Artist Profile

Theo Schoon

Born 1915, Died 1985

Born in Java of Dutch descent Theo Schoon emigrated to New Zealand with his parents in 1939. After training in Europe he established himself as a painter, carver and photographer. He lived in Grey Lynn, Auckland, then in Rotorua where he camped in order to photograph the region's geothermal wonders. He migrated to Sydney in the early eighties where he died.
Schoon was the first New Zealand artist to take an interest in traditional Maori art and to modify indigenous design through the tenets of modernism.

After studying early Maori rock drawings in Canterbury caves he researched a number of other Maori art and craft forms. During his lifetime he produced a diverse body of work that includes paintings and drawings based on kowhaiwhai (rafters of meeting houses) and moko (facial tatoo) designs, gourd carvings (often using designs adapted from moko) and greenstone jewellery. Judged by others as a flamboyant "outsider", Schoon's readiness to identify with Maori culture was unusual. "He saw Maori and not European art as the only major art tradition in this country." (Rangihoroa Panaho, 'Maori: At the Centre, On the Margins', Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992, p.133)

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. (Damian Skinner, Theo Schoon's Interaction with Aspects of Maori Art, Thesis for Master of Art History, University of Auckland, 1996, p. 42)

Schoon believed in the integration of 'art' into the fabric of a culture, something he saw in Maori art forms. Damian Skinner suggests "His 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, ibid., p.3) His previous experience of Javanese culture could account for his acceptance of and immersion into Maori culture.
Schoon's work influenced the art of a number of other New Zealand artists including that of Gordon Walters. Schoon's art marked the beginning of a period: a unique blend of New Zealand modernism that was the most prominent feature of late twentieth-century artistic expression in this country.

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