Dark Arts, by Leo Bensemann, edited by Peter Simpson (Holloway Press, Auckland) Edition of 100. $300.
Dark Arts is a collection of mostly unpublished essays given as talks by Leo Bensemann circa the 1950s on the subjects of the history of printing, typography, book illustration, graphic arts, the Caxton Press, and The Group. Peter Simpson uncovered the essays during his research for his book Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (Auckland University Press, 2011). Leo Bensemann (1912–1986) was remarkably a printmaker/illustrator, typographer, printer, and painter. He was born in Takaka, New Zealand of German and Anglo-Irish ancestry. Bensemann didn’t do well at school, which in no way hampered his later success. Peter Simpson calls him an ‘autodidact’ who ‘took to printing like a duck to water.’ Bensemann was involved at the inception of Christchurch’s Caxton Press in 1935 under Denis Glover. He was also a member of a group of artists working in Christchurch from 1927 known as The Group and including (at various times) the likes of Rita Angus, Colin McCahon, Doris Lusk, and Toss Woollaston.
Simpson says in the introduction to Dark Arts that the book is ‘not an original contribution to history or theory’. He suggests that it is rather more intimate than that, as a notebook or journal might be. It is a ‘place where original ideas can be seen first hand.’ Both Fantastica and Dark Arts reveal the character and contribution of Leo Bensemann, but they do it in different ways; where Fantastica is a judiciously illustrated ‘coffee table book’ that carefully explains the key works and biographical details of Bensemann’s career, Dark Arts shows the man himself ‘talking’ about his topics in his articulate and rousing manner; it is a book for the initiated, right down to its manifesto-style cover inscribed with Bensemann’s occult-ish heraldic crest. The hefty price of $300 for the book also requires a certain degree of commitment on the behalf of the buyer-reader.
But Dark Arts also has another more subtle agenda: it exists, in a way, in memoriam of the recently ‘fallen’ Caxton Press (now being rebuilt). Although the essays are not all focused on the Caxton Press, the importance of the Press was enormous, as it was a leading vehicle in the publication of local writers and of publications such as the art catalogues of The Group. The Caxton Press has been a pivotal entity in Christchurch’s cultural scene from its inception. It was Leo Bensemann’s training ground.
Bensemann’s own illustrations and samples of his calligraphic skill punctuate the book, and the absence of textual intervention on Simpson’s part creates the ‘intimacy’ alluded to in his introduction. The subtle arrangement works exceedingly well in ‘showing’ rather than ‘explaining’ aspects of Bensemann’s contribution to the history of art, illustration, and printing in New Zealand, but the book would not have such currency if Fantastica had not blazed a trail for it.
Simpson mentions that there is no evidence that Bensemann ever intended to publish these essays. He says in the introduction on page 1:
The main reason for publishing the essays now is that they articulate Leo Bensemann’s opinions on a wide range of his interests and practices …
Presumably Simpson sees Dark Arts as a timely extension of Fantastica. The books are separate in intent, but connected by the contrast they provide for each other.
After the scene-setting Introduction, chapter one, Notes on the History of Printing and Calligraphy, was captivating, but I was taken aback by the gamut of printing related facts presented with such biblical conviction that I soon found myself turning the book around in my hands as if it was an object with a negotiable beginning point. And so the intention of Dark Arts became uncertain: was I supposed to learn from this suite of essays as if they comprised a text book? Or read them voyeuristically as if they comprised an art-object? The answer, as I read on, was clearly ‘both’. Dark Arts is not a textbook nor is it a curio. Being a limited edition also presumes a ready audience. And with the typographic and printing decisions noted respectfully on the last page, Dark Arts is presented as a tribute.
It is surely not coincidental that Dark Arts and Fantastica remind me of the recent tragedies concerning Christchurch’s earthquakes, and more particularly of the damage sustained in the earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011 by the Caxton Press. Dark Arts is also a tribute to the rich cultural heritage of Christchurch.
