With over a decade managing the sale and placement of many of New Zealand’s most coveted works, Toby Macalister has a wealth of knowledge and experience in the valuation and marketing of fine art. His family background includes two generations of jewelers, as well as renowned textile designers, artists and architects. A concern for function, form and aesthetics is in his blood. This capability has seen Toby step to the international stage, being responsible for the sale of works from the European old masters, Durer, Rembrandt and Goya. He has also sold such 20th Century luminaries as Renoir, Picasso and Chagall at live auctions. After stints in South Africa and America, Toby returned to Christchurch and purchased Watson’s Auctioneers and Valuers in 2006. He remains involved in the daily operations of this leading South Island Auction House.
Toby’s central zeal is to curate premium collections for auction however, with a particular focus on New Zealand fine art from the 19th through 21st Century. To pursue this vision he has started boutique auction house, W.T. Macalister. This combination of passion and experience can be seen in the inaugural W.T. Macalister auction, The Leo Bensenman Collection. Despite the scarcity of Bensemenn works it’s impeccably curated, covering the spectrum of the artist’s output. With a nice surprise, two Rita Angus sketches of Bensenmann literally draw a link from him to one of the most respected local artists. Toby’s eye for detail and steady hand as curator is ideally suited for bringing to market the most desirable of fine art and rare objects and, with further auctions in development, W.T. Macalister is set to command a strong reputation in the future.
AUCKLAND VIEWINGS vvLevel One, 25 Sale St
CHRISTCHURCH VIEWINGS Auckland
Leo Bensemann: 18 Paintings 1936-1979 By Peter Simpson
This group of eighteen oil paintings by Leo Bensemann (1912-1986) covers more than 40 years of his practice as painter from an untitled imaginary portrait of 1936 to the Takaka landscape River Flat (1979). Bensemann’s career extended a few years both before and after those dates (his earliest known works date from 1931, his latest from 1985), but nevertheless these works encompass most of his active span as an artist. There are six works from the 1930s, one from the 1940s, one from the 1950s, four from the 1960s and six from the 1970s. The eighteen works are also broadly representative of the various modes in which Bensemann practised as a painter (leaving aside his extensive work in a variety of graphic media): ten of the works are portraits, including several of known friends and acquaintances (Lawrence Baigent, Les Stapp, Hugh Cato) and two self-portraits (one from the 1950s, one from the 1970s), while five are what he called ‘imaginary portraits’,1 three from the 1930s and two which followed and grew from his first visit to Germany in 1970 (Unknown Westerwald, The Eg yptian Woman). Six other works are landscape paintings, ranging in date from 1944 to 1979, relating to several different parts of the South island – Central Otago, inland Canterbury, the Kaikoura coast and Takaka Valley. The pair of Alemann paintings from 1979 are hard to classify, and are like nothing else in Bensemann’s oeuvre, though closer perhaps to still life than to any other traditional genre. The fortuitous pattern into which this group of works falls – thick at both ends and thin in the middle like a cartoon bone – happens exactly to replicate the wider profile of his artistic career, in which prolific early and equally prolific late stages are separated by a long, lessproductive middle (1940-1960) when his main energies went into book and typographical design and illustration for the Caxton Press.
Bensemann’s term for these works was the German phrase ‘Imaginäres Porträts’; see his letter to Caroline Otto, 28 February 1971, quoted in Peter Simpson, Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (Auckland University Press, 2011), p. 138
I Early Paintings: The 1930s
At Nelson College Bensemann won a prize for drawing, and his early impulse was towards utilising his drawing skills for caricature, fantasy, book-plate design, portrait studies and (increasingly) book illustration in a variety of graphic media, including pen and ink, pencil and (later) wood engraving, culminating in his first major achievement, Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings (Caxton Press, 1937).2 As early as 1934, however, Bensemann indicated an intention to move into painting. He told Pat Lawlor (a Wellington author, editor and journalist, with whom he was corresponding about bookplates and other black-and-white graphic work): ‘The other branches of my art, as it were, gently but firmly progress. I hope to have some presentable paintings to exhibit as soon as possible.’3 The first of his paintings to be exhibited were at the CSA in 1935-38, prior to his joining The Group. His earaliest paintings, from about 1933 onwards, were in watercolours, and were strongly influenced by Chinese and Japanese art, which he revered; he seldom used watercolours after 1937. From about 1934 he began experimenting with oil paints, undertaking self-portraits, portraits of friends, and ‘imaginary portraits’ – a mix of kinds of portraiture which he continued to practise to the end of his life.
Bensemann’s earliest oil painting was an untitled and probably imaginary portrait of a darkly dressed young man wearing a jewelled pendant, evoking Renaissance connotations and possibly painted in 1934.4 The earliest portrait that can be definitively dated is Eugene Aubin in 1935 (see Otto, Portraits, p. 19) – Aubin was a journalist friend who later moved to Dunedin. Bensemann’s first oil selfportrait, Smiling Man (see Otto, Portraits, p. 13) was shown at the CSA and also at Nelson’s Suter Art Gallery in 1936. By late 1936, with the Fantastica drawings finished, Bensemann had become primarily a painter, telling Lawlor: ‘nowadays I spend far more time painting than I ever did with the black and white… This is not because my interest has waned at all but simply that painting, when things are sorted out, is my medium.’5 The strongest point of continuity between Bensemann’s graphic work and his paintings in these early years is the imaginary portraits. Bensemann’s early graphic work included portraits of several kinds, ranging from caricatures of friends and public celebrities to pastiches of Renaissance portraiture, such as the portraits of Doctor Faustus in Fantastica. It is a short step from such pen-and-ink portraits to imaginary oil portraits such as St Francis and St Olaf (both 1937).
