Defining the ‘national identity’ was a leitmotif of arts and academia in the mid-twentieth century in Australia and New Zealand, as both nations sought to reconcile Western cultural heritage with the Pacific space they inhabited. The work of literary journals (such as Quadrant and Landfall), visual artists (Arthur Boyd, Colin McCahon) and writers (Patrick White, James K. Baxter) all shared a preoccupation with what should characterise ‘Australian’ painting or ‘New Zealand’ writing. In art history the discussion continues regarding the use and understanding of visual art traditions that arrived in the Pacific with European colonisation.
It would be foolish to deny the importance to our cultural heritage of the ‘Great Western Art Tradition’, but is even more absurd to pretend that we are or have ever been no more than exiled Europeans (Kerr 1999: 231).
Visual artists have attempted to resolve the use of this tradition in Australia and New Zealand in a variety of ways. This paper examines the work of two such artists, Theo Schoon and Ross Crothall, both of whom tried to construct a visual language to express their experiences of local cultural space. They rejected the prevalent use of landscape painting to depict the national identities of New Zealand and Australia. Contrasting the work of these two artists reveals different approaches to representing cultural space in the visual arts, and the problems that arise when this is placed in a postcolonial context.
An examination of Schoon’s outsider status from mainstream New Zealand society reveals how this shaped his practice as an artist, and how his knowledge of modern European art enabled him to recognise Maori art as a source for his own work. The issue at the centre of this consideration then becomes the contrast between his appreciation of Maori art as visual art in its own right, and as a source to appropriate from for his own work, exemplified by his work with the Maori rock drawings of New Zealand’s South Island. This is further complicated by his contribution to the preservation of Maori art and techniques, and his desire to continue its traditions through his own work, such as his gourd carving. Schoon is also considered as an embodiment of the issues that surround appropriation from indigenous art by non-indigenous (‘pakeha’ in New Zealand) artists. This discussion of Schoon’s practices demonstrates the ambiguities around the use of appropriation – long used by Western visual artists but not necessarily acceptable in the cultures they appropriate from. Yet Schoon’s use of appropriation does contribute to creating space in the New Zealand art world for Maori art and artists. His use of this specifically New Zealand art helped to establish the expression of New Zealand cultural space, beyond the depiction of it in landscape paintings.
In this he proved to be an invaluable influence on the younger New Zealand artist, Ross Crothall. Schoon and Crothall got to know one another in Auckland during the 1950s where Schoon became Crothall’s mentor. This informal art training was the only time in which Crothall studied art, and he was later to refer to the period between 1954 and 1958 as his ‘formative years’ (New Vision Gallery 1966a). Crothall’s work is discussed from 1958, when he moved to Sydney, and made his mark on Australian art history as part of the Imitation Realist exhibitions of 1962.
Crothall’s experience of art in New Zealand meant that he was able to present new possibilities for the work of a group of Sydney art students, some of whom would become the Imitation Realists. Their work was shaped by the awareness of indigenous art forms of the Pacific but adapted to their context in contemporary urban Australia. Examining this work reveals the interrelations between Australia and New Zealand art, and the complexity of the attempts to create art that expresses cultural space by non-indigenous descendents of colonisers.
Both Crothall and Schoon inhabit the peripheries of the art historical discourse of this period. Although Schoon’s influence on New Zealand art history is gradually becoming understood, there is still no major publication dealing with his work. (The most extensive considerations of Schoon’s work are two masters theses: Skinner 1996 and Wood 2003, and journal articles: Skinner 1998, Lummis 2000, Dunn 2002 and 2003.) Crothall’s involvement with Imitation Realism is well recorded in Australian art history, but the details of his influence on the other artists of this group, and through this on Australian art of this time more broadly, are not widely known. In addition to this, because of Crothall’s disappearance, and presumed death, in 1968, he has a relatively tiny number of works. Schoon worked largely in media that have been considered in art history to be either marginal, such as works on paper, or to be craft, such as his carved gourds. Both Schoon and Crothall employed highly personal approaches to art making, and did not readily lend themselves to compromise for the sake of easily understandable or popular work.
