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.
Bensemann shared a studio with his prickly close friend Rita Angus during one of the most fruitful phases of her career, and from 1938, along with Colin McCahon, Angus, Doris Lusk, Olivia Spencer Bower and Toss Woollaston was a part of that influential group of Mainland artists known as The Group, an element of the sparkling circle of under-graduates, writers, artists, poets, composers and actors that formed the ‘Bloomsbury South’ (as Simpson calls it) which made Christchurch the cultural capital of New Zealand up until World War II and the shift in cultural weight to Auckland money and Wellington bureaucrats. This is a period of huge significance to the national story, often overlooked as too provincial, and here elaborated and redressed.
Bensemann’s work has often been unfavourably compared with that of Angus, and this probably has some basis in terms of his paintings, but where Bensemann truly expressed his genius was in the field of book illustration. His contribution to typography through his role in the Caxton Press negates any argument. In the 1960s with Barbara Brooke (co-founder with Judith Gifford of the Brooke-Gifford Gallery in Christchurch in 1975) he edited Ascent, and he assisted Charles Brasch with the production of Landfall from its initiation in 1947 until 1978, but it was at Caxton he made his greatest impact.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based art writer and freelance curator. He is currently completing a doctorate on aspects of Canterbury painting in the 1990s, and is working towards a book on the artist Theo Schoon.