His friend Lawrence Baigent (who witnessed Bensemann’s career close up from the beginning) claimed that For a discussion of Bensemann’s graphic work see Simpson, Fantastica, pp.11-38
Leo Bensemann (LB) to Pat Lawlor, 24 March 1934; quovted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 20
See Caroline Otto, Portraits, Masks & Fantasy Figures (Nikau Press, 2005), p. 13 LB to Pat Lawlor, 17 December 1936, quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 20
Untitled Imaginary Portrait (‘The Turk’) Oil on canvas, 465 x 335mm, 1936
The earliest dated ‘imaginary portrait’, of a swarthy man wearing a fez (Otto, Portraits, p. 28, Simpson, Fantastica, p. 24), is dated in the top right corner of the painting MCMXXXVI (1936). It is one of the very few imaginary portraits to be signed and dated, though whether anything can be read into this is uncertain. Did it signify that that this was a painting he especially valued? Possibly, but not necessarily. Some of Bensemann’s imaginary portraits are self-evidently inventions, such as Huntsman (1938) discussed below – no-one could mistake this for a portrait of an actual person – but in others the treatment of the subject is so realistic in manner that the possibility must be considered that the painting is of a ‘real’ person in costume. It is a known fact that in some portraits Bensemann did dress his subjects in costume, as, for example, in his well-known 1937 portrait of Rita Angus (now in Te Papa) dressed as Cleopatra (Otto, Portraits, p. 53, Simpson, Fantastica, p. 45).6 Bensemann’s own liking for fancy dress is also well documented.7 Is it possible that this 1936 painting, known in the Bensemann family as ‘The Turk’, is not ‘imaginary’ but the portrait of some friend dressed as a Turk either for a play, fancy dress, or simply as a model? The matter cannot be decided with certainty. The figure is painted against a reddishbrown neutral background, his long dark hair covered with a fez of traditional red colour (though it lacks the usual tassle, and the row of coloured dots at top and bottom are not conventional), wearing a green garment which looks suspiciously like a bathrobe, an identification which supports the possibility of costume. Whether real or imaginary the characterful figure has piercing blue eyes, dark eyebrows, distinctive deep vertical creases on the forehead, a prominent dimple in the chin, and a swarthy complexion with a ‘5 o’clock shadow’ clearly evident. It is a distinctly exotic figure compared to most New Zealand portraiture of the 1930s.
For a discussion of this attribution, which derives from a letter from Angus to Douglas Lilburn, see Simpson, Fantastica, p. 41
See Simpson, Fantastica, p. 24 for an account of Bensemann’s attending the Arts Ball dressed as Dracula
Untitled imaginary portrait (‘Egyptian’) Oil on cloth, 420 x 270mm, c. mid-1930s
A similar ambiguity attaches to the powerful portrait of a dark woman in half-profile which probably dates from a similar period to the ‘The Turk’ (Otto, Portraits, p. 31). It is one of several early portraits that had been stored rolled up for years in Bensemann’s garage and were recovered after his death by his family, some in a damaged state. Painted on cloth, it has been extensively and expertly restored by John Harper of Takaka. 8 There is no indication on the painting of title or date, so any comments about it are necessarily speculative. Otto remarks suggestively that the work is painted ‘in Egyptian style’. In the 1930s Bensemann developed a deep interest in Egyptian art, an interest that he communicated to Rita Angus who subsequently became pre-occupied with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.9 A black-and-white reproduction (No. 291) in The Art of Ancient Egypt, published in Vienna by Phaidon Press in 1936, a book Bensemann owned, shows the head and torso of a woman carved in alabaster on the lid of canopic jar dating from the reign of Akenhaten, c. 1340-1336 B.C., in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.10 Although the figure is threedimensional there is nevertheless a sufficiently close resemblance to Bensemann’s two-dimensional portrait to suggest that it may have served as starting point for the portrait. While the hair style (a black bob) and facial features (especially the straight nose and brown eyes) in the portrait are Egyptian-like, it is again possible that the subject is not an historical reconstruction but rather a modern woman assuming Egyptian style in dress and make-up (a 1930s fashion). The pattern of wavy parallel bands around the neck of the garment looks more modern than ancient. The strong face is bathed in a bright light which leaves distinctive shadows on the face and neck.