Schoon was essential to Crothall’s development as an artist, partly because he was in such stark contrast to the prevailing norms of 1950s New Zealand society and its visual arts practice. Born in 1915 in Indonesia to Dutch parents; Schoon attended the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts in Holland in the 1930s before arriving in New Zealand in 1939. His training meant that he was knowledgeable about contemporary European art. This included the use of ‘primitive’ art as a source by modern artists to rejuvenate what they saw as outdated academic painting traditions. Primitivism also provided Schoon with a way to combine his European and Asian heritage. He was aware of Surrealism and art brut: the interest in subconscious sources of creativity and the demonstrations of this in art created by children, the mentally ill and non-western societies. The theories of the Bauhaus broke down definitions of ‘art’ and ‘craft’, resulting in Schoon’s use of many different media. European modernism shaped the philosophy behind Schoon’s practice, and especially, the possibilities he saw for the use of Maori visual art.
Schoon was a perennial outsider: growing up as a European in Java, only travelling to Europe for the first time in his teens, and then forced to relocate to New Zealand because of the Second World War. His homosexuality reinforced his outsider status in New Zealand (Dunn 2002: 69-73). He was aware that his identity was one constructed in the space between the cultures of East and West, and in this he embodied the difficulty experienced by the descendents of colonisers: of being ‘local’, but possessing heritage from a culture far away, and lacking the sense of being rooted within the landscape.
As a result of both his eclectic cultural background and his knowledge of European avant-garde art, Schoon was able to recognise the sophisticated visual imagery of Maori rock drawings. He was not tied to categories of what qualified as ‘fine art’ and what did not. He was one of the first Europeans to take a serious interest in Maori art, and played a key role in documenting and campaigning for the preservation of the rock drawings in the 1940s, after first encountering them in Dunedin in 1945. From the 1940s to the 1970s he would play a significant role in introducing Maori art to pakeha artists, including: Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon and Denis Knight Turner, and also to the New Zealand community as a whole (Schoon 1945). Rangihiroa Panoho described Schoon’s attitude to New Zealand art: that to ‘the amazement of some of his contemporaries, Schoon saw Maori and not European art as the only major art tradition in this country’ (Panoho 1992: 133).
Schoon’s recording of the rock drawings of the South Island were intended to preserve the visual art of some of the earliest inhabitants of New Zealand. Panoho argues that ‘we are indebted to Schoon for his tireless inquiry into Maori art against such a background of indifference’ (ibid.). Yet the material Schoon recorded was still subject to his own embellishment as an artist, as he emphasised the surface of the original drawings, to better record them photographically. According to Beverley McCulloch, this practice ‘led to the coining of the term ‘schooned’ to describe retouched rock drawings’ (McCulloch 1985). He later incorporated motifs from the rock drawings into his own work, combined with Maori images from other sources. Schoon did not make straightforward copies of the rock drawings; to some extent he imposed his creative will onto the work of others by drawing over the originals. By altering the works he demonstrated that he held them in a different regard to that of work in European art galleries.
In 1947 Schoon copied Ahuriri Group, Hunting Men and Dogs (Canterbury Museum Collection) from the roof of a cave near the Ahuriri River. The cave has since been flooded so it is impossible to compare Schoon’s copy with the originals, but the black silhouette and placement of the figures suggests that the copy is faithful. Schoon later used this style in his own work, such as in a lino block print of around 1950, Bird in the Ahuriri Style (Rotorua Museum of Art and History). Photographs of Schoon’s paintings from the 1960s, in the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa archives, show one painting centred on an ideographic bird in the Ahuriri style, here surrounded by the koru patterning taken from the walls and rafters of Maori meeting houses. These works demonstrate how Schoon moved from copying the works in their original sites, reproducing them in his prints, and then, many years later, incorporating them into his paintings, now combined with Maori material created in different times and places.
While in Western art it is an established part of the academic painting tradition to appropriate, for example, a classical pose for a contemporary work, to apply the same principle to Maori art is to risk denying the complexity of the visual arts within Maori culture. Schoon not only made an extensive contribution to ensuring the preservation and recognition of the rock drawings, but also to the practice of pakeha artists drawing from Maori art. The reception and understanding of Schoon’s work is complicated by its dual nature: as a record to preserve Maori art, and as European art that employs Maori iconography in a new context.
