Shifting the ground rules, Aaron Lister

Leo Bensemann: Portraits, Masks and Fantasy Figures
Caroline Otto
Nikau Press, $44.95,
ISBN 0958224242

Frances Hodgkins: A Private Viewing
Joanne Drayton
Random, $59.95,
ISBN 1869621174

The Expatriates: Barrie Bates and Frances Hodgkins
Christina Barton
Adam Art Gallery, $25.00,
ISBN 1877309044

Leo Bensemann’s cult status in New Zealand art history is now carefully guarded and brandished as his badge of honour. The allegiance to fantasy and the imagination that once distanced Bensemann from the landscape-based local tradition is now the source of his contemporary interest and relevance. Recent hand-crafted, limited edition publications, exploring Bensemann’s engraving and book design, have contributed to this construct.

Leo Bensemann: Portraits, Masks and Fantasy Figures, written by the artist’s eldest daughter, Caroline Otto, offers a more intimate take on him and his work. This is not Bensemann the enigmatic figure from the past, but Bensemann the father who painted in the front room on Sundays while listening to Scarlatti sonatas.

Otto’s direct approach negates the warning signs that instantly flash when such a personal relationship between author and subject is divulged. This is a catalogue of Bensemann’s work, the first of an ambitiously planned four volumes. While Otto primarily defines her task as a labour of love, she also explains it as one of necessity. In a rebuke to the local art history world that has been slow to produce this groundwork, she states that the catalogue needs to be compiled before Bensemann’s art disappears. Yet Otto downplays or misjudges the value and scope of her text. The cataloguing of the art is invaluable. But behind the listing and reproduction of works lies a series of fascinating stories, not least those that relate to the lengthy process of producing this catalogue.

Otto takes the reader places most writers would not or could not go. Like the garden shed, where a number of unfinished, abandoned or damaged paintings have long been hidden from public view. In an interesting acknowledgement of the particular dynamics at play here between author and subject, Otto confesses to overriding her father’s desire to keep these paintings locked away. Her determination to compile a comprehensive account of the art has led to the inclusion of a few paintings that might well have slipped out of a more tightly controlled survey, especially one that sought to emphasise the artist’s contemporary relevance.

The catalogue best serves Bensemann’s portraits, which are primarily valued for the access they provide to the artistic and literary worlds he occupied. Photographs, personal recollections and extracts from letters accompany these portraits of family, friends and other artists, enhancing that sense of intimacy Otto cultivates. The decision to combine these portraits into a single volume with images of fantasy figures sourced from literary, historical or imaginary realms is promising. Unfortunately Otto proceeds to keep these two modes at arm’s length in her text, as discrete areas of investigation. The chronological organisation of the catalogue – which reveals how Bensemann switched between or worked consecutively on these modes, sometimes within a single work – suggests that these divisions may not have existed for him.

These rigid divisions negate much of the power that contemporary art history has invested in Bensemann’s practice. His blurring of the real and the imaginary through strategies of masquerade and role-play has provided a major source of interest. A sense of the different Bensemanns sought by contemporary art history and by Otto emerges here, along with the methods each uses to achieve these goals. More importantly this disjunction hints at the potential Bensemanns and approaches that are yet to be constructed out of this fascinating body of work. Otto’s humble text goes a long way to opening up these possibilities.

With Frances Hodgkins: A Private Viewing, Joanne Drayton further corners the market in biographies of early-to-mid twentieth-century New Zealand women artists. In taking on Frances Hodgkins as a subject, the stakes have risen considerably. Hodgkins remains a figure of intense cultural fascination and investment. Also, unlike Drayton’s previous subjects Edith Collier and Rhona Haszard, the story of Hodgkins’ life has already been told and retold. Biography has long been offered up and in turn criticised as the dominant approach applied to Hodgkins’ art. Not surprisingly, then, Drayton’s introduction partially reads as a defence of her biographical approach. She argues that biography holds the potential to bring the inspirational Hodgkins to life for a contemporary audience.

