Art New Zealand

Caught Between Cultures

Theo Schoon: A Biography

by Damian Skinner

Massey University Press, Auckland 2018

MICHAEL DUNN

 has been a hard an person to , position in the evolving history of New Zealand art. There are many reasons for this, as Damian Skinner shows in his fastidiously researched biography. Firstly, Schoon was a foreigner of Dutch descent, born in Java and brought up partly in the Dutch East Indies and partly in Rotterdam. Secondly, although he studied art at a traditional art school in the Netherlands, he rejected much of his training and refused to be pigeonholed as a conventional painter. His practice also ranged across ceramics, jewellery, photography, Javanese dance and carving. Thirdly, he adopted a role as mentor promoting Maori art as the main cultural achievement in New Zealand and saw himself as an advisor on ways of revitalising it. Despite having no credentials in the Maori world or speaking the language, Schoon became a self-appointed authority based on his study of moko and kowhaiwhai and his revival of gourd carving and its cultivation. Fourthly, he constantly criticised or ridiculed Kiwi values and lifestyle. He was gay, misogynistic and a misfit. He made many enemies, and on several occasions left New Zealand vowing never to be buried in its soil. Thinking he was not recognised for his work, he made scathing criticisms of fellow artists and people of influence in the art world. Paradoxically, it was in New Zealand that he found his creative inspiration and where he made his most important contributions, as the book makes clear.

Skinner does a thorough job of revealing Schoon’s complex personality and tracing the many sources of his ideas and values. This book is arranged in chronological order and depends on documents and correspondence to provide insights on events. His command of an impressively large range of material is amazing without being intrusive. There are also photographs of Schoon’s parents and family, as well as copious illustrations of his paintings and drawings throughout the text.

We find detailed information about his childhood in Java, a discussion of his social circumstances as a son of a prosperous businessman, as well as clarification of his exposure to Javanese culture, music and dance and anything with long-term relevance to his life. Skinner explores Schoon’s awareness of not being simply a European but

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