Leo Bensemann


Beyond Canterbury where he has lived for some fifty-five years the name Leo Bensemann is not well known. His work is seldom found in public collections; his paintings and drawings were only fitfully reproduced in the New Zealand Arts Year Books and Landfall during the nineteen-forties and nineteen-fifties, and critical comment on him is sparse - limited to random newspaper articles, chance mentions in reviews and one article in Landfall.(1)

Yet Leo Bensemann was an integral part of an important artistic epoch in New Zealand history. His contribution to typography through a whole body of Caxton Press publications is an achievement which alone should demand recognition. He assisted Charles Brasch with the publication of Landfall from its inception in March 1947 until 1978; and with Barbara Brooke he edited and published Ascent.

Photograph of Leo Bensemann, Rita Angus (seated centre) and Peggy Bensemann, taken at 97 Cambridge Terrace in 1938. The painting in the background is by Leo Bensernann.

Bensemann shared a studio with Rita Angus during some of the best years of her painting, and from 1938 onwards together with Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Olivia Spencer Bower and Toss Woollaston was one of a core of painters consistently exhibiting with 'The Group'.

As William Sutton writes: 'He is most reticent about his performance, but his colleagues, now and of times past, regard him as one of the leading painters (and persons) in our community - and that means all New Zealand.'

In asking why an artist of his stature has been overlooked, perhaps the answer lies in Bensemann's dislike of publicity and the general scarcity of his work. Until his retirement from the Caxton Press, apart from published drawings, the main outlet for his work was through the annual 'Group' exhibitions. Since the disbandment of 'The Group' Bensemann has had four one-man exhibitions, only one of which has been outside Canterbury.(2)

Descended from German immigrants to Moutere, Leo Bensemann was born in Takaka in 1912, attending first Takaka Primary School and then (when his family moved to Nelson in 1920) Nelson College. Leaving school in 1929 at the beginning of the Depression, job prospects in Nelson were far from encouraging, so that when his friend Lawrence Baigent moved to Christchurch, Leo Bensemann decided to move there too.

A Weird Bookplate c. 1932-33
drawing, 70 x 53 mm,
(Collection of the
Alexander Turnbull Library)

In Christchurch he first worked for an advertising agency 'drawing pots and pans' and attended some evening classes at Art School between 1932 and 1936. There he painted very briefly under the tutelage of Cecil Kelly and enjoyed drawing with Archibald Nicoll and Leonard Booth. Bensemann mixed with a lively circle of under-graduates, writers, artists, poets and musicians.

During 1934 he met the poet Denis Glover, who with John Drew had established the Caxton Press Club. Glover's enthusiasm for Bensemann's graphic work led to the suggestion of a set of drawings for publication. During visits to the Press in association with this publication Bensemann's natural talent for design and his basic grasp of the fundamentals of good typography became apparent. He was invited to join the partnership, thereby embarking on a career in printing that even now in his retirement continues with his operation of The Huntsbury Press.

The Caxton Press was as much an artistic enterprise as a business. Allen Curnow was to declare in 1945 '. . . . when I think of the arts in New Zealand I think first of Lilburn's music, Caxton printing, Rita Cook's Otago, landscapes...'(3)

Caxton's fame lies in combining consistently good printing with some of the best writing produced in New Zealand. From its small beginnings - slender volumes containing a modest output of poetry, prose, art and typography - the list of publications burgeoned to include some of the most brilliant names of this era. Besides publishing poems by Denis Glover, James K. Baxter, Allen Curnow and ARD. Fairburn, they engraved music by Douglas Lilburn and published work by Rewi Alley, Ngaio Marsh, Frank Sargeson, R.A.K. Mason, D'Arcy Cresswell and Janet Frame.

Portrait of a Boy c. 1938
pencil on paper, 390 x 350mm.
(Collection of Mr and Mrs W. Harrington)

Bensemann's role in all this was crucial. As Pat Lawlor writes: '. . . while the words Caxton Press and Denis Glover have been for many years almost synonymous, there has always been a sturdy, quiet, figure in the background ... In the case of Caxton the silent strong man has been Leo Bensemann the artist. Indeed, during the war years when Denis Glover and D.L. Donovan ... were peddling the lethal lead overseas, Leo Bensemann was "slugging away" holding the Caxton Fort for their return.'(4)

As a typographer, Bensemann was closely involved with Denis Glover in all the technical aspects of book production - the detailed arrangement of type and text, work which was carried out with consummate care and precision. As graphic artist Bensemann designed initial letters, chapter headings, tail pieces and page decorations - all to an exacting standard. As illustrator, he produced a series of vivid pages which portray the strong element of fantasy in his graphic work, a love of myth and folk lore, fable and the grotesque.