For Otto’s comments on these recovered portraits see Otto, Portraits, pp. 31, 123 One of Angus’ many self-portraits is entitled Cleopatra (1938) For another illustration (in colour) see metmuseum.org/toah/works–of-art/30.8.54
Les Stapp Oil on canvas, 490 x 400mm, 1937
For a period in the mid to late 1930s, imaginary portraits existed side by side with more conventional portraits but by 1938 were being phased out in preference to oil portraits of known people. This transition is evident in Bensemann’s contributions to CSA exhibitions between 1935 and 1938. In 1935 his three contributions are all watercolour landscapes; his first portrait, Smiling Man (a probable self-portrait), appears in 1936; in 1937 three portraits are shown, two in the imaginary portrait mode (the well-known St Olaf and St Francis, both now in Christchurch Art Gallery), while the third is ‘Portrait of a Young Man’, probably the portrait of Denis Glover (Simpson, Fantastica, p. 28), though it is also possible that it was the portrait of an unknown young man wearing a hat which is dated 1937 (Otto, Portraits, p. 47). In 1938 all three of the portraits shown at the CSA were of known people – a self-portrait, a portrait of his sister Peggy (Simpson, Fantastica, p. 5) and Les Stapp. Huntsman (see below) shown at the Group Show in 1938 is apparently the last portrait in imaginary mode done by Bensemann until he returned to the mode in the 1960s. In September 1937 Bensemann wrote to Lawlor, ‘I am up to my neck in unfinished work – five unfinished portraits in oils and four more black and white drawings’.11 It is a reasonable inference that one of these five portraits was that of Les Stapp since it is signed and dated 1937 and was shown at the CSA annual exhibition in March
1938. Stapp, who lived in Wellington with his wife Marge – his address 35 Sugarloaf Rd, Brooklyn is given on the verso of the picture – was a cousin and family friend. Leo obviously knew him well and liked him since they sometimes corresponded with each other between the late 1930s and the late 1950s. In 1939, for instance, Leo sent Les a print of his first woodcut, Strange Outlandish Fowle, and gave him news about Caxton publications and Group Show activities. They had a common interest in Japanese and Chinese art. In one letter Bensemann promises to return a book about Hiroshige he had borrowed from Stapp, and in a later letter (early 1950s) describes various Japanese woodblock prints he has acquired. In the first surviving letter (7 November 1939) there is discussion of a damaged frame. Leo writes: ‘Now, I’m sorry that frame got damaged. I couldn’t get another piece – Gibb, who framed it, went bankrupt and out of business last year. Fisher had nothing that would do. Picture mouldings, for some reason I’ve never been able to understand, mysteriously disappear every now and then. Or so I’ve found: or else I’m talking a lot of damn rubbish. However, I’ll have another go at Fisher – next time I’m buying a lot of stuff. Then he may be eager to please.’12 It is quite possible this refers to the portrait of Stapp because on the back of the picture is a sticker from Fisher & Son, Fine Arts Dealers, Christchurch, suggesting that Bensemann had
LB to Lawlor, 16 September 1937, quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 21 LB to Les Stapp, 7 November 1939
arranged for the damaged frame to be replaced as he mentions in the letter. As for the painting itself, the subject is a man in his forties or fifties wearing an open-necked white shirt and black jacket. His hair is dark, greying at the sideburns and somewhat thinning on top. His features are strongly delineated, with black eyebrows, pale blue eyes, a squarish face with somewhat heavy jowls and a
prominent dimple in his chin. He is depicted against a dark green background which merges into black on the right hand side. There is a vivid strip of dark pink, probably a drape, extending down the left hand side of the picture, bringing a welcome touch of colour to the otherwise rather sombre colouring of the piece.
Huntsman Oil on board, 288 x 190mm, 1938
Huntsman, a small but very striking work painted on board, was first exhibited under that title at the 1938 Group Show, the first in which Bensemann’s work was included. Although the painting is not signed or dated, a preliminary drawing in pencil which closely resembles the finished work is signed LEO BENSEMANN and dated MCMXXXVIII (1938). This drawing is reproduced in Otto, Portraits, p. 48.13 The figure of the Huntsman appears against a background of spiky white pinnacles looking as if they are made of marble or alabaster. In some respects this weird landscape anticipates Bensemann’s marble and limestone Takaka landscapes of the 1970s and 1980s. The bright blue background reads as sky but has no distinguishing features such as clouds; it could just as well be a backdrop in a theatre. On the right an owl with a distinctive blue head and tail feathers, and a large yellow eye perches in a delicately depicted tree. The owl is a recurrent figure in Bensemann’s graphic art; for example, they appear in two of the Fantastica drawings, Faustus I and The Arabian Nights. The owl is also central to Bensemann’s first bookplate drawing for himself (other elements in the drawing are a candle, a snake and a severed arm), which suggests that to some degree the owl is a sign of the artist himself. The owl also connotes wisdom, all-seeing prophecy, night and (sometimes) death. Turning to the figure of the huntsman, the first thing to note is the general oddity and weirdness
of the figure and how it is presented. As regards clothing, he appears to be wearing a dark brown shaggy garment, doubtless made from an animal skin, and a peaked orange cap, which has in it a feather-like decoration, possibly a thorny branch. It is hard to tell whether the distinctive brown shapes which comes down on both sides of the head like ear flaps are part of his outfit or purely decorative – part of the picture rather than part of the huntsman’s garment. The dark blue piece attaching to this brown shape is either purely abstract, or if ‘realist’ some sort of veil or hanging piece (as if to keep weather off the back). Also part of the picture is the stone or metal head of a spear, being held by the huntsman and resting against his shoulder. Several features of the huntsman’s facial features are noteworthy; he has large pale blue eyes, with no eyelashes and peculiar truncated eyebrows that look as if they have been aggressively plucked. The full lips are rosy pink. The colour of the skin appears grey and lifeless. The prominent lines on the neck are really peculiar – almost like the lineaments of the lower part of a naked body seen from the back. The figure is vaguely disturbing – the expression is neutral but and overall effect is disconcerting. The huntsman is a familiar figure in folklore, especially German folklore. For instance, a huntsman appears in several of the stories collected by the Grimm Brothers. In Snow White, it is a huntsman who is ordered by the Evil Queen to take Snow White into the woods
Hunstman was reproduced in A Second Book of Leo Bensemann’s Work (Caxton, 1952) and on the cover of Landfall 157 (March 1986); see also Simpson, Fantastica, p. 25
and kill her; instead he falls in love with her and allows her to escape. The Skilful Huntsman tells of a young locksmith who learns the art of hunting from an old hunter and uses his skills to defeat three giants and win the hand of a beautiful princess. Then there are The Twelve Huntsmen, who are really girls dressed as men, who accompany the king on his hunting forays, one of whom marries the king after he recognises her as his spurned fiancé. It is possible, too, that Bensemann
had in mind the huntsman element in the plot of Carl Maria von Weber’s opera Der Freischütz (1821) with its famous hunting scene set in the Wolf’s Glen. Whatever his source, Bensemann’s Huntsman is a perfect example of the Fantastica mode being applied to oil painting. It is a powerful and unforgettably distinctive work. This work was included in Leo Bensemann: A Fantastic Art Venture at Christchurch Art gallery in February 2011.
