Rita Angus - Leo Bensemann
In February 1938 Leo Bensemann and his companion Lawrence Baigent moved into a studio flat next door to Rita Angus at 97 Cambridge Terrace, Christchurch. Both studios opened on to a shared kitchen, and the three friends met for meals in the evenings and often hosted parties together. Between them they had a wide social network, and the Cambridge Terrace studios soon became a hub of the local art world, attracting writers and musicians as well as painters. Angus was thirty years of age in 1938, a poised and outspoken young woman who already had a reputation as one of the leading painters of her generation. Bensemann, who was four years her junior, was just beginning his long career as a designer and printer for the Caxton Press. Both had a keen intelligence and a fertile imagination, and they also shared an unusually wide-ranging interest in art, from the ancient to the contemporary. Living side by side, they often painted together, and both produced some of their finest work, including a number of portraits, during this period of close friendship. Bensemann made at least six drawings and paintings of Angus, while her four surviving images of him include this small yet compelling oil. Leo Bensemann presents an intense, charismatic young man who holds the viewer’s attention with his challenging stare. Angus has planned the composition with care, exaggerating the lean angular planes of her subject’s face so that the V of his chin and jacket echo the diagonal movement established by the plunging mountains. The effect is one of restrained masculine energy, which is enhanced by the close cropping of Bensemann’s figure. He seems about to burst out of the frame. For much of her life Angus was reluctant to sell her work, and this painting — signed with her married name, Rita Cook — was one of some six hundred pictures that remained in her studio when she died in 1970. Shortly afterwards her family deposited her studio collection on long-term loan at the National Art Gallery, and in 1998 the Rita Angus Estate donated this work to Te Papa.