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New Zealand Photography: Theo Schoon « Previous | |Next »
April 20, 2009

In continuing my digging around around the history of New Zealand photography I have shifted my focus back to the 1950s and 1960s when modernism ruled in the art institution. What kind of modernism was being produced in New Zealand. Was there one that embraced vitalism (flow or becoming) as opposed to a machine aesthetic that celebrated the machine and industrial civilization as the new utopia? Was there a regional modernism that tried to construct a visual language to express their experiences of local cultural space; one that rejected the prevalent use of landscape painting to depict the national identities of New Zealand?

I stumbled upon Theo Schoon, who trained at the Rotterdam Art Academy from 1931-35. Arriving in New Zealand in 1939, Schoon briefly attended the Canterbury University College School of Art before moving to Wellington in 1941, where he met the artists Rita Angus and Gordon Walters who were impressed by his knowledge of painting, sculpture, photography and printmaking.

When he first moved to Rotorua in 1950 he began a photo-series that he called his 'thermals' (mudpools and other geothermic activity) a subject to which he would return over the next 25 years. What was produced was an impressive body of work yet Theo Schoon has been edited out of the history of New Zealand art.

SchoonLmud2.jpg Theo Schoon, mud 2, circa 1967 silver gelatin print

Abstract and organic and movement (ripples and oozes). The image is a close-up, taken looking down, to produce a flattened out view. Though the camera is used as an exploratory device to produce an impressive body of work Theo Schoon has been edited out of the history of New Zealand art. That the thermal photographs have been ignored by the art establishment for so long is a reflection of the lowly status given to photography in New Zealand, until very recently.

SchoonTmudpool3.jpg Theo Schoon, mud pool 4, no date, silver gelatin print

These the photographs of the thermal areas near Rotorua result from years, from sun-up to sun-down, recording effects of light, colour and texture on mudpools and surrounding areas of thermal activity. This is the eye for the unexpected, a detail, a texture or a fleeting pattern caused by a mudpool bubble bursting, that Schoon represented with his lens.

He took these images with 21/4 square twin-lens reflex cameras - an Ikoftex and then a Yashicaflex. Many of his shots were taken with the camera hand-held, even in the case of exposures down to a thirtieth of a second or slower. Only after his return to Rotorua in the mid-60s did he move on to colour photography (ektachrome transparency). At that period he began to use a single lens reflex camera as well - an early model Canon that needed a close-up lens for the detailed shots he often wanted.

SchoonTmudpool2.jpg Theor Schoon, mud pool 2, no date, silver gelatin print

For all his emphasis on broadening contemporary art in New Zealand in the 1950s and1960s---his intentions was to forge a new path for New Zealand art, one in which Maori and European art would be integrated to produce a local modernism---Schoon was no modernist purist, despite the emphasis on the focus on formal values (tone, pattern, texture and shape). He refused to separate ‘art’ and ‘craft’, and his major artistic interests were carving gourds and pounamu (greenstone), Māori and Indonesian art, designs for ceramics, and paintings, prints, and photographs.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 1:57 PM | | Comments (3)


An interesting comment is made by Damian Skinner in Theo Schoon's Interaction with Aspects of Maori Art, Thesis for Master of Art History, University of Auckland, 1996, p. 42):

It was Schoon's awareness of the avant-garde developments in European art, in particular the Bauhaus movement, that enabled him to see a link between Maori art and the 'primitive' aesthetic sensibility employed by modernist painters such as Paul Klee and Joan Miro. " incorporating Maori rock drawings into his own work, Schoon is able to begin a new tradition of art in New Zealand, one that uses rock art to escape the naturalism of the European legacy.

Skinner adds that Schoon's deep involvement with Maori art is seen as part of a primitivist agenda, shaped by his experience of European modernism, and Javanese and Balinese culture.

Damian Skinner is a freelance curator and art historian who lives in Wellington. In 2005 he completed his Ph.D in art history at Victoria University of Wellington. His thesis examined the relationship between modernity, modernism and the 'traditional' in Mäori art of the 20th century. He has published widely on aspects of modernism in Aotearoa, and his most recent book is The Carver And The Artist: Māori Art In The Twentieth Century, 2008.

A link to Schoon's interpretations of Maori rock drawings.

In Picturing Space: Theo Schoon, Ross Crothall and Visual Art in the Pacific in Double Dialogues Anthea Gunn says:

The issue at the centre of this consideration then becomes the contrast between his [Schoon's] appreciation of Maori art as visual art in its own right, and as a source to appropriate from for his own work, exemplified by his work with the Maori rock drawings of New Zealand’s South Island. This is further complicated by his contribution to the preservation of Maori art and techniques, and his desire to continue its traditions through his own work, such as his gourd carving. Schoon is also considered as an embodiment of the issues that surround appropriation from indigenous art by non-indigenous (‘pakeha’ in New Zealand) artists.