Lawrence Baigent Oil on canvas, 493 x 442mm, 1938
Lawrence Baigent was Leo’s closest friend for sixty years, from 1925 when they first met as first year pupils at Nelson College to 1985 the year in which they both died, aged 73. In her comprehensive catalogue of Bensemann’s portraits, Portraits, Masks & Fantasy Figures, his daughter Caroline Otto reproduces no fewer than eleven portraits in oils by Leo of Lawrence, painted between about 1935 (several early portraits are not dated) and 1948. Is there any precedent for so many paintings by an artist of another person (excluding selfportraits) in New Zealand (or anywhere else for that matter)? The earliest such portrait was exhibited at the Suter Gallery in 1936; the earliest dated one is 1937, while other portraits of Lawrence were exhibited at Group Shows in 1938, 1940 and 1948. In addition to the oil portraits of Baigent his image appears in several other media dating from 1933 including bookplates (two), caricatures (three) and pencil studies (one). Lawrence and Leo lived in the same street in Nelson, Grove Street, in the area known as The Wood, close to the Maitai River. Leo and Lawrence both attended Nelson College for 6 years between 1925 and 1930 though they were seldom if ever in the same class. Lawrence was injured in the 1929 Murchison earthquake which badly damaged the school, and their friendship deepened as Leo frequently visited Lawrence during his convalescence. Leo was a welcome visitor in Lawrence’s cultivated home where he lived alone with his widowed mother (his father had died
before Lawrence was born). Leo, who had performed poorly at school, made up for lost time by immersing himself in literature, art and music at the Baigents’ house. Lawrence was a gifted musician, poet and intellectual and acted as something of an intellectual and artistic mentor to Leo. When Lawrence’s mother decided to move to Christchurch in 1931 to provide a home for Lawrence while he attended Canterbury University College she generously invited Leo (who couldn’t get a job In Nelson and was at a loose end) to live with them in a succession of Christchurch flats including Bealey Avenue and Hewitts Road. Lawrence introduced Leo to his university friends such as Denis Glover, Ian Milner, Charles Spear and Basil Dowling, which led to Leo’s work appearing in a number of university publications such as the C.U.C. Review and Oriflamme, the first publication of the Caxton Club Press. When Caxton Press was set up by Glover and John Drew as a commercial printer and publisher in 1935 a frontispiece by Leo was included in their first publication, Another Argo; the relationship was continued a year or two later in Bensemann’s remarkable Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings, published by Caxton in 1937. Soon afterwards Leo joined the staff of the Caxton Press as a partner with Glover and Drew. He remained with the firm for 40 years, much longer than the original founders. When Mrs Baigent died in 1937 Leo and Lawrence continued flatting together, and in 1938 moved into 97 Cambridge Terrace where they
Lawrence Baigent Oil on canvas, 493 x 442mm, 1938
shared facilities with their close friend Rita Angus. Lawrence and Leo remained living at Cambridge Terrace until 1943 when Leo married Mary Barrett and set up house with her on Huntsbury Hill. Lawrence and Leo remained close after Leo’s marriage and Lawrence became a great friend of the whole Bensemann family. In later life Lawrence taught for many years in the English Department at the University of Canterbury; he was especially noted for his lectures on Shakespeare and drama generally. Of Leo’s eleven oil portraits of Lawrence, only a few are signed and dated (namely those of 1937, 1940 and 1948). The one included in this exhibition is dated but not signed. Stretching right across the top of the painting in large Roman lettering appears the inscription LAWRENCE BAIGENT MCMXXXVIII. Lettering on this scale is completely unprecedented in Bensemann’s work. A self-portrait dating from the same year is also signed and dated in Roman numerals in the top right hand corner, though the letters and numbers are much smaller than in the Baigent portrait (see Otto, Portraits, p. 58, Simpson, Fantastica, p. 47). This device is sometimes seen in Renaissance portraits as for example in Albrecht
Dürer’s portraits of Elsbeth Tucher and Oswolt Krel (both 1499). It is also seen in Manet’s version (1854) of Tintoretto’s self-portrait as an old man in the Louvre.14 Presumably the unusually prominent lettering, as in some of Colin McCahon’s paintings, becomes part of the picture rather than its mere title and date and is intended to mark the significance and importance of the painting to the artist. Baigent is depicted against a smoothly painted green-blue background without expressive markings of any sort. The subject is shown wearing a brown jacket with a handkerchief in the breast pocket, and a roll top red sweater. The handsome young man (26 at the time) is shown frontally – a pose used in only one other of the portraits of Baigent – with wavy black hair, brown eyes and a serious direct gaze, suggesting high intelligence and a rich inner life. It is one of the most polished and resolved of Bensemann’s portraits of him. When this work was exhibited at the 1938 Group it was singled out by the Press reviewer for its ‘smooth colour and fine gradations of tone’.15 . This work was included in Leo Bensemann: A Fantastic Art Venture at Christchurch Art Gallery in February 2011.