The first of his frontispieces was published in 1935 in Another Argo, a volume containing poems by Fairburn, Curnow and Glover. Here, in a rhythmic counterbalancing of dark against light, the billowing sail and flowing contours of a boat are set against a tightly organised, geometrically patterned sea, while a head pierced by a sword appears with the force of an heraldic motif.

Fantastica, a set of thirteen drawings by Leo Bensemann, was published in 1937. Nastagio and The Obdurate Lady: A Tale From The Decameron illustrated by Bensemann appeared in 1941. Also in that year came the publication of The Brothers Grimm: The Adventures Of Chanticleer and Partlet, where the whimsical side of Bensemann's invention is uppermost. A Second Book of Leo Bensemann's Work, with pen and pencil drawings, engravings on wood, and examples of his calligraphy and typography, appeared first in 1948 and was reprinted again in 1952. The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, an award-winning model of unified design, was printed first in 1952 and reprinted in 1968.

St Olaf c.1937
oil on board, 243 x 190 mm.

All are clearly the work of a fanciful, ingenious imagination which delights in decoration for its own sake. The simplicity of his designs with their emphasis on line in the form of swelling curves, trailing ropes and coiling snakes carries something of the fluidity of Art Nouveau.

Bensemann creates a curiously evocative mood, with traces of the ambiguity of feeling often found in fin-de-siècle art. With a fine brush, the allegory is drawn in a lighter line than that associated with the Beardsley. circle. Tiny flowers and blades of grass create a delicate tracery of patterns not unlike the tapestry gardens of Botticelli; while his sense of movement and indifference to perspective show a return to archaism that compares with the sixteenth century Florentine mannerists.

His tightly conceived decorative effect also bears the influence of the Japanese woodcut with its symbolic realism, economy of means and the shift of emphasis between the intricately drawn shape and large, intensely white areas. His illustration for A Japanese Tale in Fantastica shows his broadly-based comprehension of Japanese art. It is evident in the postures of his protagonists, the handling of trees and mountains and the whole clear spatial arrangement of the composition.

A Canterbury Landscape 1983
oil on board, 440 x 710mm.
(Private collection,

Concerning Japanese prints Leo Bensemann records: 'I have owned quite a few, most of which I gave away. In the early nineteen-thirties and before I owned any prints I bought two Studio publications on Japanese prints - Hiroshige (1929) and Hokusai (1930). They cost about 5/- each and I believe no art books I have ever bought have given me as much pleasure as these two marvellous books.'

Japanese prints began to filter into Christchurch in the late nineteen-thirties. 'Colonel Worsnop and his wife had a print shop in the square and imported a lot of excellent and reasonably priced prints, and Mr Justice Northcroft brought back a magnificent collection which was sold up after his death.' The Shurrocks had a good collection of Japanese woodcuts and there were touring exhibitions of Oriental art. All this 'awakened a great interest in Japanese woodcuts which in a minor way could be compared with the excitement aroused in France when they were first discovered.'

In 1937 Leo Bensemann moved to one of Sydney Thompson's studios at 97 Cambridge Terrace where he remained until 1943. Lawrence Baigent recalls: 'There were three studios adjacent to each other: Archibald Nicoll occupied the front studio while Rita Angus, Leo Bensemann and I occupied the other two, sharing facilities and meals. Both our studios were thrown open. Doors were never locked or shut. They became the unofficial headquarters for The Group - a year round saleroom for many of the members.'

Takaka Stonehenge 1983
oil on board. 632 x 775 mm.
(Collection of the
Bank of New Zealand)

It was a stimulating intellectual environment, enlivened by visits from fellow artists, writers, and musicians which sparked off a significant period of intense artistic activity for both Leo Bensemann and Rita Angus. On the subject of artistic influences between the two artists Bensemann is adamant: 'We thought differently and our skills were totally different - but I think its true that we found stimulation in each other's work. But as for influencing one another that I think was quite impossible - nor do I think we could have worked together in any sort of harmony if that had been so. When A.R.D. Fairburn visited Christchurch in 1947 he said to me: 'When I came down here I expected to find that Rita had influenced your work but now I find the opposite to be the case." I didn't agree.'

Nevertheless, both artists admired Japanese art, the Italian primitives and Renaissance painting. They shared models, drew and painted each other and shared a quickening of interest in portraiture. Bensemann recalls them sitting at either end of their dining room table simultaneously drawing one another. From exercises such as this they completed four portraits each.

Bensemann's superb draughtsmanship in the Holbein tradition is evident in his Portrait of Rita Angus (1937). A scrupulously exact likeness when compared with photographs of her at this date, it is also a penetrating analysis of a face. The gaze is direct, the texture of the hair carefully differentiated, the definition of the features rendered with an uncanny precision.

A pencil portrait of Rita Angus (published in the New Zealand Arts Year Book, No. 7, 1951 p.7) shows her in profile, an expressive hand clasping one arm. Again the modelling of the face is firm yet sensitive.

