Monographica: Leo Bensemann, Now

The sustained engagement with a subject that characterises Leo Bensemann’s art has passed to Peter Simpson whose thirty-year research into the artist takes its most recent form in Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann and its parallel retrospective exhibition at Christchurch Art Gallery.[1]

Simpson’s previous ventures have pushed Bensemann’s work in all sorts of directions, often through nuanced close readings of particular modes or moments.  The exhibition Leo Bensemann and Rita Angus: The Cambridge Terrace Years (Hocken Library, 2000) explored the complex creative exchange between these forever-to-be-intertwined artists through their conjoined portraiture. The exhibition had a speculative, ‘crack-the-code’ approach that Simpson has also directed at the Fantastica drawings, originally published in book form by Caxton Press in 1937. As Director of Holloway Press, Simpson has literally given new form to Bensemann’s endeavours, overseeing the reprinting of both Fantastica and Engravings on Wood from the original wood and metal blocks.[2] These remarkable projects pay tribute to these books, their maker, and the fine printing tradition they belong to, all the while granting new energy to Bensemann’s art.  Simpson’s reading of Fantastica as a ‘proto-graphic novel’ leads the charge in connecting Bensemann’s practice to contemporary cultural forms, an approach that insists on its relevance for now.[3] These re-printings stand out as innovative cultural interventions with parallels to say the re-construction of Jim Allen’s post-object art practice for a newly reverent contemporary moment.

This most recent publication and its parallel exhibition similarly promise to reposition Bensemann’s art, this time through the more conventional art historical formats of the monograph and the retrospective. Both provide a necessary weight and seriousness to Bensemann’s art. But they also risk sacrificing the very aspects of this practice that make Bensemann such a cult figure for the contemporary moment, based on that heavily crafted sense of both artist and work somehow existing out of step with artistic and cultural conventions. A curious reversal may be observed in the recent refashioning of Rita Angus as a more complex and ultimately problematic figure than earlier art history has allowed. On surface level at least, this new Bensemann would appear to be reigned in a little, dressed up with all the authority that the monograph and retrospective imparts.

The triumph of this new double headed project stems from the ways that Simpson and his collaborators at Auckland University Press and Christchurch Art Gallery have balanced these disparate needs. Bensemann’s art is treated seriously and comprehensively without losing any of the idiosyncrasy that provides its real power.  Simpson continues to make a virtue of that sense of distance and oddity that was once a tool of Bensemann’s exclusion from art history, knowing full well that these qualities read very differently to a contemporary audience.

A key to this approach is Simpson’s navigation of the ways Bensemann’s work resists the art historical models he is being presented through. How, for example, can the biographical demands of the monograph be met when the subject plays up identity slippage, and shifts in and out of roles both within and beyond his work, either through assuming guises in his self-portraits or upsetting codes of nationality, masculinity and sexuality in the cultivation of an outsider persona? The text is loaded with personal anecdote and excerpts from Bensemann’s extensive correspondence which provides enough of a sense of the man behind the mask for those seeking such knowledge. But calling this a biography is like calling one of Bensemann’s late paintings regionalist. Bensemann the man slips in and out of character in this narrative as he does in his paintings to emerge as something much richer and more complex than artists’ biographies often allow. Most significantly, its an approach highly attuned to the internal dynamics of Bensemann’s work.

If Bensemann’s art poses some difficulties for a biographical approach, the same holds for the notions of progress and development embedded in the monograph or retrospective.  A lot is made of the fact that Bensemann is primarily known through his association with a close circle of friends like Rita Angus and Lawrence Baigent.  His early work is also the most highly regarded, especially the portraits made during those ‘Cambridge Terrace Years’ and the astonishing Fantastica that just preceded them in 1936-1937, both already subject to stand alone exhibitions.  Simpson does great justice to both here, offering an especially compelling reading of Fantastica as a coded narrative exploring the power relations between a man and a woman which potentially bleeds out into a real world dalliance (here biography emerges out of a complex reading of the work, not the more familiar reverse).

