T H E   H O L L O W A Y   P R E S S
        Home | Latest Titles  |  Books in Print  | ArchiveOrders  M u d f l a t   W e b W o r k s


W O O D   E N G R A V I N G S  –  L E O   B E N S E M A N N

The text of a talk given by poet, curator and art writer Greg O'Brien at the launch of Bensemann, Engravings on Wood, at the Gus Fisher Gallery, University of Auckland, Sunday 15 August, 2004

There is a great photograph, from 1940, of Leo Bensemann and two contemporaries morris-dancing on a tennis court in Nelson. In the background some bewildered onlookers wonder what on earth they are witnessing. This image, reproduced in Mark Stocker’s book on another of that jangling, twinkle-toed morris-dancing company, Francis Shurrock, highlights a maverick, eccentric, inexplicable, unabashed but not much talked about spirit in New Zealand art. It leads me to think that, alongside the haka, morris-dancing might be given more consideration as a valid manifestation of cultural formation, identity and expression in this country.

Like morris-dancing, Bensemann’s art has seemed—until recently, anyway—not exactly fashionable. Too European, maybe. Too off-the-wall. His canvases fit awkwardly into accepted notions of New Zealand painting and it is a madness peculiar to this country that we have never taken fine art printmaking seriously.

Bensemann is, in some respects, an outsider in New Zealand arts and letters yet, paradoxically, he was on the surface of it an insider. He was involved in The Group and, over a period of forty years, the Caxton Press. He was, you could say, well-placed but, as a practitioner, also strangely absent or, at least, elusive. Clearly, Bensemann devoted huge amounts of energy to the presentation and publication of work by others. Holding only four solo exhibitions during his life, he worked away from the limelight—a subscriber to Aldous Huxley’s notion that: ‘Genuineness only thrives in the dark, like celery.’

Two qualities strike me in Bensemann’s WOOD ENGRAVINGS, neither of them typical of New Zealand art. The first is an intense attraction to the fantastical and the second a respect for, indeed love of, traditions of craftsmanship. These two things: fantasy and craft together generate a certain tension: fantasy is unbridled flight, a heightened state, delirium – whereas craftsmanship is predicated on patience, restraint, meeting the demands of what was and is, in this case, a very demanding medium. The end result, the new book, accommodates such refinement and intensity, just as it contains the lyrical alongside the Gothic.

Rather than devoting thousands of words to shoehorning Bensemann into some orderly role within the canon as it stands, Peter Simpson, with great sensitivity and sound judgement, presents the work itself. He leaves it up to the canon to accommodate Bensemann. The work is the thing. And that’s why this production is not only compelling but appropriate. Printed from original blocks, the images are rendered as fresh and persuasive as ever, by-product of a living tradition of fine press printing.

It the adjectives ‘illustrative’ and ‘imaginative’ have in the past been terms of derision in New Zealand art, Bensemann’s wood engravings reclaim and recast them. Stating the case for a different set of priorities, his work is a key component in a largely unacknowledged tradition of High Gothic in New Zealand art.

A few years ago I wrote a piece in the literary journal SPORT linking James K. Baxter’s early poetry with Peter Jackson’s LORD OF THE RINGS. I included reproductions of two Bensemann pictures in that essay as evidence of an ongoing strand of northern-European-derived Gothic in New Zealand culture. A tradition spanning Van der Velden’s canvases to Vincent Ward’s THE NAVIGATOR to Tony Fomison to Bill Hammond. Most recently we have the tattoo parlour Gothic of Tony De Lautour and Jason Grieg. I can imagine Bensemann as a kind of artistic grandfather to this recent anarchic crew, encouraging their high-octane, theatrical productions. Julia Morison is another in this Gothic counter-tradition—and it is apposite that Bensemann published early work by her in LANDFALL when he was editor in 1975.

Indications are that the country’s art history is starting to come around to acknowledging Bensemann’s relevance. His work presents as Peter Simpson puts it, ‘the dark side of the moon as compared to the bland unambiguous face of New Zealand “regional realism”.’ With contemporary practitioners filing in behind him, perhaps we are moving towards an alternative nationalism that can be as gnomic and maverick as it wants to; that can be extravagant, alchemical and, on occasion, even diabolical.

It occurs to me that the pleasures in Bensemann’s works are, specifically, those that differentiate it from the work of, say, McCahon and Woollaston. There is an almost decadent use of line, a sharpness, a musical cadence to the forms: The art is more Beardsley than Cezanne. There is an operatic love of gesture and theatre—and also an inherent belief that, as well as being obsessive, fastidious work, art is unabashed play—as images in this book like DANCING DWARF and BALL DANCE attest.

Against the prevailing dourness and puritanism of New Zealand art, Leo Bensemann’s art is a pagan dance of sorts. If in recent times the New Zealand landscape has had a Christian or Maori spirituality laid like Ready Lawn across it, Bensemann proposes a different earth-mysticism—one imbued with magic, strangeness and euphoria rather than Jansenist gloom. The landscape paintings of his last years play this out.

Poetry. Mysticism. Play. Anarchy, Beauty. All are contained in the book WOOD ENGRAVINGS, printed by handpress maestro Tara McLeod. He has made a fine job of it. The shade of Bensemann who, in the best Gothic sense, is—I am sure--with us today must be inexpressibly happy.

One final point: Peter Simpson in his introduction quotes Eric Gill on the merits of wood-engraving which—in Gill’s words—‘does away with several sets of middle men and places responsibility upon the shoulders of the workman. The workman who draws, engraves and prints his own blocks is master of the situation.’

In the instance of the new book, I have to stand up for Eric Gill’s blighted ‘middle men’. Of course middle men were necessary for this posthumous project, chief among them Tara McLeod and Peter Simpson himself. Both have worked in the spirit of Bensemann and with the kind of unerring attentiveness and craft he would have. They are also masters of the situation, and we have the two of them as well as the artist himself to thank.

I commend the book, this phantasmagoria, to you—the latest in a marvellous sequence of books from a press which is, I can assure you, the envy of other emerging university handpresses in the country.

And now, in the spirit of Leo Bensemann, let us all get out our handkerchieves, gather in a circle, raise our knees together and join in a commemorative morris-dance…