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“Great New Zealander” Celebrated in New Book

Auckland University Press
For immediate release
10 February 2011

“Great New Zealander” Celebrated in New Book

Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann by Peter Simpson

“Great New Zealander”, artist, book designer, typographer and cultural figure Leo Bensemann is celebrated in Fantastica: The World of Leo Bensemann (Auckland University Press), a new book on his life and work that was launched last night in Christchurch in conjunction with the opening of an exhibition of his work.

Author and art curator Peter Simpson said at the Auckland launch earlier this week, “Leo Bensemann is a great New Zealander, and an artist so different from the kinds we have celebrated in the past that to take his proper measure the history of art in New Zealand will need to be somewhat rewritten.”

Simpson said there is, perhaps, more of him personally in this book on Leo Bensemann than in his previous books. There are parallels in their Takaka births, Nelson College educations and Cantabrian young adulthoods. But it also has “something to do with Leo’s straddling the worlds of art and literature, a balancing act that has also become a feature of my life as a writer.”

“And Leo presented me with a great subject. A major artist revered by his famous contemporaries and friends – Angus, Baigent, Glover, Brasch, Lilburn, Lusk and co – but hardly known outside Christchurch. I feel fairly confident that after this book and the accompanying exhibition that accompanies it Leo will take his rightful place among those luminaries whose names I mentioned as a key figure in our art and culture.”

Fantastica is the first book to survey the life and work of Leo Bensemann (1912–1986). Accomplished in a multitude of fields – drawing, painting, print-making, music, calligraphy, typography, book design, editing, printing, publishing – Bensemann stood at the heart of New Zealand’s literary and cultural life from the 1930s to the 1980s as designer and illustrator at the Caxton Press, member of The Group and friend of Charles Brasch, Rita Angus, Douglas Lilburn, Lawrence Baigent, Denis Glover and Doris Lusk.

At a time when Christchurch was the leading centre in New Zealand for literature, theatre, music and the visual arts, Bensemann, through his own activities and his personal and professional relationships, was in the thick of it.

Fantastica provides new insight into that cultural scene and reveals the depth of Bensemann’s work. His art and design — witty, mysterious, highly literate and allusive, fantastical in style and subject — contrasted dramatically with the prevailing fashion for realism and regional landscape, establishing Bensemann as a challenging outsider within New Zealand art. Later, from the 1960s, Bensemann took up landscape painting, producing increasingly powerful and distinctive paintings of South Island scenes, especially of the Takaka/Golden Bay area where he grew up.

A magnificent distillation of thirty years of research, Fantastica invites us into the world of Leo Bensemann and provides a new window into the art and culture of twentieth-century New Zealand.

About the Author, Peter Simpson
Peter Simpson was born in Takaka in 1942 and educated at Nelson College, the University of Canterbury (MA, Hons) and the University of Toronto (PhD). A writer, curator and editor, he is the Director of Holloway Press at the University of Auckland where formerly he was Associate Professor and Head of English. He has written and/or edited more than a dozen books, including Ronald Hugh Morrieson (1982); Look Back Harder: Critical Writings 1935–1984 by Allan Curnow (1987); Selected Poems by Kendrick Smithyman (1989); Answering Hark: McCahon/Caselberg: Painter/Poet (2001); Colin McCahon: The Titirangi Years 1953–59 (2007); Peter Peryer, Photographer (2009); and two volumes of Bensemann’s graphic work: Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings (1997) and Engravings on Wood (2004).

About the Exhibition “Leo Bensemann: A Fantastic Art Adventure”
“Leo Bensemann: A Fantastic Art Adventure” (Christchurch City Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch, 11 February–15 May 2011) is a comprehensive retrospective of the work of this influential artist and designer, who was at the centre of a dynamic revival in New Zealand art in the mid-twentieth century..

“A painter of portraits and landscapes, Bensemann (1912–1986) is equally well known for his significant contribution to New Zealand graphic design and typography through his work with Christchurch's The Caxton Press. Bensemann was a colourful individual and iconoclast who was at the centre of a dynamic and broad-ranging artistic revival in New Zealand from the 1930s to the 1950s. Through his work at Caxton Press and with The Group, Bensemann provided an important connection between writers and artists and was closely associated with major figures such as artist Rita Angus, poet Denis Glover and composer Douglas Lilburn.”


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