Rita Angus & Theo Schoon

An Unlikely Friendship


The association of Rita Angus and Theo Schoon might seem an unlikely even provocative one considering their perceived differences of character and contribution to the history of art in New Zealand. Of the two Angus has had the more established reputation as an artist, even though Schoon is gradually gaining in stature as the range and importance of his contribution becomes better known.(1) Angus' position as a feminist artist fits uneasily with Schoon the homosexual whose appraisal of women in the arts and in general could be harsh and misogynist. This applied even to women like Helen Mason, the potter, with whom he stayed for some time and whose generosity and good nature he made use of for his own advantage. Schoon's relationships with women were never of a sexual nature. Instead they ranged from a pragmatic assessment of the benefits to be gained, usually material, or the need to deal with a woman because she was in a relationship with a man Schoon found interesting or artistically stimulating. Such was the case with Tina Hos who ran the Auckland dealer gallery New Vision in the 1960s and 1970s with her husband Kees. Schoon inevitably fell out with the women in such situations faster than with the men. They threatened his status and challenged the position of authority which he usually imposed on male friends or artists whom he mentored.

Rita Angus c 1942
Oil on board, dimensions unknown
(Private collection, Christchurch)

It was rare but possible for Schoon to admire a woman as an artist. His belief in the importance of artistic talent was such that it overrode any misgivings he might hold on the hierarchy of the sexes. One of the few women he seems to have taken an interest in as an artist was Rita Angus. The evidence for their acquaintance, indeed friendship, has not been fully examined at this stage but is sufficient to justify a consideration of the facts. Schoon was based in Wellington during the Second World War. Along with a number of artists such as Gordon Walters and Dennis Knight Turner he was confined to the city and its environs during the early 1940s.(2) This brought them into a closer relationship than was the case in later years. It was during this period, in 1942, that Schoon was in contact with Rita Angus while she was living in the Bolton Street flats. He had first met her in Christchurch as early as 1939 when they were both enrolled at the Canterbury College School of Art.(3)

Despite their age difference in 1942 - Schoon was 27 and Angus 34 - it is unlikely that he would have adopted any role other than that of guide or mentor to Angus. His large ego ensured that he felt able to impart knowledge rather than receive it, though he was willing to absorb ideas into his work from others without necessarily acknowledging it. Schoon had benefited from an extensive training in conventional figurative art, but was very critical of local work. He was convinced that New Zealand art suffered from ignorance and provincial blindness to anything important. In 1966 he wrote: 'The provincial mind is difficult to demolish, difficult to live with. It has a special instinct for anything of no consequence. It really means you have to be ruthless in weeding out, and quick in accepting new insights as something to live by.'(4)

Theo Schoon 1942
Oil on board, dimensions unknown
(Collection of Anna-Maria Hertzer, USA)

One outcome of his interest in Rita is found in several portraits of her that he made about 1942. These include a painting of her in the lotus position, which Schoon wrote: 'was done in my studio in Manners Street, Wellington, about 1943-43. It must have been witnessed by Gordon Walters who was in my studio every day for many years and who met her on that occasion'.(5) There is another portrait of Angus by Schoon, which is known from a photograph he made of it and passed on to various people including Walters.(6) Later, in the early 1980s, he had no memory of it. He wrote to me: 'I have no recollection of it to know whether it was a good one, or not, so I'd like you to exercise rigorous judgment on it yourself for a yes or no'.(7) This response was in relation to my request to use it in a short article on his work for Art New Zealand.(8) This painting was in the collection of Doris Lusk at the time of her death in 1990 and is currently in a Christchurch private collection.(9)

These paintings were made from the life and with the consent of the subject as was a portrait photograph of Angus. This in itself is revelatory because Angus' willingness to pose for the portraits can be seen as an endorsement of Schoon or at least a sign of confidence in him. For the painter/sitter relationship in this case is not one based on an official commission but one that arises from an artistic friendship. It implies that Schoon saw Angus as worthy of painting and photographing. His respect for her was such that he introduced her to the patron and collector John Money who purchased her works over many years. She in turn saw Schoon as someone to be entrusted with the task of making her portrait because of her respect for him and the relationship that had developed between them. This seems a fair assessment because neither Schoon nor Angus were people to suffer fools gladly. Rita Angus may have recorded her own features a lot but did not allow others to do so very often. She had a private dimension, which she guarded fiercely from the intrusion of strangers. The Schoon portraits of Angus provide little-known evidence of their artistic relationship.