In Tintoretto’s original the name in Latin was removed by later restoration.
Quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 63
Hugh Cato Oil on canvas, 455 x 370mm, 1939
Hugh Cato was an English-born Christchurch businessman who was at one stage manager of Cato Motors in the city. How Bensemann met him is unknown but it is probable that the portrait was a commission, possibly as a result of his seeing portraits by Bensemann at CSA or Group Show exhibitions. Bensemann’s portrait was exhibited at the Group in 1940 as Hugh Cato Esq. along with portraits of Faye Pearless, Lawrence Baigent and Caroline Oliver. The Press reviewer praised these portraits as being ‘pleasing as colour-patterns and for their insight into character’.16 Perhaps the portrait did not meet with Mr Cato’s approval as Bensemann seems to have retained it in his own collection. He obviously valued the work, however, as it was included later in a couple of exhibitions – at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1960 as part of an exhibition called The New Zealand Realist Tradition, and again at Bensemann’s Retrospective Exhibition at Rue Pompallier Gallery, Akaroa, in 1972. There is a photograph of Bensemann working at this portrait holding a traditional kidney-shaped artist’s palette in his hand and wearing an embroided artist’s smock, apparently made for him by Rita Angus. The painting is attached to an easel that was made for Bensemann by his school friend Ray Gilbert.17 It is probably this portrait that Bensemann refers to in a letter to Gilbert thanking him for making the easel: ‘I am working on a new portrait which I started against my better judgment but which has turned out well – largely due to the easel I suspect. However, as it’s the first thing I’ve painted on it I consider it all very auspicious.”18 Perhaps Bensemann was dubious about the portrait because he did not know the subject, a rare circumstance for him as he usually painted only close friends or family members. The subject is strongly characterised with his piercing green eyes, bald head, definite features and self-confident verging on haughty expression. There is a family story that Bensemann provocatively painted Cato with a red tie which has of course left-wing connotations and which presumably did not rest easy with the self-assured business man. The crazed effect visible in the background of the picture appears to be the result of aging rather than a deliberate effect, though it is confined to the background and is not anywhere apparent on the figure itself.
Quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 70 See the photograph in Otto, Portraits, p. 67 and Simpson, Fantastica, p. 70 Quoted in Otto, Portraits, p. 66
16 17 18
Canterbury Landscape Oil on canvas on board, 210 x 287mm, 1944
II The Forties and Fifties Apart from some early Japaneseinfluenced watercolour landscapes belonging to the years 1933-37, Bensemann painted no landscapes before this exquisite tiny oil painting of 1944. Admittedly some of his early portraits had landscape backgrounds but this was his first straight landscape in oils. What makes this noteworthy is that his fellow Group members, including Angus, Henderson, Spencer Bower, Woollaston, Lusk, McCahon and co. all painted landscapes regularly. Group Shows were overwhelmingly dominated by landscape paintings. In avoiding landscapes altogether (at least until 1945 when this work was exhibited at The Group), Bensemann deliberately set himself apart from his fellow Group members. In January 1944 Bensemann wrote to his friend W.H. Allen (the art teacher at Nelson College) whom Bensemann knew through their common interest in folk dancing: ‘You will be pleased to hear I’ve begun a small landscape – rather a rummy little composition involving concrete posts against a stormy sky. I saw it on the way down and made a tremendous effort to memorise the essentials. It was worth doing it as I’ve had a great deal of pleasure out of the doing of it and it’s a relief not to have to worry about whether
the mouth’s right.’19 It is possible that in making this workvBensemann was to some degree influenced by Grant Wood the American Scene painter with whose work he was familiar in reproduction. I recall that when Bensemann showed me this work in 1984 he turned it upside down and said words to the effect of ‘See, it looks just as good this way up’. The point he was making was that the work despite its small size has an underlying structural coherence, a characteristic of all the landscapes Bensemann was to paint subsequently. Having so long avoided the conventions of ‘regional realism’ as practised by his fellow Group artists, Bensemann showed himself in this work to be an immediate master of the mode. The painting, which was reproduced in the first Yearbook of the Arts in New Zealand in 1945, is an economical assemblage of regional signs – the curving road, the fence, the road sign, the magpies, the power poles, the hill-sides, the pine trees, the barn, the stormy sky. Given its mastery it is surprising that he repeated the exercise so seldom over the next fifteen years. It was not until 1961 that landscapes became a regular feature of his output.
