Leo Bensemann (1912-1986)

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Tuesday 1 May 2012
Peter Simpson

Ron Brownson invited Professor Peter Simpson to mark the 100th anniversary of Leo Bensemann's birth.

Leo Bensemann (who died in 1986) was born exactly 100 years ago on May 1, 1912, sharing his birth year with poet and printer, Denis Glover (1912-80), with whom he forged a creative relationship as co-partners of the Caxton Press –  the Christchurch firm which published most of the important New Zealand writers of the middle decades of last century, including Ursula Bethell, Allen Curnow, ARD Fairburn, RAK Mason, Frank Sargeson, Charles Brasch, Robin Hyde, James K. Baxter, Janet Frame, Maurice Duggan, Ruth Dallas, E. Mervyn Taylor, Kendrick Smithyman and many others.

Glover and Bensemann joined forces in 1938, shortly after Caxton published Bensemann’s remarkable book Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings (1937), a weird and wonderful collection of ink drawings illustrating texts that ranged from Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Grimm’s stories to the Arabian Nights and Chinese and Japanese folk tales – a collection that is unique in New Zealand art. For, as well as being a notable typographer, printer and publisher, the versatile Bensemann was also a visual artist of rare distinction.

Bensemann was born to a German father and an Irish/English mother (all New Zealand born) in Takaka, a remote valley in north-west Nelson that opens into Golden Bay, a sheltered and beautiful marine area at the top of the South Island. Leo’s father was the local blacksmith, and he was close to his German grandparents who farmed in the area and from whom he learned to read and speak German, an interest he maintained throughout his life. In 1925 he went to Nelson College, forming a lifelong friendship with fellow-student, Lawrence Baigent. When Lawrence moved to Christchurch with his widowed mother in 1931 to attend university Leo was invited to live with them, benefitting enormously from access to the books, art and music of the cultivated Baigent household which contrasted with his own culturally meagre working-class home. 

In 1938, after Mrs Baigent died,  Leo and Lawrence shared lodgings with Rita Angus at 97 Cambridge Terrace in Christchurch, a dwelling which became the epicentre of advanced art, music and literature in the city, initiating a period of mutual stimulus between the two artists that resulted in many strong portraits and self-portraits. Rita and Leo drew and painted each other on several occasions, portraits which shared the characteristics of bold colour, sharp clean lines, well-integrated landscape backgrounds, and a love of visual theatre and role-play.

Rita introduced Leo to The Group, a small independent gathering of artists which became the most important outlet for progressive art in the middle decades of last century, and which included Toss Woollaston, Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk, Louise Henderson, Olivia Spencer Bower, William Sutton and others. From 1940 Bensemann designed and printed at Caxton all The Group’s annual catalogues, thus forging important links between the worlds of the visual arts, literature and publishing.

Unlike most Group artists, Bensemann at first largely avoided landscape in favour of portraits and graphic work. A change came in the 1960s, however, when he belatedly turned to landscape painting which dominated the last decades of his career, especially after 1965 when he rediscovered as subject matter the Takaka/Golden Bay region of his childhood.

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Leo Bensemann, Huntsman, 1938
oil on board, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2012

Auckland Art Gallery has recently acquired two fine examples of Bensemann’s painting – an early portrait and a late landscape. Huntsman (1938), a small, vivid and challengingly transgressive work, shows Bensemann adapting the ‘fantastical’ manner of his graphic work to oil painting. The bizarre-looking huntsman of the title seems to have stepped directly out of German folk-lore into a setting coloured by 1930s surrealism. He also excelled at more conventional portraiture of friends and family members, including among his subjects Glover, Baigent, Angus, Lusk, Douglas Lilburn, Caroline Oliver, Albion Wright, Trevor Moffitt and his (Leo’s) wife Mary, whom he married in 1943.

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Leo Bensemann, Burning Hills, Takaka, 1973
oil on Swedish hardboard, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased with the assistance of Peter Jarvis, in memory of Adrienne Jarvis, 2011

Burning Hills, Takaka (1974), was painted for an exhibition held during the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974. He wrote in a letter: ‘I am working on a very large (for me) landscape of the Takaka Valley with a hill on fire – all very dramatic and symbolic’; a frieze of dead and living trees in the foreground adds to the rich connotations of the burning hillsides, a sight that would have been very familiar to Bensemann from his childhood in Takaka. In this painting he breathes life into a motif (bush fires and dead trees) that had flourished in earlier decades but which had largely disappeared by the 1970s. 

It was wholly characteristic of Bensemann to be always somewhat out of step with his times, a trait that reflects his conscious adoption of an ‘outsider’ perspective, a perspective that has tended to delay recognition of his singular talent. Increasingly, though, Leo Bensemann has come to be recognised as joining as an equal his distinguished friends and contemporaries – Angus, Brasch, Curnow, Glover, Lilburn, Lusk, McCahon, Sutton – as one of a foundational generation of Modernists within New Zealand’s cultural history.

Peter Simpson is the author of Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (Auckland University Press, 2011)