Rita Angus by Leo Bensemann


This article first appeared in The Press as 'Viewing Rita Angus with Leo's eyes' on 26 May 2015

In 1938 Leo Bensemann and one of his closest friends, Lawrence Baigent, moved into a studio flat at 97 Cambridge Terrace right across the road from the Bridge of Remembrance. This move was to prove a watershed moment in Bensemann's artistic career providing the stimulus he needed to hone his skills as an artist not least due to the fact that the painter Rita Angus rented the flat right next door. In many ways both Angus and Bensemann were at the top of their game in 1938 when this portrait of Rita was completed. Angus had painted her most celebrated painting Cass just two years earlier in 1936 while Bensemann's brilliance as a graphic artist had been firmly established with the publication of his stunning book, Fantastica: Thirteen Drawings, by the Caxton Press in 1937. This book rates as one of the most important New Zealand artist's books from the 20th century.

The Cambridge Terrace flats had become something of a cultural hub by 1938, a place where Christchurch's artists, writers, composers and musicians of the day regularly socialised. These included such well-known figures as Louise Henderson, Olivia Spencer Bower, Allen and Betty Curnow, Francis Shurrock, Frederick and Evelyn Page, Denis Glover and Douglas Lilburn. As Peter Simpson has noted, with Angus and Bensemann working in such close proximity their interests began to merge and they repeatedly began to draw and paint not only each other but Baigent and the numerous visitors to the studios as well.

Bensemann's skill as a draftsman is readily apparent in this pencil drawing with each mark or stroke of the pencil being carefully considered and thought out. The drawing combines elegant mark making: sharp lines defining the profile of Angus's face, softer lines the hair, jersey and chair, all of which are emphasised further by delicate shading effects. The result is a drawing of outstanding quality providing an incredible portrait of one of New Zealand's most significant artists. For me it rates as one of the most beautiful drawings in the Gallery's collection.

Bensemann provides us with an intimate study of Angus and this same study was used as a starting point for an oil painting portrait by Bensemann that, remarkably, remained unfinished. Bensemann himself described Angus as '...a golden person to be with, relaxed, warm, human...' qualities that certainly come through in this drawing. You'll get the chance to see this portrait in person at the Christchurch Art Gallery when we re-open this summer. There it will take pride of place in a focused display including Angus, Louise Henderson and Frances Hodgkins titled 'A Room of One's Own'.