LB to W.H. Allen, January 1944, quoted in Otto, Landscapes & Studies (Nikau Press, 2006), p. 22; see also Simpson, Fantastica, pp. 71-73
Self-portrait Oil on canvas, 510 x 392mm, c. mid 1950s
In 1949 Bensemann wrote to his friend the composer Douglas Lilburn: ‘my 433rd self-portrait is not to be sneezed at’20. His ironic tone alludes to his fondness for the self-portrait as a genre. In Caroline Otto’s Portraits, eleven such self-portraits in oils are reproduced and there are several others (at least five) in pencil. These extend right throughout his career from 1932 to 1981 – a full half-century of self-representation.21 Among the works exhibited in this auction two self-portraits are included, one from the 1950s (when Bensemann was in his forties) and one from the 1970s (when he was in his sixties). Neither work is signed or dated. During the 1950s Bensemann exhibited selfportraits twice, at Group Shows in 1953 and 1958. It is impossible now to identify with certainty which these works were, but in all likelihood the one included here was shown in 1958 (see Simpson, Fantastica, p. 82). In three self-portraits of the 1950’s, all showing Bensemann smoking a pipe,22 the backgrounds to the figure are abstract and gestural in style, in two cases combining red, blue and yellow, while in the other (the work shown here) the background is predominantly shades of blue, with some touches of brown. This abstract background, providing a loose frame for the head, is somewhat reminiscent of the background to a 1917 self-portrait by the Austrian expressionist Oskar Kokoschka, not normally an artist one would associate with Bensemann. In this work Bensemann depicts himself wearing a dark brown jacket, very sketchily painted, with a red open-necked shirt. Though the placement of the figure is frontal it is orientated somewhat to the diagonal, creating a dynamic effect. The blue-black hair and distinctively joined-up and irregularly shaped eyebrows are the most dominant features. The face is vigorously modelled, while the complexion of the full-faced figure is ruddy and warm, with the colour of the lips harmonising with the red shirt. In this painting the artist honestly confronts the realities of middle-age: the bulky torso, the somewhat fleshy face with an incipient double chin. The expression, however, is calm and resolute, as compared to the troubled demeanour of the strikingly handsome person seen in the self-portraits of twenty years earlier.
LB to Douglas Lilburn, 8 April 1949, quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 79 For the earliest and latest of these, see Simpson, Fantastica, pp. 13, 198 22 All three works are reproduced in Otto, Portraits, pp. 86-87, as is the photograph on which they were based 20 21
Untitled Landscape (Lake Coleridge, Canterbury) Oil on board, 595 x 782mm, 1962
III Later Works: The Sixties and Seventies In 1961, after a fairly lean period in the later 1950s (only six works were shown in Group Shows between 1955 and 1959), Bensemann turned vigorously to painting again with a Four Seasons suite of Canterbury landscapes (Group Show, 1961). This proved to mark a decisive turning point in his work. Up to 1960 he had exhibited landscapes very infrequently (only six in Group Shows between 1938 and 1960); but from 1961 landscapes became the predominant genre in his exhibitions. There were 39 landscapes in Group Shows between 1961 and 1977 (as compared to 11 works in other genres), with a further 50 or so landscapes in his solo exhibitions of 1972, 1979, 1981 and 1983). This new development was remarked on in a letter to Lilburn in 1960: ‘have been out on the hills a lot painting – alas, all hopeless but something may boil out of it’.23 Some of these painting excursions were shared with fellow-Group member and close friend Doris Lusk, including trips to Central Otago, the West Coast and Nelson as well as Banks Peninsula and inland Canterbury. It is possible that Untitled landscape (Lake Coleridge), came out of such an excursion. Lake Coleridge is about 100km from Christchurch, relatively close to Mt Hutt and Methven. The painting is similar in view to a photograph taken by Bensemann in 1962 of a large hill rising steeply from the edge of the lake.24 The composition is fairly simple. The foreground is dominated a stretch of water, variously coloured but predominantly blue. The upper part of the painting is largely taken up with the tawny yellow-brown hill with rugged bluffs on one side and sweeping curves on the other, while other hills and snow-covered mountains are visible in the distance; the sky has a wintrylooking pallor. This painting has not been previously exhibited.
LB to DGL, 14 July 1960, quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 123
See Otto, Landscapes, p. 32
Untitled Landscape (East Road, Takaka), Oil on board, 612 x 840mm, c. 1965-66
After painting landscapes in Canterbury, Central Otago and the West Coast between 1961 and 1964, Bensemann first went to Takaka and Golden Bay for a painting excursion in the summer of 1965. This proved to be an important trip because the Takaka/ Golden Bay region thereafter became his most frequently painted subject. Takaka was, of course, where he was born and spent his childhood, which must have had something to do with the grip it exerted on his imagination. He told Charles Brasch, after this trip: ‘I worked through until Jan 8 and then went up to Takaka with Doris for a week – very beautiful and we both did a lot of painting most of which is promising. In spite of the shortness of the visit it was, I think, the most fruitful trip we have made.’25 In the Group Shows for 1965 and 1966 Bensemann exhibited seven landscape paintings of Takaka/Golden Bay locations. Although the present work is not dated, in all likelihood it was painted either on the 1965 trip or the following year. In particular, it shares stylistic similarities with Towards Collingwood (1965) and Road to Collingwood (1966), which also feature roads snaking through the landscape and providing pathways for the viewer’s eye to follow.26 The work is untitled but it definitely shows the old East Road which hugs the river flats and steep hillsides on the eastern side of the steep-walled Takaka Valley, a setting readily identifiable to those who know the area.27 The sinuously curving road leads the viewer’s eye into the heart of the painting, the top half of which is dominated by the same (though differently coloured) rhythmical and repetitive hillsides that Colin McCahon captured in his well-known Takaka: Night and Day (1948). As often in Bensemann’s Takaka paintings, the sky is filled with billowing rain clouds, echoing the grey of the gravel road. This painting has not previously been exhibited.