Angus had the use of a beach house at Waikanae owned by her father who moved there in 1943. Schoon appears to have visited her there at least once with Gordon Walters who was his protege. Among Schoon's technical skills was a superb grasp of black and white photography. It is certain that he helped Walters take some photographs at that period, when he made studies of trees on the foreshore. Schoon made arrangements of stones and driftwood into modernist compositions, which he photographed. Some of these had a surrealist and erotic overtone as we see in examples taken at Sumner near Christchurch. Angus initially appears to have made watercolours of the beach focusing on the sand dunes and waves. There is nothing to indicate she ever took photographs. Certainly she began to evolve some highly original work during this period, which continues to attract analysis and attention. A surrealist dimension to some of her paintings points to some shared stylistic concerns.

Rita Angus c.1947
Black-and-white photograph
(Collection of the Auckland
Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki)

Schoon at that period was active as a portraitist both with the camera and the brush. He took photographs of a number of artist friends such as Walters and Knight Turner in the 1940s and also made self-portrait photographs. In this he had some common interests with Rita Angus who made a considerable number of self-portraits but also painted portraits of artist friends like Leo Bensemann. Bensemann painted Rita Angus in turn so that the reciprocal portrait exchange parallels that between Schoon and Angus. It seems likely that their interest in self-portraits and portraits of artist friends provided a further point of mutual concern.

Schoon in his painted portraits did not adopt a modernist approach preferring in his works a more academic style. His training in Holland was said to have been traditional and he certainly knew about conventional drawing and modelling of forms. Therefore it is hardly surprising that his portrait of Angus owes more to the realist tradition than his later abstract paintings and photographic works would lead one to expect. The portrait is an identifiable likeness, which shows the well-known features of her face such as the long nose and thin lips. It is the head that attracts his attention and ours. In this there is a resemblance to Angus' own self-portraits, which are usually half-length with the head in profile or full face confronting the viewer. Schoon's image is less confrontational for she looks past us and her features are not outlined as emphatically.

Perhaps significantly there is no reference to her being an artist. This is paradoxical in that her being an artist was probably critical to Schoon's appraisal of her and his justification for painting her. However, he did not show Walters as a painter either. Instead Schoon gives us a more understated image of her than those she made of herself. That Schoon did the portrait at all means Angus was no ordinary woman. Her apparent ordinariness belies his assessment of her, which goes deeper. What, we must ask, attracted Schoon to Angus?

His photographic portrait of her dates a little later to c.1947 when she was living at Sumner beach near Christchurch. He shows her in half-length, close-up but casual in attitude. She appears to be leaning on a bar and is positioned to one side of the image. The background is dark and adds no information about the sitter. Instead we must draw our ideas of character from the features of Angus. She appears lined, and prematurely aged for someone in her late thirties. The portrait is austere and iconic. Angus emerges as a person of serious demeanour and is treated with respect by the photographer. She appears as an equal. In this his depiction is not dissimilar to Schoon's photographs of male artists like Gordon Walters done about this time. But the portrait is informal in the casual nature of the pose and dress and suggests a degree of ease between the sitter and her recorder. The isolated image can be read as a tribute to her strength of purpose and focus on her art at the expense of a normal family life. Schoon's photo is one of the very few images of Angus that will bear comparison with her self-portraits in its intensity.