This sophisticated penetration of his subject appears in his Portrait of A Boy (1938), drawn from a so-called 'Maori' boy, a model from the Y.M.C.A. whom he shared with Rita Angus, and continues with the same pitch of sustained concentration to his Self-Portrait (1981).

The Egyptian Woman 1972
oil on board
(Collection of Anna &
Duncan Quigley, London)

Bensemann's paintings of St. Olaf and St Francis (1937 - 38) are highly subjective, even romantic works, capturing in an imaginative way the spirit of his subjects. St Francis is composed of delicate, muted colours, the gaze calm, the shadow tones reduced to a minimum, the landscape background idealised. St Olaf by contrast is a dynamic portrait, animated by a play of light around the mouth and on the muscles of the neck, expressive both of physical and mental energy. Certainly, this portrait stimulated Denis Glover to write his poem Olaf (a painting by Leo Bensemann).(5)

Bensemann's portraits were reproduced annually in the New Zealand Arts Year Books from 1946 until 1949. Often shown in profile or three-quarter face, his subject's features are juxtaposed against a landscape background, maintaining a subtle balance between the two.

His Portrait of Allan Simmance (6) concentrates upon the contours of Simmance's profile, which are outlined against a flat seascape; while in the Portrait of WN Rogers(7) rough rock forms in the background serve as lines of focus that draw the eye towards the head.

In his later portraits Bensemann suppresses fine drawing for an art in which colour is uppermost.

In 1970 and again in 1979 Bensemann visited Europe. 'While in Würzburg,' Bensemann recalls, 'I was impressed by a room filled with Egyptian funerary paintings which were as moving as anything I saw in Europe, even more than Rembrandt. The colours were staggering, brilliant.' The force of this experience is transferred in his painting The Egyptian Woman (1972) where he combines a hieratic pose and vigorous line with intense, glowing colour. Désirée Bensemann (1982) is again a convincing handling of resonant, constructive colour. Part of the liveliness of this portrait lies in the direct contrast of the pure blue of the sky and overalls with the warm golden tones of her face and hair, the whole lightened by Magritte-like puffs of cloud.

Throughout his life Bensemann has painted landscapes, drawing upon the expanses of plain, the rolling foot-hills and the views of the alps associated with the Canterbury area, together with the strange outcrops of rock that dominate Takaka, the region of his childhood.

Self-Portrait 1981
pencil on paper, 635 x 490 mm.
(Collection of the
Alexander Turnbull Library)

His perspective is dominated by a concentration upon edge and silhouette and a sharp light which imbues his landscapes with a distinct individuality.

The shapes of the Takaka rocks are endlessly fascinating for him. Rising from land or sea their clear - cut forms are tortuously high, ribbed or vaulted like architectural fragments, their flaws and fissures scrupulously explored so that they take on something of the character of apparitions. Perhaps the fact that these compositions often have their basis in a single small stone explains the disturbing effect of their baffling scale, which is at once very small and very large.

These rocky portraits convey a feeling of mass and weight that has an elemental, almost metaphysical strength, a primeval power hinted at in his titles such as Takaka Stonehenge (1983). If a human presence is felt in any way it is in the lines of blackly burnt tree stumps which accent the hillsides - the residue of a memory of the whole countryside ablaze with controlled burn-offs.

In A Canterbury Landscape Bensemann adopts a broad, monumental style where a synthesis of remembered and seen elements combine with a poster-like clarity. The end effect is a dreamlike stillness.

That his later landscapes have resonant, even musical colouring is reinforced by Douglas Lilburn's choice of Bensemann's Canterbury Landscape Over Mt Torlesse as a record sleeve for his album Canzona. As Lilburn comments: 'Besides making a magnificent record sleeve it typifies that part of the country that we lived and worked in Canterbury under a Nor'west sky with the colours we recognise, symbolising in its associations the essence of the place and the people we were with.'

1. Trevor Moffitt, 'Leo Bensemann', Landfall 35: 147 - 149, June 1981, p. 147.
2. An exhibition of Bensemann's drawings and paintings was held at the Galerie Legard, Wellington in October, 1983.
3. Arts Year Book, no. I (1945), p. 7.
4. P.A. Lawlor, The Caxton Press, Some Impressions and a Bibliography (Wellington, 1951, Beltone Book Publishers) p. 8.
5. Denis Glover, Sings Harry and other Poems (Christchurch, 1951, Caxton Press) p. 23.
6. Arts Year Book, no. 2 (1946), p. 71.
7. Arts Year Book, no. 5 (1949), p. 50.

This article also draws upon personal communications with Leo Bensemann, William Sutton, Lawrence Baigent, Allen Curnow and Douglas Lilburn, as well as the Records of the Canterbury School of Fine Arts and Marion Minson's Biographical Notes of Bensemann in the Alexander Turnbull Library (File no. 3/1/1/7).