The issue for the art historian as much as the artist is where does one go after Fantastica and its related work, made when the artist was only twenty-five and before he had even really entered the art world? Simpson’s structure deftly manages this feat, both moving from Fantastica and keeping it at the fore. The discussion immediately opens up from the seemingly closed world of Fantastica to more contextual chapters, initially through tracing Rita Angus’s potential presence as a subject of desire in these drawings to her very real presence in the Cambridge Terrace flat, which in turn moves into chapters relating to The Group, The Caxton Press, and the journals Landfall and Ascent. Bensemann and his work are here placed within the context of Christchurch and New Zealand art and culture of this period, broadening the story out from the isolated artist working intensely on seemingly otherworldly drawings.

Like a character from Fantastica, Bensemann weaves in and out of these sections. The chapter dedicated to the Caxton Press is the most effective on these terms, re-presenting the history of the Press and this moment through Bensemann’s substantial contribution.  The preceding chapter on The Group holds much art historical interest, yet struggles to integrate the artist within the broader narrative in the same way. Beyond documenting Bensemann’s work on various exhibition catalogues, this section predominately serves to mark difference from his landscape-based peers.

It is to the landscape were Simpson is always really heading. The late landscapes are necessarily granted much prominence in this publication and exhibition, and are vital to the re-consideration of Bensemann’s practice and its relationship to culture. Simpson strives to demonstrate that these landscapes are not ‘late’ in that sense of being redundant, a prospect doubled in the case of Bensemann whose early work was premised on fleeing the material world, and who only took to the genre after its supposed exhaustion. One of the strengths of this overall project is its bringing together of all facets of Bensemann’s incredibly diverse practice that are often kept at arm’s length.  The catalogues written by Bensemann’s daughter Caroline Otto, for example, encourage the separation of ‘real’ and ‘imaginary’ elements by presenting the portraits and fantasy figures in a different volume from the landscapes.[4]  Simpson does much more than simply unite these disparate elements into a complete body of work. He activates those conceptual and thematic links between these parts to reveal further levels of complexity and interest.

The late paintings most benefit from this interpretative approach, notably Simpson’s ushering of the fantastical into the landscape. The Takaka landscape is especially treated as an otherworldly site of the imagination. The term ‘fantastic’ is regularly applied to devices such as the transformation of a tiny rock fragment into the glowing, monumental object in The Dolomite Madonna (1979), or the addition of a bright hang-glider floating into the top of the frame like a figure from Fantastica in Over the Lindis Pass (1979) which takes a very grounded landscape elsewhere.

And this an equally effective as a description of Simpson’s approach, especially to what have previously felt like insipid late works. In Simpson’s hands these landscapes have never felt so pressing, and serve to bring together a narrative that is much more complex and circular than may initially appear. His approach is based around the needs of Bensemann now, but also highly attuned to the internal logic of the work itself, especially its brightest flame Fantastica. It’s as if Simpson’s argument that Fantastica functions as a multi-part body of work where disparate elements are united through recurrent patterns of imagery and symbolism has spread to this reading of Bensemann’s entire output, with similarly productive results.

Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann holds a similar place in Simpson’s work as those late landscapes do in his subject’s oeuvre.  At first glance, the monograph may appear conventional and heavy, especially in relation to those coveted Holloway Press publications or the lighter touch of the more tightly focused readings. But Simpson exploits this format to provide complex and compelling material that both brings together and expands existing ways of thinking through the artist’s work and cultural contribution. Incredibly valuable on its own terms, the publication gains full power when placed within Simpson’s extended body of work on and around Bensemann which offers one of this country’s most sustained and forceful models of art historical investigation.

Published in Journal of New Zealand Art History, 2011, vol. 32, 32-35.

[1] Peter Simpson, Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann, Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2011, Leo Bensemann: A Fantastic Art Venture, curated by Peter Simpson and Noel Waite, Christchurch: Christchurch Art Gallery, 2011.

[2] Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings, new edition with an introduction by Peter Simpson, Auckland: Holloway Press, 1997, and Engravings on Wood, edited and with an introduction by Peter Simpson, Auckland: Holloway Press, 2004.

[3] See Peter Simpson, ‘Introduction’ in  Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings, Auckland: Holloway Press, and Gregory O’Brien, ‘Fantastic Stuff’, New Zealand Listener, August 28, 2004.

[4] Caroline Otto, Leo Bensemann: Portraits, Masks & Fantasy Figures, Nelson: Nikau Press, 2005, and Leo Bensemann: Landscape & Studies,  Nelson: Nikau Press, 2006.