The ambiguities of Schoon’s work continued when he became interested in the Maori craft of gourd carving in the 1950s. Gourds were traditionally used to store preserved food, and were sometimes decorated with carved patterns. Schoon virtually ensured the survival of this traditional craft, learning from Pine Taiapa, one of the few Maori craftspeople who retained the skills. Taiapa willingly trained Schoon, recognising the contribution he was making to the survival of this craft (Panoho 1992: 132). This, too, attests to the complexities of the relationship between pakeha artists and the use of Maori material at this time, as sometimes appropriation could also be collaboration.
Carving patterns derived from Maori art, Schoon attempted to continue the Maori tradition of this craft. He tried to ensure that it remained a living art, developing new designs from the rock drawings and other Maori carvings that he photographed extensively, as well as new designs of his own. (An extensive collection of these photographs can be found in the Theo Schoon Archive [CA000839] Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, Archives, Wellington.) Examples of this can be seen in drawings of Schoon’s from the early 1960s showing the development of abstracted designs for gourds (Poland & Skinner 2002). The species of gourd available in New Zealand were not the most suitable for carving, and so Schoon grew species from seeds he imported, developing techniques to shape the gourds as they grew. As with the rock drawings, Schoon did much to preserve and further the awareness in New Zealand about this craft, yet also adapted it to suit his purposes as a contemporary artist.
Robert Jahnke, Professor of Maori Studies at Massey University and a practising artist, expressed his opinion in the New Zealand Herald regarding the issue of appropriation of Maori material by artists in New Zealand (not in relation to Schoon specifically) that:
I don’t see it as appropriation, I see it as a culture coming to terms with new visual iconography. We have inherited these images as part of our culture, Maori culture, New Zealand culture, which has a genealogy of battles won, battles lost. When using those images in a contemporary context without awareness of their prior significance and prior use, that’s when you get problems. (Gifford 2005)
The only extensive published account by Schoon of his attitude towards Maori art is in his book Jade Country, published in 1973, about jade carving, especially the traditional Maori and contemporary practice in New Zealand. The book gives insight into the way Schoon considered Maori cultural heritage and of interaction with it by pakeha visual artists.
For many New Zealanders the interaction between Maori and European art remains little more than an embarrassing academic question, but open-minded understanding leads to appreciation, and this guides the creative mind to use this knowledge constructively. The more I have learned from Maori art, the more I have become convinced of its importance, viability, and potential in New Zealand’s contemporary art.
The unprejudiced designer emerges with a deep respect for the achievements of many primitive art forms and is invariably inspired by them. (Schoon 1973: 96)
Schoon clearly values Maori art, but his text frames these encounters solely from the perspective of the pakeha artist. Awareness of the material’s ‘prior significance and prior use’ relates to its status as visual art, and its potential for acclaim within European definitions of art. He later refers to his frustration with pakeha society, as it would seemingly not be able to appreciate Maori art forms until they were understood in the context of ‘primitivism’ as it was employed in European modern art (ibid.: 104) rather than as a dynamic New Zealand alternative. He does not address, however, the issues that later postcolonial critiques would make apparent, of the effects of this on Maori culture. He sought a vital New Zealand art made by both pakeha and Maori artists, but did not seem to consider that there may be instances of inappropriate appropriating. Schoon felt that his work could continue the tradition of Maori visual arts, which denied the complex roles of visual art objects in Maori culture.
Schoon’s use of appropriation was shaped by his practice of the European concept of art. The Western tradition of the visual arts had long absorbed the religious significance of art objects originally created for Christian churches or ancient Greek temples. Material from these sources could be incorporated into art without transgressing the creators’ ritualistic intentions for these works. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, the ‘aura’ that they had had in their original context had been removed by constant reproduction (Benjamin 1937). European artists were used to appropriating images from their visual heritage and re-using it in their art: learning from the masters formed a fundamental part of traditional art training. Thus we see that when Schoon applied this Western tradition of appropriation to work that still possessed this aura, or ritualistic significance, there is a collision between the colonisers and the colonised. Maori culture is relocated within Western art history.