It seems, on reflection, that her openness to fresh ideas must have played a part. And one area in particular deserves attention. In her paintings of the 1940s Angus reveals an interest in Oriental religion and imagery. Schoon made one portrait of Angus sitting in the lotus position to show her interest in Bhuddism. Schoon had been brought up in Indonesia where he came into contact with Asian cultures and religion. Some early photographs of his show the monumental figure of Bhudda in the Chandi Mendut temple in central Java.(10) The poses and hand positions of such images would have interested Angus when she saw them in Schoon's studio. He retained a life- long interest in Bali, which he visited on a number of occasions in later life. He himself was skilled in Javanese dancing and had learnt the subtle and rhythmic hand and finger dance movements as a young boy. These he could still demonstrate when a man in his fifties. He was photographed in 1944 in Wellington by Spencer Digby as a Javanese dancer dressed in costume of a turban and skirt.(11) He wrote an article at that time called Oriental Dancing and the Trance in which he noted: 'Deliberate use is made of the trance as a release of man's full possibilities extending, as it were, their range'.(12) As well as collections of photographs of Bhuddist sculptures and artefacts, he had costumes suitable for dressing up. He gave performances as a dancer in Wellington and also was noted as a performer on drums. It seems apparent that his knowledge of Bhuddist art and culture would have provided a common interest between him and Angus. She in turn made a portrait of Schoon at this time. As Brownson noted in 1977, 'she never painted a portrait of someone she wasn't interested in'.(13)

Buddha, Chandi Mendut, Java c.1938
Black-and-white photograph
(Collection of Michael Dunn, Auckland)

Schoon's portraits were painted mainly in the 1940s. He later placed no value on them and regarded the portraits as an embarrassment. In 1964 he wrote: 'Please turn a blind eye to the awful portraits and scenes, that the locals may produce, specially painted for them by Theo Schoon, unless it gives you a special perverse delight to uncover my oId sins.'(14) Schoon's evaluation of his portraits was made much later when his interests had shifted away from academic training towards a modernist aesthetic based on the Bauhaus. He wrote in 1964 that he had received too much training: 'Your legacy 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 orientate myself'.(15) In 1942 it seems unlikely that his views were so rigid. He even painted provocative semi-nude Javanese girls to meet market demand for the exotic. And it is worth remembering that he continued to do portraits and self-portraits in photographic form throughout his career. At this stage, portraiture had an interest for him and his portrayal of Angus must have had a basis of respect. It may be that his photographic portraits today seem the finer works.

Rita Angus' portrait of Schoon is now in the United States and to my knowledge has not been adequately reproduced.(16) It can be dated to 1942. Angus did the painting for her own reasons and did not sell or gift the work to Schoon. It was part of her estate at the time of her death. Unlike Schoon's portraits of her, it shows him in a studio environment with a still life of paintbrushes in the foreground alluding to his painting and art interests. On the background wall is a still-life painting of a vaguely Surrealist type.(17) Whether it is by Schoon or Angus is hard to tell. The porcelain vase may refer to his knowledge of Oriental art and culture. Schoon is shown as a young fashion- conscious man with a deep blue shirt and contrasting tie. His pose has a studied nonchalance. Angus has used a comparable type of presentation to that of her famous portrait of Betty Curnow of the same year. In both cases the portrait is a seated half-length and in both the sitter is surrounded by objects that reflect their interests.

Angus painted Schoon's features with very little tonal modulation or shadow. In this she gives an Oriental dimension to the portrait, which resembles Chinese painting where chiaroscuro and tonal modelling were not used in depictions of faces and figures. Angus used this style in her A Goddess of Mercy (1946-47) and some other portraits where it was appropriate. Taken in combination with the yellowish tinge to the face, Angus' portrait alludes unambiguously to his Indonesian upbringing and his bi-cultural aesthetic make-up. The portrait tells us what it was about Schoon that interested Rita Angus at a time when she had few people who understood her moral and philosophic outlook.

Apart from their art interests and shared openness to Oriental art and religion there would have been other ideas in common. Almost certainly one would have been pacifism. Angus was vilified for her pacifist stance during the war but she was only one of a group of artists including Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters who were not actively involved in the war effort. While McCahon and Walters may not have had a viewpoint as pronounced as that of Angus, Schoon certainly did. He was totally opposed to war and took no part in any aspect of it. His family fled Indonesia to avoid the conflict. He and Angus would have found common ground in their espousal of Bhuddist ideas of peace and harmony between man and nature. That Schoon depicted Angus in the lotus position is not surprising considering that he did photographic self- portraits dressed in Balinese costume and cross- dressing is a quality held in common by both artists. Angus' features are recognisable in her paintings of goddess figures. Both artists were ready to flaunt convention.

