Leo Bensemann: The Fantastica Drawings

It was in November 1937 that John Drew and I made a discovery in Leo Bensemann, whom we had known before. Leo Bensemann – one of those New Zealanders of fine talent as an artist, as a pianist, perceptive of a poem or a phrase, was then finding that he had to earn a living in a cold hard world. He was making line drawings of hot water bottles and electric heaters as a commercial artist. It was our ambition to publish some of his drawings, involving as it did a lot of money in blocks. We invited Bensemann to help us print it in our spare time, and he showed such an instinctive aptitude for the difficult business of make-ready on an aged cylinder machine that Drew and I decided at once to hand him out a partnership in The Caxton Press if only he would take it. His reply was ‘Barkis is willing’. It was a happy appointment.’
— Denis Glover, Hot Water Sailor, (Wellington: Reed, 1962)

The Caxton Press knew it had a remarkable publication on its hands with Leo Bensemann’s Fantastica: 13 Drawings. The usually temperamental cylinder press had ‘behaved with unwonted docility’, and it was proudly claimed that ‘nothing quite like these drawings has appeared in New Zealand’. First published in an edition of 125 in 1937, Fantastica: 13 Drawings has come to represent one of the highpoints of the book arts in New Zealand.

Bensemann’s allegiance to the realms of the imagination and European cultural traditions set Fantastica apart from the landscape-based realism that dominated New Zealand art through the 1930s. Bensemann’s intense, hypnotic drawings are peopled with mad princes, little witches and enchanted forests. Their equally rich artistic and literary heritage stretches from renaissance portraiture to German romanticism and the Japanese woodcuts of Hokusai, via Arabian Nights, the Brothers Grimm and Doctor Faustus.

Leo Bensemann retired from the Caxton Press in 1978 and died eight years later. The original pen and ink Fantastica drawings were purchased by the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2003. The metal blocks used in the printing of the book were subsequently donated to the Library by the Bensemann family.

This is the first time that the Fantastica drawings have been exhibited as a complete group. Summoning the drawings together in this way sparks off the web of associations and allusions that remains the lifeblood of the book, while showcasing the full range and power of Bensemann’s beguiling art.

National Library Gallery, Wellington, 8 November 2008–March 2009