Not to be sneezed at, Melissa Laing

Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann
Peter Simpson
Auckland University Press, $75.00,
ISBN 978869404710


It has been a prolific few years for New Zealand art history at Auckland University Press, with monographs on Bill Culbert, Marti Friedlander, Len Lye and Colin McCahon, as well as Francis Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand: Art and National Identity 1930-1970 coming out in quick succession, and all focusing on New Zealand artists and art movements that have their origins in the first half of the 20th century.

Auckland University Press’s recently released Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann by Peter Simpson adds to this wealth of beautifully designed and well-printed publications – big books distinguished by attractive and comprehensive documentation of the artists’ work.

Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann  presents the life and work of Leo Bensemann, born in Takaka in 1912. The focus of the book is a sustained, chronological investigation of the largely unknown practice of Bensemann the artist, from his early portraits and illustrations, through to his paintings of real and imagined landscapes.

A contemporary of artists such as Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Olivia Spencer Bower, Evelyn Page, Doris Lusk, William Sutton and Toss Woollaston, he spent most of his life living and working in Christchurch. As a member of the avant-garde artists’ association The Group from 1938 to its demise in 1977, Bensemann regularly exhibited his paintings and illustrations in their annual show as well as designing and printing all their catalogues from 1940. He produced many engaging paintings, and his early portraits and illustrations are particularly striking. His graphic sensibility was impressive and as a designer he created a strong and influential body of work, innovatively using both typography and illustration.

It was in a design context that I first heard of Bensemann, and it was with the better known image of him as a printer, designer and publisher in my mind that I picked up Fantastica, the title creating a direct connection to Holloway Press’s 1997 reprinting of Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings, also initiated by Simpson.

Simpson recognises the importance of Bensemann’s association with print, devoting a good 20 per cent of the book to his career as a designer and publisher, and his role at Caxton Press, one of New Zealand’s more significant literary publishers of the 1940s and 1950s. As Simpson tells it, Bensemann’s involvement in printing arose out the original publication of Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings in 1937. Shortly after its release, Bensemann was invited to be a co-owner of Caxton Press.

As a printer, Bensemann designed, illustrated and published books for poets and writers such as Frank Sargeson, James K Baxter, Allen Curnow and Janet Frame. Caxton Press also brought New Zealand one of its most influential and longest-running literary journals, Landfall, first published in 1947. Bensemann even acted as its editor between 1972 and 1975.

Given Bensemann’s central role at Caxton Press, his involvement in the avant-garde cultural circles of Christchurch and his friendships with many of New Zealand’s leading artists, writers and composers, no argument needs to be made for his involvement with and influence on New Zealand’s artistic circles. As Simpson writes, “[Bensemann] is well known for his close association with the famous, if not yet in his own right.”

In writing Fantastica, Simpson plants a flag in the ground to signal his belief in the importance of Bensemann as an artist in his own right. He is assertively objecting to Bensemann’s relegation to that dusty corner of art history reserved for “minor” South Island artists who didn’t make the move north. This opinion is quite clearly summed up in his conclusion to the book where he bemoans the fact that:

In Michael Dunn’s standard New Zealand Painting: A Concise History from 2003, no work of [Bensemann’s] is reproduced. Recent general books such as Hamish Keith’s The Big Picture, published in 2007, and Francis Pound’s The Invention of New Zealand from 2009 completely overlook his work, despite its relevance to their central theses. Bensemann is still largely absent from art-historical discourse.

A central thesis Simpson refers to is the premise that a distinctly New Zealand painting style of regional realism was developed in the 1930s and 40s. It was nationalistic in character, marked by a strong focus on the specificity of the New Zealand landscape, the unique hard and flattening quality of our light and rejection of an European aesthetic. Its poster children were artists like Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk and William Sutton.

Bensemann’s paintings show close stylistic connection to these artists who were his contemporaries and often friends. Both his portraiture and landscape work display the use of flattening light, hard outlines and strong moulding of form that was characteristic of this movement. Simpson acknowledges the early cross-pollination between Angus and Bensemann in their portraiture.

However, the later portions of the book are distinguished by an absence of discussion about the connections between his later landscape works from the 1960s onwards and this vernacular of New Zealand painting. Perhaps Simpson is guided by the artist’s own reluctance to acknowledge influence, as shown in the 1984 Art New Zealand article by Avenal McKinnon, quoted in the book: “I think it’s true that we [Bensemann and Angus] found stimulation in each other’s work. But as for influencing one another that I think was quite impossible.”

What Simpson does discuss in some detail is Bensemann’s perversity in painting portraits when landscape painting held sway, and painting landscapes when modernist abstraction was the dominant style of the time. He attributes this disregard for fashion to Bensemann’s idiosyncratic personality and approach to art-making, which led him to mark his own path through the art world without reference to its trends.  As Simpson allows, this practice of being out of step with the dominant movements of New Zealand art would explain his absence from Dunn’s, Keith’s and Pound’s books, focused as they are on tracking the changing nature of New Zealand’s art practice.

One of the pleasures of the book is Simpson’s extensive use of direct quotations from the artist’s letters to and from friends like Lawrence Baigent, Douglas Lilburn, Pat Lawler, Rita Angus and Denis Glover. Bensemann’s firm opinions and acerbic tongue enliven the book and impart a sense of the man.

The quotations refer to his art, of which he writes in a frequently self-deprecating tone, for example: “I have done a certain amount of painting and decorating since I returned from hospital, some good, some bad. … [M]y 433rd self portrait is not to be sneezed at.”

The quotations also illuminate the politics and relationships of Canterbury at the time. A characteristic example would be Bensemann’s letter to Lilburn, describing a furore caused by the city council refusing a gift of a Frances Hodgkins painting to the Robert McDougall Gallery in Christchurch:

[T]here is murderous work going on in these parts over the Frances Hodgkins picture – the guns have been lined up every morning wheel to wheel and hats are being danced on. I do not think the worthy city councillors will change their minds about it but it has been a fine opportunity to raise a stink.

The value of these letters in bringing the artist vividly to mind makes me wonder what future scholars will do for personal insight in the aftermath of our email/text/twitter age, where opinions fill only one line and are easily deleted.

In the end, while a thorough catalogue of Bensemann’s practice, the book isn’t an easy read. Simpson’s determination to be thorough, combined with his scholarly inclination, often bogs him down in a morass of factual detail. This, coupled with his adherence to a chronological structure, creates unwieldy volumes of information and leads to repetition of detail from chapter to chapter. It left me slightly dissatisfied, desiring further in-depth discussion of the individual art works and the ideas they explored, and a lingering feeling that Simpson could have listed less yet covered more.

By virtue of its comprehensive and factual nature, the book is a valuable reference source for any future discussion of Bensemann’s work. Whether much more discussion will eventuate and what will be discussed, his art or his design, is still in question. Whatever the enduring future of Bensemann scholarship, Simpson has ensured the artist will be more than just a dusty footnote in New Zealand’s art history.


Melissa Laing is an Auckland artist, writer and curator, who curated the Print Season 2011 for St Paul St Gallery.

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