Ron Brownson has suggested that Angus and Schoon would have been attracted to one another as outsiders in society.(18) Schoon as a homosexual and foreigner in wartime New Zealand was a misfit who struggled for acceptance while disdaining much of what he found in society around him. Angus as a divorced woman, an artist and a pacifist was also on the fringes of proper society.(19) Both took an obsessive interest in art and this intensity of focus must have acted as a catalyst to their relationship.

Interest in the natural world would also have drawn the two together. Schoon made photographs of stones and driftwood and looked closely at plant forms. His photographs of rocks on the beach or of moa remains in a landscape setting indicate his approach. His viewpoint was modernist and involved looking down on the motifs so that they stand out against a background. The picture surface becomes accentuated rather than the spatial depth of conventional table still-life arrangements. This was to lead on to his geothermal photographs where natural patterns and organic processes were the focus of his art. Angus made drawings and watercolours of flowers and plants with the kind of close-up attention that interested Schoon. Both were fascinated by pattern. Also, they had an interest in Maori culture, which surfaced in Schoon's studies of rock art after the war and in Angus' self-image as Rutu painted in 1951 where she seeks harmony between races. Schoon often was attracted to a linear structure with the precise contours also seen in Angus.

There is nothing to indicate that Angus and Schoon continued to have many dealings with one another after this period. However, Schoon visited Angus in Christchurch about 1946 when he was beginning his research on rock art. Roger Duff, Director of the Canterbury Museum, who supervised Schoon's research into rock art, would have acted as a link between them. He knew and was friendly with Angus. They both pursued solitary difficult careers with a single-minded determination that took its toll of friends and fellow artists. Angus continued to work in the figurative realist way that gained acceptance in critical quarters whereas Schoon moved into the controversial territory of bi-culturalism. His work as an artist became more abstract even though rooted in nature. The eccentricity of his profile exceeded even that of Angus and resulted ultimately in a degree of marginalisation. Time is now allowing the distance to evaluate the importance of his achievement and the role he had as a catalyst for change. His interest in others and his desire to teach and point the way mean that his friendships and artistic allegiances, such as that with Rita Angus, were almost always fertile in suggesting departures.

1. For information on Rita Angus see Rita Angus, edited by Mary Barr, National Art Gallery, Wellington 1982; also Ron Brownson, Rita Angus, MA thesis, University of Auckland 1977. As yet there is no monograph on Schoon. See Damian Skinner, Theo Schoon's Interaction with Aspects of New Zealand Art, MA thesis, University of Auckland 1996; also, Theo Schoon, Jade Country, Jade Arts, Sydney 1973.
2. See Richard Lummis, 'Embyronic Ultra-Modernism: Walters, Schoon and Turner in the 1940s', Art New Zealand 95, pp. 89-91, 97.
3. This is recorded in the School Archives. I am grateful to Andrew Wood for this information and for reading the manuscript of this essay.
4. Letter from Theo Schoon to the author, undated, October 1966.
5. Ron Brownson, op.cit., p. 202.
6. This painting was later owned by Doris Lusk.
7. Letters from Theo Schoon to the author, undated, 1982.
8. See Michael Dunn, 'The Art of Theo Schoon', Art New Zealand 25, pp. 22-23.
9. I am grateful to Grant Banbury for providing me with this information and a colour print of the portrait.
10. See A.J. Bernet Kempers, Ancient Indonesian Art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge Mass 1959, pp. 40-41. I am grateful to Tim Behrends for identifying this work for me.
11. See Theo Schoon, 'Oriental Dancing and the Trance', The Arts in New Zealand, December 1944/January 1945, vol. 17,1, p. 42.
12. ibid.
13.' Ron Brownson, op. cit., p. 139.
14. Letter from Theo Schoon to the author, 11 December 1964, p. 5.
15. ibid.,p. 4.
16. It is reproduced on page 22 as a small black-and-white margin insert in the National Art Gallery's 1982 Rita Angus publication. The painting is now owned by Anna-Marie Hertzer, one of Schoon's nieces.
17. According to Janet Paul, the location was Schoon's studio in Manners Street. See Rita Angus (1982), ibid.
18. Ron Brown in a telephone conversation, September 2000.
19. See Vita Cochrane, Portrait of a Self-Portrait: Rita Angus's Self- Portraits 1936-37, MA thesis, University of Auckland, 1998.