The notion of a ‘tribute’ is interesting in relation to Bensemann’s own opinions on the function of typography and design (chapter two, Notes on Typography and Book Design). The elements of design and style must never get between the author and the reader, he says. But Dark Arts in its nature as a tribute and its telling of the processes used in its own creation, puts an emphasis on print and design process (and on the author as a character) in a manner that Bensemann would not approve of if delivery of information were the primary function of the book (and it is not).
Tara McLeod, the designer for Holloway Press, has taken care to pay attention to Bensemann’s lessons and requirements regarding typography and text versus illustration (chapter three, Notes on Book Illustration). The line-weight of the illustrations and the point size of the typeface in Dark Arts are ‘equal’. This according to Bensemann was required for both practical and aesthetic reasons: the line-block, woodcut, or wood engraving could be printed at the same time as the type due to the simple linear nature of those processes, making the illustrations ‘an integral part of the book’ whilst also dealing nicely with issues of visual equity.
Chapter four, Notes on the Graphic Arts, is known to have been a public lecture given at the Robert McDougal Art Gallery in March 1962 in conjunction with a Czech graphic arts exhibition on at the time. In this talk, Bensemann discusses the main illustration processes of relief, intaglio, and lithography. He says with wonderful pomposity that hopefully stems from his ‘Irish wit’ and not his ‘Germanic stoicism’ (page 45):
… any artist who hasn’t felt the urge to experiment with – or express himself through – one of the graphic arts media is only half alive.
Then there are two chapters in the book that should be compulsory reading for anyone interested in the cultural progress of art and design in the early to mid twentieth century in New Zealand: chapter five, Notes on the Early Years at the Caxton Press 1935–41, and chapter six, Notes on The Group 1927–77. Firstly, in his introduction, Simpson explains that Bensemann provided an important link between the Caxton Press and The Group (on page 7):
For forty years Bensemann’s involvement with the Caxton Press ran parallel to his involvement with The Group, with whom he first exhibited in the same year that he joined the Caxton in 1938. From 1940 Bensemann designed superb and remarkably various catalogues for the annual Group show and printed them at Caxton, a connection which built a bridge between the visual arts and the world of books and publishing which Bensemann uniquely maintained.
Chapter five shows Bensemann’s attitude to the world-wide post-war artistic climate, as well as his dogmatic views on the necessity of achieving a New Zealand tradition and style after first accepting and excelling in the (primarily European) established traditions; a position few people without the tenacity and perfectionism of Leo Bensemann would have been able to or wanted to attain. Here is an excerpt from page 55, possibly dated in the mid 1950s:
Confused groping in art & uncertainty of purpose go hand in glove with the political uncertainty of the age …
He goes on to say:
We in New Zealand have, therefore, to face the problem of establishing a healthy art at a time when the rest of the world is in a state of riot – the standards of the old world are being hurled down & raised up and new standards are no where at all clear.
And on page 56:
We are in fact a young nation struggling out of a European crucible and we are fast passing the stage when we can grope out for the hand that led us to these islands.
And one of our ‘problems’ is:
(New Zealanders) have tended to look on art as just another chore & a minor one in the daily bustle about our islands. ‘Yes’ we say, ‘I’ll finish that bit of pottery when I get back from milking the goat – and having a look at the garden – and doing a bit of mending.’
The text continues like that, with impassioned nationalistic exhortations including the suggestion that visual artists should work out their troubled New Zealand aesthetic by reading more of New Zealand’s fine writers. From glancing around in Fantastica then back at Dark Arts, it is clear that Bensemann’s nationalistic view is somewhat in conflict with the imagery, themes, and stylistic influences that he occupied himself with for his illustrations. He permits himself (and others) the high standards of European forebears, but he incorporates little of New Zealand’s physical or psychological environment and certainly makes no specific mention in Dark Arts of Maori being permitted any say in the development of a national art to ‘weld the people’.
Throughout Dark Arts Bensemann extols the European foundations of his profession as a printer in all its many parts. The problem was always going to be how to develop ‘a New Zealand style’ whilst not biting off the hand that feeds you.