At first this feels like a biography fit for primetime, or possibly even Adults Only viewing. Discovery and journeying are set up as major themes. The book promises to trace Hodgkins’ physical, emotional and artistic journeys, all brought to life through the journey of the art historian through the archives and following her subject’s footsteps through Europe and North Africa. This is packaged as a journey of discovery the reader is invited to participate in. An early interpretation of a shoe in one of Hodgkins’ elusive self-portraits as a symbol of her love of the journey suggests that the paintings are in for a rough ride.

Once Drayton gets into her task, however, it is difficult not to get sucked into the narrative, especially after Hodgkins is shipped out of New Zealand into “the sketching fields of Europe” and beyond. Hodgkins’ story is a compelling one, as is her way of conveying these experiences through her letters home – these letters providing Drayton’s primary source material. An engaging balance is struck between the voice of the author and the voice of the subject. This manages to convey the story of Hodgkins’ life, while slipping in a greater analysis of her painting than might initially appear. The discussion of the impact of war on Hodgkins’ art offers one example. Drayton notes the practical restrictions imposed by war. This segues into a more interesting consideration of Hodgkins’ questioning of the role and value of art-making in a war context, described in a letter home as a callous and selfish act.

If Drayton’s text doesn’t hook you in, the range and quality of the reproductions almost certainly will. There are surprises here, notably the welcome inclusion of Hodgkins’ textile designs. Drayton uses reproductions to advance rather than simply illustrate the narrative. A notated sketch sent to student Hannah Ritchie provides insight into Hodgkins’ teaching practices. Hodgkins’ later financial and emotional dependence on Ritchie and her partner Jane Saunders is traced through subsequent chapters. Suddenly this thread resolves itself in Hodgkins’ Double Portrait of 1922-25 that takes the couple as its subject, their appearances by now familiar through multiple photographs. Here Drayton has shed light on one of Hodgkins’ more intriguing paintings without overburdening it with either biographical or interpretative meanings.

Through this skilful crafting of her material Drayton negotiates the tricky lines between popular biography and art history. It is not always enough, however, to shake that gnawing feeling that enjoying this book is a slightly guilty pleasure.

It is easy to envision a bloated account of expatriate New Zealand art. Endless stories of hard-won self-discovery abroad met with enviously at home would be illustrated through carefully selected before-and-after artworks attesting to the value of this process. This is one of the narratives New Zealand art history had built itself around. Christina Barton’s The Expatriates provides a sophisticated and much needed reconsideration of these conventional ways of understanding the expatriate process and its implications for art history.

Barton’s book, and the exhibition it accompanies, take two central expatriate stories as their dual starting points. The expatriate condition here has largely been formulated around Hodgkins’ metamorphosis from colonial amateur to advanced British modernist. The more self-conscious transformation of Barrie Bates into Billy Apple in London in 1962 is equally foundational for the history of contemporary art here.

Bates and Hodgkins form an odd couple, whose experiences overseas and practices are vastly different. Barton focuses on the transitional periods of what are conventionally regarded as these artists’ emergence and development abroad. This allows her to tease out a loosely shared set of complex responses and anxieties related to the expatriate process. These artists in turn come to embody broader cultural patterns and conditions. This approach generates some remarkable readings of their work. Hodgkins’ late impressionism is liberated from its standard presentation as the passive style of an amateur artist, awaiting the discovery of her true voice abroad. It is instead granted power as the product of a late colonial artist responding in a very active manner to the modernising world she encountered.

Bates’s pop or early conceptual art does not lend itself to the biographical readings that have plagued Hodgkins. Yet Barton ascribes it, if not with biographical then with situated meaning, based on his particular experiences as an expatriate. Bates’s art and graphic design are shown to demonstrate anxieties and perspectives emerging from the expatriate condition similar to those in Hodgkins’ painting, even if these experiences are negotiated in very different ways. Hodgkins has not looked this urgent and interesting for a long time. Bates has rarely felt so human.

The scope, approach and intent of this project are captured through the design of the publication, with the two essays starting at either end and intersecting somewhere near the middle. In granting the expatriate experience power and agency, Barton upsets the subservient relationship of the periphery to the centre that underpins conventional ways of understanding this condition. The ground rules have clearly shifted.

 

Aaron Lister is a Wellington art reviewer.

 

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