LB to CB, 3 February, 1965, quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 133 See Otto, Landscapes, pp. 40-42 27 I grew up on a farm on this very road just a few kilometres south of this location (which looks north towards Golden Bay). 25 26
Untitled Landscape (Kaikoura) Oil on board, 573 x 730mm, c. late 1960s
Undated, unsigned, untitled and not previously exhibited, this painting of the coastline north of Kaikoura, a seaside town on the east coast of the South island about 180 kms north of Christchurch, cannot be dated with certainty, but on stylistic grounds can probably assigned to the late 1960s.28 It is the only landscape Bensemann painted of this particular stretch of country. From an elevated viewpoint he shows the view across the sweeping curves of the bay to the snow-covered Seaward Kaikoura mountains whose lower slopes are hidden by clustering rain clouds, a landscape feature Bensemann took particular delight in depicting.
See Otto, Landscapes, p. 67
Untitled Landscape (Central Otago Gold Diggings, St Bathans)
Oil on board, 484 x 717mm, c. 1966
Bensemann made several painting trips to Central Otago in the 1960s and 1970s. Dates on paintings and letters to friends enable one to identify trips in 1962, 1966 and 1979 in particular. Since the painting St Bathans was exhibited at the Group Show in 1966 and other Central Otago paintings are also dated that year it is probable that this painting which also relates to the St Bathans area was painted or at least started on the same trip. Bensemann was fascinated with the stark and devastated landforms left behind by invasive gold-mining activities. In this instance the untidy detritus of metal abandoned by the miners implies a conservationist message, though Bensemannâ€™s painterâ€™s eye was attracted to these denuded landforms, perhaps because they reminded him of the bare rock backgrounds so loved by Italian Renaissance painters such as Giotto, Bellini and Gozzoli. Coincidentally, Doris Lusk also painted the industrial debris left by departed miners in Central Otago in a painting dating from the 1940s. This painting was not exhibited in Bensemannâ€™s life time.
Unknown Westerwald Oil on board, 590 x 420, 1971
Bensemann was proud of his German ancestry (he spoke and read the language from childhood) and he greatly enjoyed his two visits to Germany in 1970 and 1979 to visit his daughter Caroline who had settled there. He did few paintings while he was actually present in Germany but drew on the experiences of his travels for paintings done after his return. This painting is one of several imaginary portraits made in 1971 after his return from Germany, three of which (including this one) were included in his Retrospective Exhibition held at Rue Pompallier Gallery, Akaroa, in March-April 1972.29 In February 1971 Bensemann wrote to Caroline: ‘…And it also happens that I began a very satisfactory “Imaginäres Porträt” this afternoon (in oil) and there’s nothing like a little good painting to improve one’s outlook. I intend to do a number of these as I rashly promised to put on a small show in Akaroa later in the year.’30
stayed (when he wasn’t travelling to other places) during his 1970 trip. The green background to the portrait possibly signifies abstractly this forest setting. The head is surrounded by a kind of halo effect, as if the young woman were silhouetted against the opening to a cave. The treatment of the head and torso is highly stylised, the facial features, neck and shoulders being outlined in black. The blonde hair of the woman closely hugs her face and her neck is elegantly slender. Her plain blue-green garment is enlivened by a circular black pendant of intricate and probably Celtic design. This may allude to the fact that there was an archaic Celtic settlement located in the Westerwald region. Perhaps Bensemann was interested in this aspect of Germany because he inherited Celtic ethnicity also from his Irish/English mother’s side of the family, a connection that recurs in the two Alemann paintings.
Westerwald is a forested mountainous area of Germany close to the town of Limburg on the Lahn River where Bensemann
The other imaginary portraits were Unknown Nürnberg and Unknown Frankfurt/Main (both 1971); see Otto, Portraits, p. 101-02 30 Quoted in Otto, Portraits, p. 101 and Simpson, Fantastica, p. 138
The Egyptian Woman Oil on board, 605x 425, 1972
From the 1930s Bensemann had admired the encaustic (wax) paintings known as fayum or mummy portraits, dating from the period of Roman occupation of Egypt, around 100BC. These small portraits on wooden panels were attached to the heads of mummified bodies before burial. Bensemann was excited to discover some examples in Germany, as he wrote in a letter to his wife Mary from Würzburg: ‘There is a very big collection of Greek, Etruscan and Roman work in the Residenz, beautifully displayed in big, white vaulted rooms. I came across another Egyptian portrait of a young woman done in wood – a wax painting which looks exactly like oil. I couldn’t go past it. The colour is brilliant and in perfect condition and this and the one I saw in München [Munich] are two of the finest and most moving paintings I have ever seen’.31 Back in New Zealand, Bensemann made a painting inspired by this wax mummy painting.
He wrote to Caroline: ‘Do you remember the Egyptian painting of the girl that we saw in the Residenz at Würzburg? This is her sister and I exhibited it unfinished in the Group Show  recently and gave it the title “The Egyptian Girl whose sister lives in Würzburg” – which pleased me in a funny sort of way…’ The origins of the painting in Egyptian funerary art are suggested by the coffin shape with which the figure is framed. Bensemann has made no attempt to copy the original work (a postcard of which he sent to his wife), though he has reproduced the strong colouring of the original (especially in the brilliant orange background) and has attempted to replicate an archaic physiognomy in the distinctive features of the woman with her dark, tied-back hair, striking eyes, tiny mouth and elongated neck.