The European avant-garde constantly sought the ‘new’: the advance in art that would enable an artist to ‘further’ the Western tradition in their work. Western artists such as Paul Gauguin and Giuseppe Capogrossi, who were both influential in New Zealand, had previously appropriated from the Pacific region in this fashion; in order to further their work in the context of a European understanding of art (Pollock 1992). Schoon was continuing a tradition in European art of turning to other cultures for inspiration.
Schoon embodies the situation of pakeha artists in New Zealand, as the statement to his 1966 exhibition at the New Vision Gallery in Auckland concluded, ‘His particular views, reacting against European art and his concern with a Pacific heritage, runs parallel in many ways with the dilemma of New Zealand painting’ (New Vision Gallery 1965). The exhibition reveals how Schoon positioned himself, and contemporary New Zealand art, as having the possibility to revitalise modern European art, to take the next step in the avant-garde. To some extent, Schoon personified the situation of the Western practice of the visual arts in New Zealand: trying to define an identity in the unique cultural space of New Zealand, but frustrated by prejudices and contradictions.
Schoon’s life and work demonstrate the eclecticism and ambiguities of visual arts practice in colonised or settler societies. A wide ranging eye when it came to source material for his art resulted in his ability to appreciate Maori visual art practices before many other New Zealanders. He saw the need to explore what was unique in New Zealand’s culture and society for an authentic contemporary art that would be both relevant to New Zealanders and a new direction in international art. In doing so Schoon made a significant contribution to the recognition and preservation of Maori visual arts and skills. The other side to this reveals the problems of power in colonised cultural spaces; as his attempts to appropriate from Maori culture can appear arrogant towards, or disrespectful of, the heritage and culture of Maori people. The work he made seems to have an uneasy place in contemporary New Zealand, little understood and not extensively exhibited, despite his considerable influence on New Zealand art since the Second World War.
Schoon’s strongest influence on Ross Crothall was the open-minded embrace of visual art from all cultures that had shaped his own work. Their close friendship helped enable Crothall to develop his own independent approach as an artist. His work contrasts with Schoon’s, as instead of appropriating techniques and motifs from Maori art, Crothall assimilated the attitude to art-making from indigenous societies. This shaped his belief that art should be a part of community life, and that it should not exclude the ordinary, the minutiae, of daily existence. He would be less concerned than Schoon with the world of international art, and would focus his work on creating art that expressed his immediate surroundings. The influences he would bring with him from New Zealand, and his attitude towards them, would open up new possibilities for a group of artists in Sydney.
It was the exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne during 1962 of a short-lived group known as the ‘Imitation Realists’ that resulted in Crothall’s lasting influence on Australian artists. These exhibitions were the first in Australia to feature works made collaboratively and to extensively use assemblage and collage. The exhibitions employed wholly new installation practices, creating a total environment in the exhibition space, where the works united as part of a larger totality, rather than being separated, each in a discrete space. They employed humour and urban detritus to create works that were not removed from everyday life and sought to actively engage with the viewer. Imitation Realism has been examined in terms of overseas art – including art brut, pop, surrealism, dada and neo-dada – since Elwyn Lynn did in the introduction to the catalogue for the Melbourne exhibition (Lynn 1962). However, the influence from New Zealand art that Crothall brought to Australian art has not been fully explored.
Crothall provided alternatives to ideas had become stifling. Another member of the Imitation Realists, Leonora Howlett, recalled that Crothall:
was not possessive of his ideas – ideas were there to be in the open air, and to be used by all, and I suppose in a sense that was how we looked at Aboriginal and Maori art. One of the things about Imitation Realism is that it was open to anything and anyone (Howlett 2006).
This freedom was the guiding principle of Imitation Realism, and opened out possibilities that were not available in Sydney during the 1950s. There were three main directions then associated with Sydney art – that of the established figures from an older generation, of William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Margaret Olley, Jean Bellette and Donald Friend, had become derisively known as the ‘Charm School’ for their landscape and interior scenes. Secondly, that associated with the National Art School, which was an abstracted figurative style of painting derived from Cezanne, under the then head teacher, John Passmore. Lastly, the avant-garde, which circled around Elwyn Lynn and the Contemporary Art Society of NSW, and increasingly John Olsen were developing abstract expressionist styles.
