Theo Schoon is without doubt one of New Zealand’s most significant pioneering modernists and one of the most neglected. A perennial outsider in a provincial Dominion, he was a remarkable interlocutor between Māori, Pākehā and European visual cultures, deft in multiple media, by turns generous, mercurial and cantankerous, and without doubt a singular genius. Theo Schoon’s photographs of New Zealand mud pools and assemblages of natural objets trouvés have an aesthetic sensibility with a direct lineage to European avant-garde modernism. Their virtuosity of lighting and subtle use of greyscale and colour are virtually unique in New Zealand art, resonating so well with the spirit of a young country trying to negotiate modernity, while still identifying with the natural landscape, that Theo Schoon’s photographs were selected to be shown at the New Zealand pavilion at the Tokyo Expo in 1970. In the late 1930s Theo Schoon had worked for the Dutch shipping line KLM in the Dutch East Indies on tourist marketing and was no stranger to promoting the exotic beauty of a place.
Theo Schoon was born in 1915 to middle class Dutch parents in the small village of Kebumen, Central Java. As was common for colonial scions of his class, Theo Schoon was sent back to the Netherlands to further his studies. The Schoons had family in Rotterdam and in 1931 young Theo was enrolled at that city’s Academie van Beeldende Kunsten en Technische Wetenschappen (Academy of Fine Arts and Technical Sciences). It was here that Theo Schoon received his artistic training, though the specific records of that time were lost when much of the city was razed by the German Luftwaffe in 1943. It seems reasonable to assume that Theo Schoon was a student of the Academie’s traditional and conservative Fine Arts department, of which Willem de Kooning was a later alumnus. Theo Schoon’s figurative painting, loosely expressive and rooted in Rembrandt and Vermeer (“in the style of [the forger Han] van Meegeren’s sugary soft drawings of long-legged deer,” as one acquaintance described it) and some of his stylistic devices support this hypothesis, though Theo Schoon had a tendency to change his story when it was convenient.
The Academie, however, also contained a department of Applied Arts which specialised in advertising and industrial design. Rotterdam at the time was one of the most modern cities in Europe; bustling, vibrant and aspirational, having transformed itself through the 1920s from a picturesque river village (think Ludolfe de Jonge’s View in Rotterdam of St Laurenskerk of 1679) into what filmmaker Joris Ivens in his 1930 documentary Die Bruge called a “harbour machine.” The city encouraged modernist architects like J. A. Brinkman, L. C. van der Vlugt, and Jacobus Oud (who built his famous, Mondrian-inspired Café de Unie there in 1924). Rotterdam was also a major centre of modernist design at the Verbeek, Gispen, Leerdam Glasfabriek, and Van Nelle factories, the latter of which hired Jacob “Jac” Jongert (1883-1942) as their chief designer.
The Academie’s Applied Arts department lay at the heart of these pioneering aesthetic attitudes. Jongert and the typographer/photographer Piet Zwart (1885-1977) had, inspired by the German Bauhaus school, created the department’s syllabus to reflect modernist taste and philosophy. They put publications about modernist art and design in the Academie library, which is where Theo Schoon told artist and gallerist Kees Hos that he had first encountered modernist (particularly Bauhaus) ideas. Zwart was to spend some time at the Bauhaus before the Nazis permanently closed it in 1933, was a member of the socialist avant-garde artist collective Links Richten (Look or Aim Left), and a proponent of the associated Dutch Nieuwe Fotografie movement which combined American Straight Photography’s realism with the constructivist and abstract aesthetics of Bauhaus photography. Theo Schoon’s geothermal photographs closely echo Zwart’s studies of factory machinery in their severe cropping, acute angles and eye for visual rhythms. It is possible that Theo Schoon remained in touch with another Nieuwe Fotografie and Links Richten member, Wally Elenbass (1912-2008), because Theo Schoon’s close friend, the artist Gordon Walters, knew to make contact with Elenbass when he visited Rotterdam in 1950.
Theo Schoon on many occasions made reference to the Bauhaus influence in his work, writing in an article for New Zealand Potter shortly before his death in 1985 that two things informed his work the most: “The first was a training in Holland in graphic design, the second was a strong influence by the legacy of the Bauhaus.” Bauhaus ideals were entrenched in the pedagogical foundations of the Academie’s Applied Arts department ahead of their time. The Bauhaus school was founded in Weimar by the architect Walter Gropius in 1919, though it would move to Dessau in 1925 and Berlin in 1932. The intention was to bring all of the arts together by emphasising design and structural qualities. At first the introductory courses were run by Swiss expressionist artist/mystic Johannes Itten (1888-1967) and a rarefied countercultural atmosphere prevailed. In 1923 Itten was replaced by the Hungarian photographer and constructivist painter László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) and the school’s educational emphasis shifted to rational design with industrial applications, though the political culture remained predominantly left wing, leading to its ultimate closure by the Nazis.
At a time when artist Eric Lee-Johnson describes photography in New Zealand as occupying “a position about midway between doodling and washing the dishes,” Theo Schoon’s view of photography as a way of pushing abstraction forward showed a definite Bauhaus influence. Moholy-Nagy’s influence on Bauhaus photography, and by extension Theo Schoon’s photography, was profound. He was a ceaseless experimenter, fascinated by the possibilities inherent in photograms, photomontage, aerial and acute perspectives and the use of careful cropping to find a photographic aesthetic equivalent to pure abstraction in painting. By the standards of the prevailing pictorialist aesthetic of the day, Moholy-Nagy’s photographs seemed ludicrously bad, with the apparent subject flattened, jostled to the side by incidental details, random forms and unfamiliar perspectives, but in fact it was a new way of seeing otherwise mundane and everyday things; an effort to resolve the twentieth century aesthetic conflict between illusory perspectival space and the flat, patterned surface of the image. There are strong resemblances between Theo Schoon’s geothermal pictures and the photographic assemblages of Walter Peterhans (1897-1960), a Bauhaus teacher who later replaced Gropius as director.
