Theo Schoon- the matter of interpretation

Oh hi – if you are an avid reader of our blog a couple (ok a few) years ago one of our historians (me) went rogue writing about the artistic life of Tony Fomison – who was known as an archaeologist amongst the said historian’s archaeology peers. Amongst the tangent of found art and ramblings of an avid fan, mention was made of a very polarizing individual, Theo Schoon, who crossed paths and opinions with Fomison and pretty much everyone else. Such was the topic of Schoon that it was worthy of its own blog post, and a promise was wildly made to said colleagues. Well folks, here is the promise fulfilled; another art/archaeology crossover special – this time a controversial tale of a colonial childhood, a misaligned love of art form that resulted in cultural appropriation, and a white saviour mentality only to be topped off by a perceived bitter rejection. I know it sounds grim, but read on, these topics are relevant in our current climate and form a delicate balancing act, reflecting on our past to improve our future. For this blog post, we will be focusing on the archaeology lens of Schoon the polymath.

But before we ‘dig’ into the archaeology, here is a quick summary of the life and times of Theodorus Johannes Schoon (1915-1985) #youalwaysneedcontext. Schoon was of Dutch heritage and was born in Kebumen, Java, Dutch East Indies (which would become known as Indonesia). Schoon grew up as the child of a Dutch civil servant and, as a result, was educated alongside the children of Javanese nobility. It was within this environment that Schoon learnt classical Javanese dance. The Javanese way of life would permeate into many aspects of Schoon’s life as an adult. Schoon’s education continued in the Netherlands where he attended the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts during the 1930s (Skinner, 2000). Schoon returned to Java in 1936, establishing a studio creating photographic folios of the local environment, people and their lifestyles. In 1939 Schoon’s family immigrated to New Zealand, and Theo, aged 23, followed his family to New Zealand where they settled in Christchurch. Schoon ensconced himself into the New Zealand art world, briefly attending Canterbury University College School of Art, before a move to Wellington in 1941. If you imagine the art world that Schoon entered, you would have seen Schoon rubbing shoulders with the likes of Rita Angus, what we know as ‘The Group’ or ‘Bloomsbury South’, Gordon Walters, and Dennis Knight Turner (Skinner, 2000).

Portrait of Theo Schoon posed and wearing a Balinese costume. Image: Spencer Digby Studios, 1943.

The year 1946 brings us to our lens, a time and place of discovery for Schoon, and it is here where Schoon’s upbringing within the Javanese culture (albeit with a colonial perspective) and art education would colour his approach to and interpretation of his exposure to Māori rock shelter drawings. The Māori rock art would leave a permanent impression on Schoon, who recognised the significance of the work much earlier than many Pākehā, and for that we should acknowledge Schoon, but that of course comes with a caveat.

Cue Damien Skinner, biographer of Schoon. It is a role that Skinner is especially well equipped for; as a researcher and writer Skinner is acutely aware of the responsibility of reformatting Pākehā thinking. To quote: “I would call it decolonisation. Schoon is my problem” (Lopesi, 2019).

In Skinner’s biography, Schoon’s first encounter with Māori rock shelter art was reading an article in the Journal of Polynesian Society by historian G. B. Stevenson from 1943, which noted rock drawings observed in the Waitaki Valley, Te Waipounamu (Skinner, 2018: 94). To preface this interest, you must note Schoon’s art education in Europe, which had included the African and Pacific art that inspired the development of art movements such as Cubism. Schoon, cognisant of this link, also knew that Māori rock drawings were somewhat underrepresented (at the time) in anthropology and archaeology. New Zealand artists were preoccupied with establishing a New Zealand style of art based on regionalism and a sense of local identity that still had roots in Europe’s art movements (Ministry for Culture and Heritage, 2012).

Schoon travelled to South Canterbury to see the drawings for himself. As luck would have it, earlier in 1945 Roger Duff, the ethnologist at Canterbury Museum, had very recently surveyed the rock drawings in the area and concluded that the drawings he had observed required accurate protection and recording in the form of site photos, drawings, and tracings (Skinner, 2018: 94-98). Enter the ubiquitous Theo Schoon with his uncanny knack (here I quote Anthony Bryt from 2019, call him a ‘Zelig’ if you like) to suddenly appear at the scene of an opportunity (Byrt, 2019).  As a result, Schoon was employed on a project where he travelled to Gordon’s Valley, South Canterbury, with Duff and recorded the drawings. The resulting copies were in oil on canvas boards. Duff was impressed with the faithfulness and accuracy of the works. This initial work acted as a segue to recording rock art in the South Canterbury region. Funding for eight weeks was provided by the Department of Internal Affairs and was endorsed by no other than William Vance, the local department officer and author of High Endeavour (ok I sense another blog post), and the works were to be supervised by the Canterbury Museum.

