When Douglas MacDiarmid was young he was immediately attracted to anyone older, interesting, unorthodox – and preferably non-British. Multi-talented Dutch-Javanese artist and emigrant Theo Schoon most definitely fell into the exceptional category. He too was gay and had studied in Europe, a gifted painter, photographer and carver with precious knowledge and understanding of art trends, techniques and influences on the other side of the world. The pair first met in Christchurch in the 1940s, mixing in the same creative circles. MacDiarmid the impressionable young university student keen to seek out those with life experience and wisdom to share; Schoon, a fascinating, dogmatic character who spent years living rough while documenting Māori cave paintings, was a divisive force on the art scene – one of those individuals who always had to be right! It didn’t bother Douglas one iota that his friend was extreme to the point of being rude. Even if he hadn’t been a fellow artist, Theo’s origins and Buddhist sensibilities would still have attracted him like a magnet. Schoon’s descriptions of his homeland led Douglas to stop over in Indonesia on one of his trips home… “When I visited that part of the world, I was able to see a lot of things I would not have known about otherwise, thanks to that association.”
Good friendships come and go in a long, full life. The two painters gradually lost contact after Douglas settled in France, each intent on his own singular path. Nevertheless, the evidence of their mutual respect and rapport remains in Douglas’ distinctive painting of Theo cross-legged in classic yoga stance, a very uncommon sight in 1940s provincial New Zealand. “I painted him in a yoga pose because he was very oriental, almost serpentine in his movements” he explained. “I’ve never been able to flop down on the floor in a tailor’s squat. In fact (laughing), it took a little bit of learning when I became an Anglican (for a short time, aged about eight) to even do what was called the ‘prot squat’…!”
Theo Schoon also sketched Douglas MacDiarmid in 1949-50 as an intense young man, perfectly capturing his strong angular features in a few deft strokes of line and shape.
But that’s not the end of the story. MacDiarmid and Schoon are now indelibly linked in literature. Douglas’ portrait of Theo appears in both Theo Schoon: A Biography by Damian Skinner and Colours of a Life: The life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, and he is very glad his old comrade is also gaining due recognition in New Zealand art history at last because as Douglas says “he deserves not to be forgotten.” These intersecting life stories were published within months of one another in 2018, as well as being reviewed by leading Auckland art critic and author Dr Peter Simpson in a combined appraisal in the New Zealand Herald newspaper. It was a challenge that appealed to the reviewer “since the two careers are almost mirror images of each other.” And, just as Douglas’ book was supported by a popular two-month Colours of a Life exhibition in the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, a show of Schoon’s work will open in 2019 at City Gallery Wellington– with that yoga portrait of Theo, on loan from Christchurch Art Gallery, expected to make an appearance.
Read more about Douglas MacDiarmid in his the recently released biography Colours of Life – the life and times of Douglas MacDiarmid, written by his niece Anna Cahill. The book is available to purchase here and at selected galleries or ask for it at all good bookstores throughout New Zealand