Few episodes in New Zealand art history were as unlikely as the encounter of Theo Schoon with Maori rock art in the 1940s, and few as significant. This chance meeting between an itinerant Dutch artist and a sadly neglected cultural heritage of rock drawings led Schoon to an immediate re-evaluation of his own work, with ongoing impact on painting, photography and the applied arts.
For Schoon and his associates, especially Gordon Walters, there came a radical change of outlook and approach to their creative work.
Schoon first saw fragments of rock art in Otago Museum and copies of some of the drawings in the mid-1940s. With his knowledge of modern European art, of Surrealism and the Bauhaus, he was able to see the seemingly "primitive" images with fresh insight. He knew, for example, of the influence of child art on the Surrealists and the attempts to direct modern art away from traditional approaches towards a more intuitive and individual response. It meant moving from matching to making. The conventions of realist painting, like perspective and modelling, could be dispensed with. Instead, as in the rock drawings, the imagery could be drawn or painted in two dimensions on a flat surface with no illusionism or attempt at realism.
It would be the birth of New Zealand modernism.
Somehow, with no qualifications, Schoon managed to get some funding in 1946 to record the rock art in Canterbury and North Otago for Canterbury Museum. He reported to Roger Duff, later director, who viewed the drawings as childish graffiti with no artistic merit. Schoon's brief was to record the drawings located on limestone bluffs and boulders in areas being farmed for sheep and where the limestone was being quarried for fertiliser by blasting - processes that destroyed the drawings. He was to make painted copies of the rock art for the museum and also take photographs. The enormity of the task, involving climbing over considerable areas of barely accessible cliffs and fording rivers, like the Opihi and Waitaki, while carrying boards for his paintings and camera equipment - plus provisions for overnight stays in the rock shelters - cannot be exaggerated.
But Schoon was up for it. He was an experienced professional photographer and also a gifted and trained painter with incredible technical skill. Plus he was young, in his early 30s, very strong and totally fanatical in his enthusiasm for the task. With no car, little money, few possessions and the rural postal service as his means of communication with Roger Duff in Christchurch, he was truly a man alone. What he achieved, though controversial, was astonishing in both quantity and quality.
By his letters written on location, by his articles for the media and his promotion of his discoveries to colleagues like Gordon Walters, Dennis Knight Turner and Rex Fairburn, he brought the main rock art images, such as the Taniwha Freize at Gould's Farm, from obscurity to mainstream public attention. Thanks to Fairburn and others using the rock art imagery supplied to them by Schoon for commercial purposes such as wall hangings, coasters and tea towels, it became debased maybe but suddenly known and admired.
On location there were numerous difficulties to be overcome. His photographs were hampered by poor and uneven light in the shelters where the rock art was drawn on walls and ceilings. Also, the limestone surfaces were often granulated and flaking, making the drawings irregular, incomplete and fragmented. Schoon's solution was to "retouch" them to make the drawings more legible and easier to photograph.
In doing so, he had to interpret what was there and in many cases select what made sense to his idea of the work. His photographs are therefore manipulated and have a heightened artistic dimension at the expense of archeological fidelity. Schoon was no geologist. His "copies" of the rock art are best seen as free interpretations which he has transformed into modernist paintings. Initially with a "copy" of moa drawings at Craigmore, Schoon tried to simulate the colour and texture of the originals. Quickly he abandoned that approach in favour of a reductive mono-tonal imagery rendered in flat, hard-edged forms on a smooth grey ground. This procedure gives the imagery the scale and format of modernist European paintings. A reference to Paul Klee in the title of one of his photographs confirms his knowledge of this context.
One feels he has composed and positioned his rock art motifs against the ground with an awareness of relational composition and of figure ground interaction. By eliminating conventional spatial and naturalistic concerns, Schoon frees his forms to interact across the surface. It is a dramatic advance that lays the groundwork for his own and Gordon Walters' abstract paintings that follow. Until now it has only been possible to see his rock art paintings in a museum context. It is time to see them as they really are - creative art works.
What: Modernism In New Zealand, including works from the Theo Schoon archive
Where and when: Art+Object, 3 Abbey St, Newton, May 21 at 6.30pm; viewings May 16-21
Michael Dunn's essay on Theo Schoon appears in Art+Object's Modernism in New Zealand catalogue.