Each of these established directions in Sydney is associated with artists who made important and varied contributions to Australian art, but this paper does not have the space to address that. What they all shared, however, was a tendency to gaze toward European or American art for the visual language that they employed. It was this tendency that a group of younger artists had grown frustrated with, and Crothall’s engagement with everything in his surroundings opened up some alternate spaces for them to explore.
Crothall had moved to Sydney in 1958 and formed a relationship with Magda Kohn, who ran a coffee shop near the National Art School in Paddington. Kohn introduced him to some of the young art students who haunted her premises and this started the relationships that would be at the centre of Imitation Realism. The group centred on the relationships between Crothall, Mike Brown, Colin Lanceley, Kohn, Howlett and Peggy Gale. Kohn, Howlett and Gale were vital to the development of Imitation Realism, but their involvement was limited in the later stages, when the group held exhibitions (Brown 1994b; Howlett 2006).
The group came to share Crothall’s enthusiasm for indigenous visual arts. During 1959 Brown worked with the Commonwealth Film Unit in Papua New Guinea where he had experienced first hand the visual art of the Sepik River region. Howlett, Brown, Lanceley and Crothall all saw the Australian Aboriginal Art exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales curated by Tony Tuckson in 1960. Crothall and Brown shared an attitude that they learned from the indigenous arts of Oceania, where art was embedded into community life; it was not separated or elevated from society, only appearing in gallery spaces or created by trained practitioners. In 1960 Brown moved into a house in Annandale rented by Crothall and here they created their world of assemblage figures out of anything they could scrounge. The house itself became one big installation work (Hughes 1987: 7).
A large collaboration between Ross Crothall, Mike Brown and Colin Lanceley Byzantiumwas the centrepiece of the Imitation Realist exhibitions (Mike Brown, Ross Crothall and Colin Lanceley, Byzantium, 1962, oil and mixed media on plywood, 183 x 122 cm, National Gallery of Australia.) The three artists worked in turns, each adding to, but not obscuring, the work of the others without communal consent to do so. They created an assemblage piece using paint, off-cuts of wood from a local factory, cheap consumer items from the supermarket, and refuse, such as squashed paint tin lids, egg cartons and bottle tops. They constructed a visual language out of everything that surrounded them. The work depicts a crowd of figures reflecting diverse influences on the artists from the art brut of Jean Dubuffet to Papua New Guinean and Maori art.
The title references the poem ‘Byzantium’ (1930) by WB Yeats, which contrasts the immortality of works of art with ‘the fury and the mire’ of mortal lives. The totem-like figures are represented in a variety of styles, breaking the rules of European art which demanded the style be consistent throughout a work. The figures are depicted out of proportion to one another, in a picture plane lacking any depth, reflecting the impenetrable layers of the urban environment. The surface is intricately built up, with both collage and dense patterning. The painted patterns transform the collaged objects into faces and figures. The figures are worked into every crevice of the surface, leading the eye to discover more and more, the longer the work is looked at. The linear patterning is derived from Maori art amalgamated with refuse and supermarket trinkets.
The work samples indigenous iconography from the visual environment in which the artists lived, rather than directly appropriating from indigenous art as Schoon had done with Maori art. Their use of such material can be contrasted with Schoon’s as the motifs were integrated more into their work, as an expression of the regional visual space that they inhabited. This differs from Schoon’s attempts to continue traditions of Maori art.
Their work prefigures the contemporary debate that surrounds the work of Imants Tillers, which, through the active involvement of Indigenous people, has allowed a fuller discussion about the subtleties of power involved in appropriation. This has resulted in Tillers requesting permission from the creators of indigenous imagery that he appropriates and, on occasion, working collaboratively.
Tillers’ work has opened up in his mind, and potentially in the mind of the viewer, relationships across Australian art that have the effect of eliding categorical differences and emphasising synergies. (Morphy 2006: 92)
Tillers’ approach suggests a parallel with the Imitation Realists, who appreciated these synergies, and desired to emulate the authenticity with which indigenous visual artists represented their surroundings. Unfortunately however, the time in which they created their work made the kind of collaboration that Tillers would have with indigenous artists unlikely.
