Andrew Paul Wood
Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann, Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, 2011), 232 pp., $75.00
If you could physically sense an author’s passion and thoroughness, Peter Simpson’s books would glow like fresh bread. His timely and lavishly illustrated Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann positively radiates, and yet again shows Auckland University Press to be New Zealand’s pre-eminent art book publisher.
Artist and illustrator Bensemann was the descendent of North German immigrants from Bruchhausen-Vilsen south of Bremen, settling at Moutere, and was born in Takaka in 1912. His family moved to Nelson in the early 1920s, and that dramatic karst landscape was to become a reoccurring feature in his rich oeuvre. The German influence was also strong, manifesting in a rich vein of Romanticism in his work, embracing Holbein and Dürer, and various Medieval, folk, and expressionist sources, to complement the vivid orientalism of his drawings and landscapes.
Outside of Canterbury Bensemann has not been well known beyond the influential Ilam mafia and the occasional reproduction in magazines in the 1940s and 1950s, though his portraits were reproduced annually in the New Zealand Arts Year Books from 1946 until 1949, and during his lifetime one article in Landfall in 1953, and a memorial in Art New Zealand shortly after his death in 1986. Since then, there have been two publications by Bensemann’s daughter Caroline Otto and at least two significant exhibitions curated by Simpson.