Bensemann’s own illustrations bear the influence of the Japanese woodblock, and of German expressionism, as well as that of medieval and renaissance imagery. But if these exotic sympathies animate his book illustrations, his landscape and portrait paintings are more of a dialogue between himself and The Group, and are generally less dynamic than his illustrations, though, as ever, technically well accomplished.
The Fantastica ‘drawings’, for example (not included in Dark Arts) are a strange series of prints that never make the leap too far from derivative iconography and style other than to develop a series of self-references including the favoured mask imagery and the rather wry use of his own ‘Irish eyebrows’ as an emblem. Bensemann is quoted on page 32 of Fantastica discussing the themes of these drawings:
… there are four drawings for Marlowe’s Faust, one Arabian Night, one Grimm Fairy Tale, and various other fantastic ‘pieces’.
One might wonder how that is exploring a New Zealand identity. But this is where Bensemann the jack-of-all-trades is revealed: he was also exploring New Zealand’s landscape, his friends, colleagues, and family in his paintings at this time. It is interesting that Bensemann adjusted his focus depending on the medium he was using; he allowed the medium to suggest the subject and the subject to suggest the medium in a way that many of his contemporaries did not.
But oddly for such an interdisciplinary artist, Bensemann shunned experimentation for experimentation’s sake. He declared that change and improvement come in the process of perfecting an established craft. He says, on page 55:
And yet at a time when we most need the help of an orderly tradition, we find the rest of the world in an almost demented state of disintegration and experimentation lacking the unifying force of great ideas. Experiment in the arts unhappily – in New Zealand as elsewhere – is now too often accepted in itself as progress: when it should be part and parcel of a craftsman’s little technical discoveries in relation to his thinking, tools, his materials and his colours – what an artist learns in this way has real worth in his development and provides the necessary excitement to work.
Chapter six, Notes on The Group 1927–77, gives a brief but fascinating history of The Group, a collective which came about as a reaction against Christchurch’s established academy-style vetting and display of artworks. The Group organised exhibitions for the display and sale of members’ productions in the pre-dealer gallery era. This chapter outlines The Group’s methodology, troubles, and membership and so on, including interesting details such as a McCahon selling for ten guineas and a Cook (Angus) selling for just over one pound.
Chapter seven, Two Notes in Ascent, establishes Bensemann’s interest in and his knowledge of contemporary art. The first ‘note’ is a review, of sorts, of the 1966 New Zealand Contemporary Art Exhibition, which toured nationally that year. Bensemann is brief and opinionated in his critiques, and after reading the preceding Dark Arts essays, I find that I have considerable patience for the way he blithely damns or praises of the artists he mentions. By now it is quite clear that Bensemann turned his insightful if dogmatic philosophy of aesthetics on to everything he did – and he did a lot.
The second note is Bensemann’s review of a publication of a collection of drawings by Fuseli, discovered in Dunedin in 1963. The Auckland City Art Gallery (host to these Fuselis) published this in 1967. Bensemann is excited about the presence of something so historically significant in New Zealand, but he is not enamoured of the drawings themselves — other than for Fuseli’s passion, which is evidently oozing forth, and for Fuseli’s ‘scantily clad women’, whom Bensemann notes should not open their mouths to speak. At the end of the essay, Bensemann has a bit of a go at Gordon Brown who designed / type-set the publication. But Mr Brown, along with most people I expect, could never completely please a man like Leo Bensemann.
Dark Arts is a sensitively constructed tribute piece. Peter Simpson has revealed Bensemann’s essays for our edification and appreciation. He has presumably revealed them now because this work (and his Fantastica) speaks to an appreciative audience in a time of such turmoil for Christchurch – a time when people are retrieving what they can of that city’s cultural heritage.
Leo Bensemann’s writing teaches us not only about the histories he is discussing but also a great deal about himself, while Simpson’s meticulous work has succeeded in uncovering the extraordinary wealth of knowledge, passion, and excellence that Bensemann contributed to art and craft in his lifetime.
TASHA HAINES has a Masters degree in Fine Arts from Elam at the University of Auckland. She was a lecturer in fine arts & design in Melbourne and Wellington, the manager of a dealer gallery in Auckland, and is now a writer living in Wellington.
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