Another aspect of their surroundings that was co-opted into Imitation Realist work was the use of text. Colin McCahon’s influence on Crothall can be discerned from this, and is probably the earliest example of the ongoing influence McCahon would have on Australian art. McCahon had used text in his work consistently since the 1950s, which he attributed to the influence of comic books on his work. Although humour is apparent in some of McCahon’s work, he is associated more with explorations of grand themes of life, death and religion (Johnston, in Gifkins 1988: 55-63). Text in Sailing to Byzantium is used to make humorous notations, rather than to ask philosophical questions or for Biblical quotations. Sailing to Byzantium offers a commentary of itself: the title is noted along the bottom of the work in lettering by Crothall, and the ‘2.30pm interstellar’ service is specified. The left and right feet of Mirg, a fictional personage, who would appear in several works, are also indicated, despite apparently being his hands. Crothall and Brown here combine the interest that the Imitation Realists had in the everyday life of urban Australia, with those Crothall had absorbed in New Zealand, specifically of Maori art and the text and comic book style of McCahon. (Mike Brown and Ross Crothall,Sailing to Byzantium, 1961, Painting, enamel, pencil and oil crayon on composition board,91.5 x 122.1, National Gallery of Australia.)
The title is another reference to Yeats, but relocated to the Pacific, and instead of the poet sailing to ‘the holy city of Byzantium’, the Mug Lair is taking a canoe. Text on the painting informs the viewer that the Mug Lair, ‘Warranted’ and ‘Customs Passed,’ is being sent ‘Xpress Freight to Byzantium.’ Yeats’ figure of the elderly poet seeks to be gathered ‘into the artifice of eternity.’ to gain immortality through art, whereas here the archetype of the Australian slang term ‘Mug Lair’ is being sent to be preserved as an ‘Archetypal Ooze Dwelling Anthropoid’.
Paraphrasing another work from the Western literary canon, William Blake’s The Tigeris intertwined with the Mug Lair’s feet. Instead of the ‘fearful symmetry’ of Blake, this is a comic-book tiger. Issuing from its mouth is a speech bubble, describing itself as ‘burning bright’. The light-hearted approach to these icons of Western literature exemplifies the open attitude that these artists took to culture. Sacred cows were not to be revered, but played with, in order to actively engage with the entirety of the cultural context that they were a part of. This approach, of drawing on everything in their surroundings, was one they had adopted from their understanding of traditional indigenous art from the region.
When the Imitation Realists exhibited in Melbourne and Sydney, they hoped that these aspects of their work would be appreciated. They were enthusiastically received by the press, being commended for their ‘joie de vivre’ (Arnold Shore, The Age) and for their satire (The Sydney Morning Herald). Crothall was disappointed with the reception of Imitation Realism; he had hoped to disrupt and challenge the status quo in the Australian art world. After the Sydney exhibition, the student newspaper of the National Art School invited the Imitation Realists to contribute articles discussing their work. Crothall responded to the editors’ invitation in the form of an open letter rather than an article:
My reason is that in order to arrive at something personal, I thereby escape the distinction of writing personally to an abstract public world – which would be a feat which I am not capable of, for fear that a public which I do not claim in advance would disrespect my gesture (Crothall 1962: 2)
This refusal to take up the authority of the abstract authorial voice indicates Crothall’s philosophy of art being one that was personal and specific rather than universal and absolute. The fear of disrespect is perhaps justified as he goes on to dismiss most of the big names of contemporary Australian painting including Nolan, Boyd, Drysdale, Olsen and Tucker as ‘conjur[ing] up precarious images to fill the gaps which they do not understand.’ He also dismisses the Imitation Realist exhibitions, as the work of ‘young upstarts’ performing ‘in a cultural context which is a dog’s breakfast.’ As the critics ‘by their soft pedalling approval –invite us to the band wagon of Art Australiana, to leap thereon.’
