Andrew Paul Wood – 15 October, 2018
A complex, mercurial, and often difficult man, Schoon would do much to draw attention to the Māori rock art of the South Island High Country (with an unfortunate habit of touching it up, resulting in a fall out with Tony Fomison). He was a powerful force for promoting the aesthetic appreciation of Māori visual traditions among New Zealand's Pākehā population, single-handedly reviving the art of gourd carving.
Theo Schoon: A Biography
Massey University Press, 2018
So many people, including myself, have wandered down the rabbit hole of trying to write the biography of one of New Zealand’s most important and least known artists, but finally here is the book we’ve been waiting decades for. Caveat: I provided access to my archives and gave feedback on an earlier draft of the text. Damian Skinner has done a splendid job weaving together the life of this extraordinary character. Schoon, born to Dutch parents in the Dutch East Indies in 1915, trained in Rotterdam in the painstaking traditions of Dutch Art while being exposed to the cutting edge of European modernism, and then coming to New Zealand with his family to escape the Japanese invasion of Indonesia. Here he would become a strangely influential figure on artists as diverse as Gordon Walters and Rita Angus.
A complex, mercurial, and often difficult man, Schoon would do much to draw attention to the Māori rock art of the South Island High Country (with an unfortunate habit of touching it up, resulting in a fall out with Tony Fomison). He was a powerful force for promoting the aesthetic appreciation of Māori visual traditions among New Zealand’s Pākehā population, single-handedly reviving the art of gourd carving. He also brought his unique vision to pounamu carving and ceramics, and his photographs of geothermal formations and mudpools around Rotorua are probably one of the most important bodies of art ever produced in this country.
Skinner, a consummate art historian, certainly someone in command of the information, having written about Schoon and his context over many years, is clear and objective, getting all of the facts and dramas in and in the right order - if a little dry in tone for such a colourful subject. Of particular interest to me, perhaps because I found it so difficult to research, is Schoon’s later life in Bali and Australia, although inevitably a certain amount is always going to be forensic guesswork. It’s not an easy ask of any researcher. So much of the relevant past was lost in the Indonesian revolution (and later tsunamis), in the German bombing of Rotterdam, and many of the people who knew Schoon best have since passed away. Skinner has left no resource unturned, richly complemented with photographs.
The design of this book is magnificent. I particularly like that the palette has taken its cues from the faded colour photographs of the past. Schoon died in a charity hospital in Sydney in 1985, and the art world herein encapsulated seems to be drifting into the past with ever-increasing velocity. The timing is particularly good. Schoon, a perennial outsider, foreign, exotic, homosexual, too difficult to fit into nationalist narratives of masculine kiwi modernism, finally finds his due in a glorious piece of scholarship. There are so few New Zealand publishers interested in academic art books (and that do it particularly well) that it is a tonic to see Massey University Press stepping up with such high-quality offerings.
Andrew Paul Wood