New Zealand Herald review – Biographies fill missing bits of jigsaw

Thank you to Peter Simpson for his review of the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, published in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 10 November, 2018.

Biographies fill missing bits of jigsaw

Reviewed by Peter Simpson

These welcome books have much in common; both are well-researched, high quality biographies of substantial New Zealand artists from last century.

Theo Schoon (1915-85) was a few years older than Douglas MacDiarmid, born in 1922 and now 96 years old. Both are accomplished, versatile but somewhat under-rated or sidelined figures within the country’s art history. These books should go some way to correcting that; both fill gaps in the jigsaw puzzle of New Zealand art.

The relative neglect of Schoon and MacDiarmid results from neither belonging to the mainstream; they were, in different ways, outsiders. Both were gay or, in MacDiarmid’s case, bisexual – a matter fully and appropriately dealt with by their biographers – but the main reasons for marginal status are that Schoon was an immigrant who never fully adjusted to New Zealand and MacDiarmid was an emigrant who lived most of his life in France.

Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (Mary Egan Publishing, $80)
THEO SCHOON: A BIOGRAPHY Damian Skinner (Massey University Press, $60)
Theo Schoon: A Biography by Damian Skinner (Massey University Press, $60)

Schoon was of Dutch extraction, born a colonial in Indonesia. After art school training in Rotterdam, he came to NZ aged 24 because of the threat of Japanese invasion. He spent most of his life here although he died – having come to despise his adopted country – in Australia where he lived from 1972.

NZ-born MacDiarmid left for Europe in 1946, returning briefly in 1949, but since 1950 has lived in France (mostly in Paris) with only occasional brief returns.

Although Schoon and MacDiarmid were travelling in opposite directions, their lives did briefly intersect. They met around 1940 in Christchurch, where both studied briefly at the Canterbury School of Art.* They knew many of the same people within the lovely Christchurch art scene of those years, including Rita Angus, Evelyn and Fred Page, Leo Bensemann, Ngaio Marsh, Douglas Lilburn (a lover and life-long friend of MacDiarmid), Allen and Betty Curnow.

The two artists painted or drew each other. MacDiarmid’s portrait of Schoon, probably painted around 1944-45, is reproduced in both books. It shows Schoon – who was deeply immersed in Balinese culture, especially dance and costume – sitting in the lotus position.

Portrait of Theo Schoon (1944) by Douglas MacDiarmid. Collection of the Christchurch Art Gallery.
Portrait of Theo Schoon (1944) by Douglas MacDiarmid. Oil on canvas, 354 x 283 mm Collection of Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu.

The dominant characteristic of Schoon’s career was its chameleon character; every few years his attention shifted to a new subject matter or artistic medium. At first he focussed largely on portraits (Rita Angus, Gordon Walters, Dennis Knight Turner) in fairly conventional style. In the late 1940s, he became obsessed with Māori rock drawing, convinced that it was a wholly overlooked area of world art.

He spent years exploring sites and making drawings in rugged South Island hill country. In the 1950s, he turned largely to photography focussing on subjects drawn from thermal areas around Rotorua, treated in a modernist manner.

A decade later, while living in Grey Lynn, a new passion was growing gourds and carving them with designs derived from Māori moko and kowhairwhai patterns. Around this time, he produced important modernist paintings developed from and adapting Māori designs. Yet another fresh interest in the late 1960s and early 70s was carving jade (pounamu).

Skinner expertly follows all these twists and turns of Schoon’s complex development, finally sorting out and making sense of a career many have found confusing – an impressive (and well-illustrated) achievement.

MacDiarmid’s career is likewise eclectic and many-faceted, although largely within painting. He was a precocious member of the Christchurch Group in his early 20s, fitting easily into the prevailing landscape mode.

However, he was impatient for wider experience and soon headed overseas, where his painting broadened to include range of styles and genres. Cahill writes: “There is no typical MacDiarmid painting…Diverse and arresting, his work is always substantial and distinguished by intense, often exuberant colour.” More than 100 illustrations – portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, still lifes, figure paintings, history paintings – bear out the truth of this assertion.

Written in close consultation with its living subject (the author is MacDiarmid’s niece), Cahill’s book is rich, teeming and colourful – a worthy testament to a fascinating life.

* Please note: MacDiarmid did not study at the Canterbury School of Arts – MacDiarmid Arts Trust

Peter Simpson's review of the biographies of Douglas MacDiarmid and Theo Schoon, published in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 10 November, 2018.
Peter Simpson's review of the biographies of Douglas MacDiarmid and Theo Schoon, published in the New Zealand Herald on Saturday 10 November, 2018.

Buy your copy of Colours of a Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid by Anna Cahill (2018) from us, or purchase it online or in person from all good bookstores and galleries across New Zealand. Published by Mary Egan Publishing (2018).

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