Crothall would prefer to deny Imitation Realism, than to be co-opted into what he felt was the inauthentic space of Australian art. The art world had applauded the entertaining aspects of their work, but failed to perceive their attempt to create work that engaged with the entirety of their cultural space. In Crothall’s view, the ‘precarious images’ created by the established names in Australian art did not truly engage with local cultural space; rather they were an attempt to continue the European tradition of art. They represented scenes that were remarkable to the European gaze, the landscape strange to European eyes rather than the ordinary experience of the local inhabitants. This was demonstrated by the 1961 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, Recent Australian Painting. In the preface to the exhibition catalogue, the influential English curator and popular art writer, Kenneth Clark, wrote that it was
when painters began to look at the harsh, lonely, inhospitable substance of their country, they could relate it to the heroic qualities of their people… the scenery is not painted for its own sake, but as the background of a legend and a reflection of human values. (Clark 1961: 4)
Clark’s view is that shared by most of the reviews of the exhibition: that it was the landscape that truly made Australian art unique. The reviews were described by Elwyn Lynn as a ‘spate of remarks on myth, history and geographical isolation’ (Lynn 1961: 3-4). Crothall rejected the idea of creating art to be this ‘background’, the landscape seen as remarkable because of its difference to Europe.
Crothall would come and go from the visual arts over the next few years; at different times he would concentrate on writing, or on short-term jobs to earn money. He also trained as a sign-writer – a result of both a desire to learn a trade to earn money, as well as an artistic interest in the untrained creativity shown in the painting on shop windows and billboards (Crothall 1964). This was an interest that also been shared by Colin McCahon (McCahon 1988: 76). Mike Brown described this interest of Crothall’s, as:
graffiti was a conscious influence of his, or any kind of informal type of public written thing. One of his favourites was amateur sign writing by Greek or Lebanese milk bar proprietors. … Everything misspelt and if you got to the end of a line and you couldn’t fit it in you just sort of cramped up the letters … [Interest in] aberrations and irregularities if they sort of contributed to a general thing of erring humanity … the main thing that he was concerned with was for art to be human and not something above humanity. (Brown 1995)
Crothall next exhibited as a solo artist in Auckland in 1966; photographs in the New Vision Gallery archive show that in this exhibition Crothall used lettering and printed material extensively. They show that he had not totally rejected Imitation Realism, as not only are some of the Imitation Realist works included, some of which have been worked on further, and he continues the techniques that the group had developed (New Vision Gallery 1966a & 1966b). His use of collage now relied more on printed matter, using the assorted debris from the visual world of the popular media. These developments in his work were cut short when in 1968 he went missing in Sydney, having been admitted to hospital mentally ill, and is presumed to have since died – the tragic loss of a life and the cutting short of a fascinating artistic journey.
Crothall ensured the influence of New Zealand art in this period of Australian art history. As we understand what shaped him as an artist, especially the role of Theo Schoon, we can further see and understand the interactions between Australia and New Zealand, and the developing representations in the visual arts of the cultural space of the Pacific region. Imitation Realism was crucial to the development of the other key protagonists, Mike Brown and Colin Lanceley. The impact they had on younger Australian artists can be seen in the work of Ken Reinhard, Martin Sharp, Gareth Sansom, Garry Shead and Vivienne Binns, for example. Crothall sought to create art that embraced all aspects of his space: different cultures, the mass media, fine art, literature and everyday life. His work depicted the life and cultural space of urban Australia. His New Zealand identity, and a remarkably original mind, challenged those around him to fully engage with the space they were in, not measuring their art or their lives against a world far distant.
Theo Schoon and Ross Crothall are examples of attempts in the visual arts to resolve the apparent conflict between the distant and the local, the difficulty of reconciling cultural heritage of indigenous and non-indigenous inhabitants. They display the complexity of negotiating these relations in New Zealand and Australia, revealing the power relations that persist between the colonised and the colonisers. These artists demonstrate how cultural heritage moves through both time and space, creating new identities, and new challenges to surmount, for traditional practices of the visual arts.
Walter Benjamin (1937). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,’ in Hannah Arendt (ed.) (1969) Walter Benjamin: Illuminations: Essays and Reflections tr. Harry Zohn (New York : Schocken), pp. 217-52.
Mike Brown (9th December 1969). Mike Brown interview with Helen De Berg, Sydney, Tape 442 De Berg Tapes: National Library of Australia.
_________ (1994a). ‘Kite II: Part 1: What on earth are you saying, Colin?’ Art Monthly Australia, No.73, September, pp.4-7.