What could go wrong? Māori rock art around Aotearoa was being accurately recorded and catalogued, and the project was fine until some of the rock drawings got “schooned”… WTF? Schooned (McCulloch, 1985)? Yeah, that was me too… read on dear reader for the term “schooned” exists within a context… although I could coin the phrase “schooned” for use in many a situation. So, to provide you with the said “context” I will cast you back to Duff from the Canterbury Museum mentioning in his initial survey that the drawings required protection measures…

Imagine heraldic triumphant noises and in rides from stage left, Theo Schoon and his trusty box of crayons, ooh and some red raddle, why not…to retouch the rock drawings complete with a flourish of his signature… you may now facepalm. It is here that we can concede that the state of the drawings was subject to agricultural and environmental conditions (Skinner, 2018: 130). You could argue that retouching the work was an act of ‘preservation’, not unlike the processes in place by museums and art galleries maintaining the condition of their artefacts. The difference was a lone restorer (yes, I know you are thinking of the Ecce Homo fresco), not aware of his material impacts on the original drawing, and not to mention the most important factor, lack of consultation with local iwi and professionals. By 1946, Duff was overseeing Schoon’s work in South Canterbury and Duff’s field books record accounts of Schoon’s retouching. This was referred to in Fomison’s report to the New Zealand Archaeological Association regarding the topic of ‘Theo Schoon and the Retouching of Rock Art’ (Fomison, 1987). To be honest, the retouching was something that Duff also struggled with if his field books are anything to go by. In October 1946 Duff notes that in a ‘judicious restoration’ Schoon had brought to light a ‘previously scarcely recognisable figure’ of Gould’s Taniwha cave. By March 1947, Duff had not been in the field with Schoon for four months, and his take on Schoon’s flagrant ‘schooning’ had time for reflection. Fomision’s report recounts Duff asking Schoon not to restore any figures in the future. Fomison went on to say that the retouching of the work in ‘grease crayon’ had so far proved ‘irremovable’. The crayons used were black and a red raddle (for marking sheep) – despite the fact the rock art varied from a ‘near-purple’ through to the ochre ‘yellow-orange’ (Fomison, 1987; Skinner, 2018: 102). Schoon also did not attempt to cover mark for mark (well here you could argue ICOMOS principles that you can delineate between the original work and the assumed restoration…? No, Nah, didn’t think so). Fomison’s report recounted that the retouching work was done prior to the photography that was also used to record the drawings (Fomison, 1987).

“Birdmen,” a recreation of Maori rock drawings in Frenchman’s Gully, Pareora, by Theo Schoon, at the Robert McDougall Art Gallery. Image: Press, 25/9/1985: 26.

It’s very conflicting stuff, right? Probably why it’s taken so long to write this blog (and my tendency to overthink things). Fomison’s report culminated in a description of a recorded interview of Schoon before he returned to Sydney for his final year . Fomison quipped:

‘In a matter of days, film footage and sound tapes had been used up; and Theo had picked enough fights to confirm his decision to return to Sydney, which he did.’

Schoon’s approach to recording and restoration was forthright, much like his approach to life in general. Schoon, I guess, held at one point a great certainty in himself and not much self-awareness, which I think enabled a type of clarity in his observations, especially that of Māori archaeology and art and its much-needed inclusion in the New Zealand narrative.’ (Skinner, 2018: 297).

By the 1960s, Fomison had become part of the emergence of recorded archaeology in New Zealand, surpassing Schoon’s efforts on a far more scientific level, with one very pointed observation that most of the Māori rock art was found not in caves but in undercuts/ledges in the bases of limestone bluffs (Skinner, 2018: 297). Schoon was given the chance to respond to Fomison’s findings and opinions on his preservation work, which was published in the New Zealand Archaeological Association Newsletter (it was edited as I guess you could imagine). Schoon acknowledged that the retouching was undesirable, but wetting the works did nothing to bring out the deteriorated drawings for the photography. Thus, Schoon stated that he resorted to retouching. Schoon was taking on a task that no one else was prepared to do, and he was willing to stand accused of vandalism if it meant some sort of record was preserved… #rescuearchaeology anyone (Skinner, 2018: 300)? It’s here I defer to one of my colleagues, the superstar archaeologist and inadvertent ‘found art’ artist T. Wadsworth, to explain that Schoon’s vandalism was also scientific:

“So we now have methods of analysing pigments and dating rock art based on charcoal content, but a recent study (O’Regan et al. 2019. Dating South Island Māori rock art: Pigment and pitfalls) found that Schoon’s retouching has resulted in false results and compromised such analysis. We also have new digital technology and better methods to record and identify faded rock art, which has also been complicated by Schoon’s retouching (pers comm. Wadsworth, 2023).”