Self-portrait Oil on board, 613 x 623, c. 1975
This important painting, the last of Bensemann’s many self-portraits in oil, is neither signed nor dated and somewhat surprisingly was never exhibited. From his appearance the painting can probably be dated to the mid-seventies when Bensemann was in his sixties (he was 63 in 1975). Perhaps the most striking feature of the painting is his placement of the figure within the Golden Bay landscape which Bensemann had been painting regularly for since 1965. The epicentre of his painting activities in the region was Ligar Bay where the Bensemann family regularly holidayed. Ligar Bay is a cove of golden sand on the south-eastern shoreline of Golden Bay about 12kms north-east of Takaka, and a couple of kms beyond Tarakohe, formerly the site of a large cement works. On the bluff between Tarakohe and Ligar Bay is the tall white monument to Abel Tasman, who famously visited these shores in 1642. Just north of Ligar Bay is Tata Beach, the strip of golden sand visible in the painting, with the Tata Islands off the point that leads to Wainui Bay and beyond that to the Able Tasman National Park. By posing himself in front of this landscape Bensemann intends to declare his love for it and his identity with it, a connection reinforced by childhood memories and adult preference. To quote just one statement in confirmation of this point, Bensemann wrote to a friend from Germany in 1970: ‘Somebody
said Salzburg and the surrounding countryside is one of the most beautiful in the world and it wouldn’t be far wrong if they never hear of Golden Bay’.32 There is a jewel-like intensity of colour in the blue seas, green hills, golden sand and white clouds, the last named rhyming with the white shirt collar which is set off by the dense black of the jersey he is wearing; the same black and white combination is also present in his greying hair. The noble head is shown in profile, the lines of brow and nose echoing those in the profiles of the hillsides, while the curve of the back of the head sweetly echoes that of the sandy beach. In his beautifully rendered left hand Bensemann carries a reddish-coloured branch, stripped bare of leaves. This visually striking detail lends itself to a variety of interpretations. It could, for instance, be seen as a kind of surrogate paint brush, thus establishing the picture as a statement of vocation. Different viewers will no doubt have their own theories as to what this detail signifies; however it is read it undoubtedly adds that necessary touch of magic or mystery, to borrow a phrase of Allen Curnow’s, which makes this self-portrait so compelling. The painting was included in Leo Bensemann: A Fantastic Art Venture at Christchurch Art Gallery, February 2011.
LB to Dave Cookson, 14 August 1970, quoted in Simpson, Fantastica, p. 137-38
The Alemann Juggler
Oil on canvas on board, 495 x 390, 1979
These two paintings, so unusual in the context of Bensemann’s oeuvre in that their imagery and even their genre is unique, are best considered together as they are self-evidently twin productions, both being painted in the same year (1979) and both exhibited side by side as numbers 16 and 17 in Bensemann’s solo exhibition shown at the Brooke-Gifford Gallery, Christchurch, in 1979.33
See Otto, Portraits, p. 113
A clue to the provenance of the imagery in these paintings is Caroline Otto’s remark that they were ‘inspired by a book on the Celts as I remember Leo mentioning this at the time.’ As was mentioned above in relation to Unknown Westerwald, Bensemann was interested in the ancient Alemann (sometimes known as Alamannia, compare ‘Allemagne’, the French word for Germany) Celtic
Oil on canvas on board, 499 x 395, 1979
civilisation of Germany the core from which the Celts spread over most of the continent of Europe. Although I have not been able to trace the particular book from which Bensemann derived these images of a juggler and dancers within a circular format, any exploration of Celtic design motifs soon reveals their liking for intricate patterns contained within circular formats (compare, for
instance, the pendant in Unknown Westerwald). As a book designer and illustrator Bensemann could turn his unparalleled graphic skills to any subject matter as required by the context. These bright and lively works show these graphic skills being adapted for the purpose of a pair of unusual and vivid paintings.
River Flat Oil on board, 395 x 510, 1979
Although River Flat lacks the locational markers in the title common to most of Bensemann’s titled landscapes, it is undoubtedly a Takaka Valley painting as the distinctive hill forms recur in several other works, including the two entitled East Takaka: 1969 and 1979.34 The central ‘hog back’ ridge in particular is so distinctive it is readily recognisable. A number of features render this particular painting unique, however. The first is the striking variety of colour in the hill forms: yellow-brown, yellowgreen and blue green. Generally speaking, Bensemann opts for a single dominant colour in his hill landscapes. The second is the presence of the hay-shed in the right foreground. Normally, like Colin McCahon (and unlike, say, Doris Lusk), Bensemann strips his landscapes of most signs of the human. There are exceptions, such as the road in Untitled (East Road, Takaka) discussed above, or the miniscule houses visible in Burning Hills, Takaka (1973) or Morning, Takaka (1977), 35 but this substantial shed with its rusted corrugated iron roof and the hay spilling out its door is most unusual (though note the presence of a barn in Canterbury Landscape, 1944). The third unusual feature is the presence of kahikatea (white pine) on the river flat; I know of no other painting in which these trees are depicted. Also visible are a few of the totara trees which are common in Bensemann’s Takaka paintings, such as the East Takaka paintings mentioned earlier. River Flat, first exhibited in Bensemann’s 1979 exhibition at Brooke Gifford Gallery is a beautifully composed and well-integrated painting, its variable colour and homely hay-shed making it somewhat less formidable and monumental than the more typical renditions of Takaka scenes that so richly characterise the latter part of his distinguished career.
See Otto, Landscapes, pp. 55, 91, 93 See Simpson, Fantastica, pp. 151, 165
Rita Angus ( neeâ€™ Cook ) Portait and Poppies Pencil on paper, Sign and dated 10/6/39 , 280 x 205mm
Rita Angus Portait of Lawrence Baigent c1938
Pencil on paper, 335 x 265mm