_________ (1994b) ‘Kite II: Part 2: The Heart of Things,’ Art Monthly Australia, No. 75, November, pp.14-17.
_________ (1995) Mike Brown interviewed by Helen Topliss, Melbourne, Oral History Collection, National Library of Australia.
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_________ Letter to John Reed, 1964, Reed Papers (MS 13186: Box 2 File 1) State Library of Victoria.
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_________ (2003). ‘Rita Angus & Theo Schoon: An Unlikely Friendship,’ Art New Zealand, No. 107, Winter, http://www.art-newzealand.com/Issue107/Angus.htm(accessed 10/19/2005).
Adam Gifford (2005). ‘High Risk Business of Cultural Borrowing,’ New Zealand Herald,14 December 2005.
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_________ (1998). ‘’Put it Anywhere!’: The Café Balzac mural: Colin Lanceley, Mike Brown and Ross Crothall, ’ in Lynne Sear & Julie Ewington (eds.) Brought to Light: Australian Art 1850 – 1965: From the Queensland Art Gallery Collection (Brisbane: Queensland Art Gallery), pp. 287-89.
Leonora Howlett (2006). Taped interview with the author, Sydney, 9 February.
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Joan Kerr (1999). ‘Past Present: the Local Art of Colonial Quotation,’ in N. Thomas & D. Losche (eds.) Double Vision: Art Histories and Colonial Histories in the Pacific(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 231-251.
Elwyn Lynn (1961). ‘Recent Australian Painting at the Whitechapel Galleries London,’ in the NSW Contemporary Arts Society Broadsheet, July 1961, pp. 3-4.
________ (1962). ‘Words, Words, Words?’ in Annandale Imitation Realists (Melbourne: Museum of Modern Art of Australia).
Richard Lummis (2000). ‘Embryonic Ultra-Modernism: Walters, Schoon and Turner in the 1940s.’ Art New Zealand, No.95, Winter, pp.88-91.
Beverley McCulloch (1985). ‘Maori Rock Drawings: A matter of Interpretation,’ in Maori Rock Drawing: The Theo Schoon Interpretations (Christchurch: Robert McDougall Art Gallery), unpaginated.
Howard Morphy (2006). ‘Impossible to Ignore: Imants Tillers’ Response to Aboriginal Art,’ in Deborah Hart (ed.) Imants Tillers: One World Many Visions (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia).
New Vision Gallery (1966a). Ross Crothall, exhibition catalogue, Auckland: New Vision Gallery.
_________ (1966b). Ross Crothall exhibition photographs, New Vision Archive, Ross Crothall artist’s file, (CA000001/002/0012), National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa Archives, Wellington.
_________ (1965). Theo Schoon exhibition catalogue, Auckland: New Vision Gallery.
Rangihiroa Panoho (1992). ‘Maori: At the Centre, On the Margins,’ in Mary Barr (ed.),Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art (Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art), pp. 122-34.
Natalie Poland & Damian Skinner (2002). Theo Schoon: Photographs and Drawings,exhibition catalogue (Auckland: John Leech Art Gallery).
Griselda Pollock (1992). Avant-garde Gambits, 1888-1893: Gender and the Colour of Art History, Walter Neurath Memorial Lectures #24 (London: Thames and Hudson).
Theo Schoon (1947). ‘New Zealand’s Oldest Art Galleries,’ New Zealand ListenerSeptember 12, 1947, pp.6-7.
_________ (1973). Jade Country (Sydney: Jade Arts).Arnold Shore (1962). ‘Contrasts–Historic and Modern,’ The Age, 13 February, p.2.Damian Skinner (1996). Theo Schoon’s Interaction with Aspects of Maori Art, MA thesis (History), The University of Auckland.
_________ (1998). ‘Primitivist Posings: Theo Schoon at the New Vision Gallery,’ Art New Zealand, No.86, Autumn, pp. 69-73.
The Sydney Morning Herald, (1362) ‘‘Anti-art’ Explodes with Zest’, Sydney Morning Herald, May 23, p. 2.
Andrew Wood (2003). Double Vision: Redressing Theo Schoon’s Absence from New Zealand Art History¸ MA thesis (Art History), University of Canterbury.