Peter Simpson on Leo Bensemann

By April 5, 2017News
leo bensemann
leo bensemann

Coincidentally, the three works by Leo Bensemann (1912–1986) included in this catalogue span almost the whole of his 50-year-plus career from the 1930s to the 1980s. The two early works – Self-Portrait and Lawrence Baigent are portraits, while Te Tara-o-te-Rakitiaia (Summit Road Peak and Southern Alps) (1985), one of his very last, is a landscape. This is significant because, broadly speaking, early on, Bensemann was largely a portrait painter who turned to landscape only much later. His career might be described as a ‘game of two halves’ – mostly portraits in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, and landscapes in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

To put some flesh on the bones of this sweeping generalisation, in the early 1930s, Bensemann had painted exquisite, Japanese-influenced landscapes in watercolour but he dropped this activity once he took up portraiture in oils around 1935. Apart from a few stray examples, he avoided landscape painting until the 1960s and this set him apart from his contemporaries in The Group (which he joined in 1938) such as Olivia Spencer Bower, Rita Angus, Toss Woollaston and others, all of whom regularly exhibited landscapes. When he did resume landscape painting later, partly through his close association with Doris Lusk, who accompanied him on painting trips throughout the South Island, he did not entirely relinquish portraiture but continued producing occasional outstanding portraits to the end of his life.

Bensemann’s early development as a portraitist is bound up with his lifelong friendship with Lawrence Baigent. They lived in the same street in Nelson, attended Nelson College and moved to Christchurch together in 1931: Baigent to attend university, Bensemann to a long spell of art-making and unemployment in those Depression years. When Baigent’s mother (who provided a home for both) died in 1937, they continued flatting together, moving in early 1938 (the year Bensemann jointed Caxton Press as a printer) to a studio flat at 97 Cambridge Terrace where they shared facilities with Rita Angus, who was already in residence. Portraiture flourished in that intimate environment with Angus and Bensemann painting each other, themselves and Baigent on numerous occasions. The two men continued living there until Bensemann’s marriage in 1943.

Bensemann seldom dated his early portraits, including these two. Nevertheless, it is probable that his moodily handsome Self-Portrait, one of several from the late 1930s, dates from 1936 or 1937, shortly before they moved to Cambridge Terrace, while the intense portrait of Baigent probably dates from around 1939 or 1940. Between 1936 and 1948, Bensemann painted Baigent on no fewer than 12 occasions. The frequency of these portraits undoubtedly signifies the closeness of their friendship but also the convenience for a portraitist of having a live-in model. They are remarkable for their variety; some are ‘straight’ likenesses but, in others, Bensemann uses his friend as a kind of ‘prop’ – for studies in surrealism, or Renaissance portraiture or some other style. The portrait in this catalogue is an exercise in expressionism; the sitter’s expression is almost demonic, like a character out of Dostoevsky – an impression heightened by the slashing lines of the background and the scarlet highlights in his hair and clothing.

When he eventually turned seriously to landscape after 1960, Bensemann sought out subjects in Central Otago, the West Coast, and especially Takaka and Golden Bay (where he had lived in childhood). However, increasingly in his last years, as illness limited his capacity for travel, he found his subjects closer to his home on Huntsbury Hill in the Port Hills, which had breathtaking views across the plains to the Southern Alps.

A point of connection between landscapes and portraits is that Bensemann often singles out a natural feature, such as a striking rock formation, of which his painting becomes a kind of ‘portrait’; this is the case with the conical peak in Te Tara-o-te-Rakitiaia (Summit Road Peak and Southern Alps).

A rare opportunity to see a range of Bensemann’s portraits, together with those of his contemporaries, is the exhibition Leo Bensemann & Friends: Portraiture and The Group, curated by Peter Simpson, at the Wallace Arts Centre, Pah Homestead, 13 April – 28 May 2017.