seriousness – strenuousness might be a better word – coexisted with the fantastical absurdity in a truly camp operatic sense: Schoon loved dressing up and performing in Javanese dancer’s costume. His complicated and charismatic sexuality, his sexual majesty (even into old age) was part of this comic side. It caused art matrons like Helen Mason to fall head over their high heels without noticing his. Schoon’s high-mindness and high-handedness comingled with a love of gossip, drollery and seductive acting out. He continually misread the signs others presented (he mistook Canterbury Museum ethnologist Roger Duff’s desire to record Māori rock art as an interest in its artistic merit), yet when he was in a benign mood, could exhibit a fair amount of ironic self-knowledge (‘All my human ties have only brought me misery and frustration’). Yes Schoon was hokey, and often a great bore, and his constant kvetching about the stupidity and philistinism of New Zealanders, and about no one appreciating the true worth of his own art, became a stuck record. He left New Zealand and came back, threatened to leave again and then found he couldn’t, but finally did and then died a pauper in a charity hospital in Sydney in 1985.
Schoon was a man of great culture, an incredible autodidact who taught himself everything from cultivating and decorating gourds to carving pounamu. He was one of the first here to understand the importance of outsider art (providing pen and paper to psychiatric patient Rolfe Hattaway and preserving the results). He was one of the first to grasp the aesthetic power, significance and real value of Māori visual traditions. He embodied the deepest seriousness about art and it was vanity, and not simplicity of mind, that led him to fear and disparage his contemporaries. He was obsessive, troubled but also brilliant, and something of a ‘Renaissance man’: a painter and printmaker, a published author, an accomplished photographer, a ceramicist, a carver of gourds and pounamu. It is hard to think about the history of abstract art in New Zealand without Schoon who, rather than producing finite painting of real value, had an extraordinary cultural influence as the catalyst who effectively introduced European modernism downunder. But the strain of some uncovered, unnamed trouble at the heart of Schoon’s personality is inexplicable, or still awaits explanation. Schoon’s life was one of intense, sentimental aggressiveness; and yet there is something unprotected about him. His unanchored enthusiasm has the dismaying effect of being genuine and unforced; however, there developed a sort of hysterical self-possession about it, or so it seems. (In Schoon’s eyes, even Māori master carvers like Pine Taiapa could not do things right.)
To some, like me, the suggestion that Schoon is the unsung hero of New Zealand art, and that he may ultimately have been the more important artist than some of his contemporaries, is still unproven. The forthcoming survey exhibition at the City Gallery, Wellington, curated by Damian Skinner and Aaron Lister and planned for the end of the year, may reveal whether we will be able to judge Schoon by his best work, not his worst.
LAURENCE SIMMONS is professor of film studies in media and communication at the University of Auckland. His most recent book-length publication is on the artist William Hodges, Tuhutuhi: William Hodges Cook’s painter in the South Pacific (Otago University Press, 2011). He has recently co-curated the travelling exhibition Gordon Walters: New vision and co-edited the accompanying catalogue.