Wadsworth’s morning teas have been exclusively photographed by A.E. Gibson as found art and have featured for the past three years on Instagram. Image: Gibson, 2021.

I guess the report and his rebuttal cemented Schoon’s malaise (well bitterness as the story goes) of New Zealand entirely, one of the final nails if you will (Skinner, 2018: 297). This negative perception of New Zealand blindsided his insight into Māori art. Schoon thought it should be preserved in time, and as such, his aggrieved conclusion of New Zealand did not account (or did he just not live long enough?) for Māori art to evolve into the current narrative, now firmly translated into New Zealand modernism. Sydney, Australia, was his next and final stop with his 34 boxes of possessions (Skinner, 2018: 300). It has to be noted that while Fomison’s account of Schoon’s interview in his report was articulate and focused on Schoon there was a typical artistic melee around the production of the audio and film. An ad hoc team assembled for the event at Fomison’s house, as Schoon’s accommodation was too small, but still, it was not a comfortable environment for the now-infirmed Schoon. In attendance were art historian Michael Dunn, John Edgar (stone carver) and David Simmons (anthropologist), all friends of Schoon and who managed to steer the conversation to bring out an informed and approachable flow. By Skinner’s account, this was interjected by a drunk foetal positioned Fomison and fellow (likely intoxicated) artist Allen Maddox playing stuck riffs of Jimi Hendrix records (Skinner, 2018: 300).

In Anthony Byrt’s review “Book of the Week: That total asshole Theo Schoon” of Skinner’s book as ‘a tortured biography’, Bryt’s opinion of Schoon is described as being ‘hinged on whether he’s master or mulch’ (Bryt, 2019).  I mentioned this in my last blog post in a more measured account… In Skinner’s biography, Schoon’s achievements in championing others are highlighted as are his drawing attention to traditional Māori art forms (rock drawing and gourd carving) for a ‘new New Zealand art’. Byrt sees Skinner’s struggle to navigate all the positives that Schoon’s perceptive eye was capable of uncovering only for Schoon to obfuscate it all with his infuriating personality. Ok yes, as Bryt says, he could be a right dick sometimes. Can I say that? Too late.

All this confusion around Schoon, and his misaligned, but nonetheless important contribution to archaeology, does raise questions about our own approach. Schoon is the unravelling thread. We too will no doubt in the future will be called to account around best practices in archaeology. It is that evaluation of our past to improve our future. It is part of being a historian, to be the recall in the current realm – reminding us we need balanced research so that we don’t repeat ourselves but also admit to our own ‘schooning’. Simply put, try not to make dick moves; you’ve got the benefit of hindsight.

The Artistic Historian


Byrt, Anthony, 2019. Book of the Week: That total asshole Theo Schoon. The Spinoff [online] Available at: <> Accessed June 2023.

Fomison, Tony, 1987. Theo Schoon and the retouching of rock art. Archaeology in New Zealand 30: 158-160. [online] Available at: Accessed February 2023.

ICOMOS New Zealand Te Mana o Nga Pouwhenua o Te Ao, 2010. The ICOMOS New Zealand Charter, Te Pumanawa o ICOMOS o Aotearoa Hei Tiaki I Nga Taonga Whenua Heke Iho o Nehe. [online] <> Accessed June 2023.

Jones, Sam, 2018. How ‘Monkey Christ’ brought new life to a quiet Spanish town. The Guardian [online] Available at: <> Accessed June 2023.

Lopesi, Lana, 2019. The debate over Theo Schoon, who built his career on the backs of Māori artists. The Spinoff [online] Available at: <> Accessed June 2023.

McCulloch, Beverley, 1985. Maori Rock Drawings: A Matter of Interpretation. Robert McDougall Art Gallery and Canterbury Museum. [online] Available at: <> Accessed June 2023.

Ministry of Culture and Heritage, 2012. A new New Zealand art. [online] Available at: <> Accessed February 2023.

Press, 1861-1979. [online] Available at: <> Accessed June 2023.

Skinner, Damian, 2000. ‘Schoon, Theodorus Johannes’, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand. [online] Available at:  <> Accessed February 2023.

Skinner, Damian, 2018. Theo Schoon. A Biography. Auckland: Massey University Press.

Spencer Digby Studios, 1943. Portrait of Theo Schoon posed and wearing a Balinese costume. [online] Available at:  Te Papa Collections Online <> Accessed June 2023.