Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (AUP, NZ$75), by Peter Simpson, gives deserved attention to Leo Bensemann’s wide-ranging artistic career. Most New Zealanders will be familiar with Bensemann’s more famous colleagues and friends such as Rita Angus, Douglas Lilburn, and Denis Glover. The book offers some insight as to why Bensemann’s work and career may have missed the same consideration his peers’ work received.
Bensemann’s early graphic artwork from the 1930s, including his series Fantastica, seems particularly innovative, dark, and unique, drawing on international influences, and in that way stood as an interesting force on the periphery of the New Zealand art scene with its strong sense of nationalism at the time. Bensemann as an artist would later shift his attention to oil portraits and landscapes. As author Peter Simpson notes, one of the main reasons Bensemann has received less recognition than he might have, is because he took on styles when they were considered to have become outdated and unpopular. As landscapes became less of a prominent fixture in the New Zealand art scene after 1960 and abstraction began to dominate, Bensemann took up landscape painting in earnest and would dedicate himself to the task for the next twenty-five or so years. It is suggested that Bensemann neither did this intentionally or unintentionally, but was not swayed by trends; they just did not figure in his thinking.
Another reason for Bensemann’s relative anonymity and an interesting aspect of his life is his behind-the-scenes role as a printer. At times, due to Glover’s unreliability, Bensemann managed the Caxton Press and its output almost single-handedly, his roles including design, production, printing, and editing. Bensemann had a great interest in fonts, a strong work ethic, and a keen eye for detail. Some stand-out covers by Bensemann feature, including his designs for M. H. Holcroft’s Encircling Seas and James K. Baxter’s The Fallen House. Through Caxton, Bensemann was also heavily involved in New Zealand’s now oldest literary journal Landfall, and was responsible for introducing the concept of a freshly designed cover for each issue rather than using a template, creating the unique covers from 1949 until 1962 himself, at which point other artists began to provide new covers.
Simpson writes in clear uncluttered prose, however the generous detail on Bensemann’s multi-faceted career is likely to appeal more to those already interested in Bensemann’s work or to be used as an academic source, rather than draw in new and curious readers. A chapter on the Caxton Press years of Bensemann’s life in particular seems heavy with detail, and is then followed by a chapter on the various literary journals Bensemann was involved with over the same period. Peter Simpson is clearly an avid, knowledgeable, and passionate author for Bensemann, but at time he offers too much, both in terms of content and also his suggested interpretations of particular Bensemann pieces, where it might be better to leave more freedom for the reader. A good example of this is Gregory O’Brien’s recent publication, A Micronaut in the Wide World: The Imaginative Life and Times of Graham Percy, which set out with goals very similar to Simpson’s, only the writing is deceptively light in O’Brien’s book, detail is carefully selected. and the book is ordered so as to not weigh a reader down. There is also a lot of space in the structure for the reader to fill the gaps themselves.
Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann is filled with many beautiful colour reproductions of Bensemann’s work and its pages tell of Bensemann’s energy and heartfelt dedication to his art. Valuably, the book is a definitive account of Bensemann’s career, but it may falter in its attempt to shine a light on one of New Zealand’s most critically neglected artists by not easily luring in newly appreciative followers, which is a shame because Simpson is right in his thinking that Bensemann’s work and career is very deserving of such attention.