In 1936 Theo Schoon returned to Java to set up his own studio in Bandung, but in 1939, fearful of a likely Japanese invasion, Theo Schoon, his parents and brother fled to New Zealand. Theo Schoon moved around the country for several years, from job to job, pursuing early Māori “moa hunter” cave art and an ever elusive artistic community that would meet his standards. In 1950, Theo Schoon was living in Rotorua where he created this series of close-up photographic studies of mud pools and silica formations around the Rotorua-Taupō region. Rotorua’s geysers, hot pools and mudpools had been an international tourist attraction since the nineteenth century. It was also a centre for Māori art and craft (something that fascinated and engaged Theo Schoon deeply), the National Publicity Studios and even, as art historian Damian Skinner has noted, a small group of New Zealand artists working in modernist and primitivist modes. In Rotorua’s sultry environs with their whiff of brimstone, Theo Schoon seems to have found a kind of temporary turangawaewae, a place to stand, where he could explore a number of his obsessions including Māori visual culture, as well as gourd carving, which Theo Schoon took up himself and did much to revive.
Throughout the 1950s and ‘60s Theo Schoon returned to the area to photograph geothermal formations. These images evolved as Theo Schoon began to include other elements made of plasticine, carved pumice forms, drawing on the dried and cracked mud, and even (unthinkable by today’s environmental standards) adding dyes to mud pools. Theo Schoon saw these natural phenomena in strictly formal terms, describing to filmmaker Martin Rumsby the circular patterns created by bubbling mud as “discs”. Parallels can be drawn to the biomorphic forms of sculptor Jean Arp, and Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee’s metaphor of applying a microscope to nature to study the underlying basic structures.
Theo Schoon used the natural abstract forms of Rotorua’s geothermal areas as a visual resource, describing them in an undated letter to Luit Bieringer (then director of the National Art Gallery in Wellington) as “nature’s super abstract (concrete) art” and “An artist’s visual diary.” In a 1972 article for Australian Photography entitled “Pictures by a Caveman” he writes: “While on this project, I became interested in Natural designs, patterns and abstract forms … especially in small things, not tremendous landscapes. I began to escape from the whole European tradition of painting, and to develop a fresh new vision … a new visual freedom.” The geothermal photographs represent a Damascene epiphany for Theo Schoon, allowing him to free himself from the overwhelming legacy of European art and find a new synthesis from his accumulated observation and reading (in a letter he wrote to art historian Michael Dunn in 1964 he says, “Your legacy [New Zealand] is one of mediocrity and bad teaching – mine was the burden of getting too much rammed down my throat, without a decent chance to digest it, or to orientate myself”). The mud pools also allowed Theo Schoon to explore abstraction while remaining safely anchored in the familiar and tourist-friendly exotic tropes of the New Zealand landscape, telling architect and civil planner Gerhard Rosenberg: “I found this particularly amusing whenever I thought of the discomfort of New Zealanders in the presence of abstract art. Here at least they can’t splutter and waffle: nature is a modern artist.”
Theo Schoon explained his process in several letters to Michael Dunn. His first forays into the subject were taken on a 21/4 square twin-lens reflex camera – first an Ikoflex and later a Yashicaflex – in black and white, often hand-held and taken at long exposures, up to a thirtieth of a second or more. When he relocated back to Rotorua for a period in the mid ‘60s to work in the forestry camps, he switched to colour, sometimes using a single-lens early model Canon reflex with a close-up lens. Colour photography allowed Theo Schoon to take full advantage of the vivid colours created by sulphur compounds and extremophile organisms. He would live rough on site, as he once did recording ancient Māori cave art, waiting for the critical moment when the light was just right or for an interesting pattern to take shape in the mud, then freezing these ephemeral and seasonal transformations in time. Martin Rumsby was with Theo Schoon during some of his explorations in the Waiotapu geothermal area when it wasn’t as well known, writing: “Theo told me that nature worked in repeating cycles – that was his theory. So, if he wanted a particular design in the mud pools, for example, then he would wait and count them out. That is, a particular form may appear with every seventh ‘plop’ so, once he had seen it he would count out how many formations it would take to reappear then photograph it.”
The project was not without a certain amount of risk. Sandflies and lack of rations aside,Theo Schoon eschewed the safe and well-trodden tourist areas with their distractions, and thought nothing of adopting a precarious perch over scalding mud and boiling water to get his shot, where sometimes a misstep would result in a foot plunging through a deceptive crust into the searing-hot mud lurking beneath. Despite these ascetic sacrifices, the images speak for themselves. The extreme close-ups that isolate the mud pools and other formations from the context of their surroundings and the flattening effect this produces allowed Theo Schoon to transform an unusual natural phenomenon into abstract studies in formal beauty that are about place and yet transcend geography. In the same way that the Dutch Nieuwe Fotografie attempted to blend ‘straight’ photography with abstraction, Theo Schoon sourced abstract forms already found in nature. Arguably, Theo Schoon was able to pare photography down to its irreducible essence. This is photography in a pure form of its intended purpose – to freeze a moment for deliberation; the god-like freezing of a dynamic, passing moment in time so that we may appreciate and comprehend its miraculous beauty.