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21st of October 2018


Michael Leunig: Drawing to conclusions

There's nothing like a near-death experience to get you thinking about what's important in life.

Two years ago, with a mighty skull-busting "Clang!", Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig was struck on the head by a heavy metal trap-door while inspecting an underground bushfire shelter on his farm in rural Victoria.

It caused bleeding on his brain, followed by a seizure. He was rushed to hospital where they "cut a big hole in my head to let the pressure off".

During an extended period of recovery, Leunig did a lot of thinking.

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"I try to draw in a very simple way, almost how a child might draw" says Leunig.

Michael Leunig

"I try to draw in a very simple way, almost how a child might draw" says Leunig.

"I thought about aging and mortality, friendship, courage, and luck, and love," the soft-spoken 73 year old tells me from his Melbourne studio.

"A lot of those things have always been central to my drawings, but probably even more so now."

The near-death accident affected Leunig's memory, his vocab, his sleep, his "sense of self", he says.

But after a long convalescence, he returned to work as Australia's best-loved cartoonist, a man who uses his considerable artistic gifts to explore the deepest recesses of the human psyche.

He doesn't like to travel much these days, but Leunig is flying across the ditch to present a single one-off New Zealand show in October, and it's here in Nelson, as part of Nelson Arts Festival.

"Basically, I'll be drawing live while that gets projected on a screen, and I'll be telling a bunch of pretty personal stories while I do that. It'll be my take on life, and drawing as I go turns it into a more primal thing. I'm improvising, really. I don't have a set piece. I just draw while I talk about things I've found to be true."

Leunig began working for Melbourne's The Age newspaper in 1969 and has been drawing cartoons for more than four decades, to great acclaim around the globe.

Where other newspaper cartoonists generally comment on topical events and the political headlines of the day, Leunig has carved out a niche as a sort of philosopher-poet with a sketch pad.

He's fascinated by the many and varied complexities of our relationship to nature, technology, each other and, most of all, ourselves.

Leunig's drawings are often gentle, soulful, reflective and wise, with central characters including a big-eyed "holy fool", a dog and a duck, some of whom appear with whimsical curly teapots balanced on their heads.

"I started out doing more traditional cartoons for daily newspapers, and they often revolved around a punchline or gag.

"With political cartoons, you're challenging the status quo, pointing out hypocrisy of politicians and so on, but I wanted to go deeper into the human condition by developing a more personal and lyrical style.

"I wanted to explore what MY part was in the madness of the world, rather than just point the finger. I wanted to know- what's driving us, deep down? What is human nature? What are our deepest insecurities and desires and motivations?"

Leunig in concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra


Leunig in concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Without ever really intending to, Leunig gradually found himself becoming more philosopher than comedian, more psychoanalyst than reporter.

"I wasn't trained for this new role, of course, except for that fact that I was a human. Initially, people were confused. They'd say- what's this? Where's the joke? I would tell them that there wasn't really a joke in the normal sense, but there might be an amusing sort of mystery there, or something that makes you think about the world in a slightly different way."

Sometimes Leunig's drawings are sad rather than funny. "They might explore things like love or yearning or grief or regret or joy or loneliness. It's about tapping into a wider range of human emotions."

"What are our deepest desires and motivations," asks Leunig

Michael Leunig

"What are our deepest desires and motivations," asks Leunig

Some people found his work too "touchy-feely", he says. But this new style liberated Leunig from having to explore each week's hot news topic at the same time every other cartoonist in the land was doing the same thing.

"I wouldn't have to draw something directly connected with the latest Trump abomination, say, and I'm so glad I'm free of that stuff. I'd rather think, well, what are people really struggling with? What are they curious about that they dare not speak about? What's going on inside us, as people, that really matters?"

Making work like this is a political act in itself, says Leunig. "Really, you're exploring the deep emotional currents that are underlying politics and society and everything else. I mean- what is Trump, if not a male tragedy, a confused creature cut off from his own vulnerability and humanity?"

Leunig on stage in Sydney last year.


Leunig on stage in Sydney last year.

​Leunig stumbled across his best-known cartoon creation- a curious open-hearted outsider; a "blissful simpleton", as he puts it- almost by accident.

"I was trying to draw in a very simple way, almost how a child would draw, and I came upon that little holy fool character, who looks genderless and ageless and non-threatening. It's a creature that looks innocent and vulnerable and playful in a tough world, and that's why we relate to it, I think, because we all have an element of that soft, gentle, open creature inside us somewhere."

Modern life can be harsh, reckons Leunig, so we learn to protect and conceal that precious part of ourselves.

"What I'm trying to say, over and over, is that this part of you is special and important and the source of your humanity, really. It's a very deep part of your spirit, because it's the part of you that's concerned with love.

"So really, with my drawing, I think I'm trying to humanise the world a bit. We live in a world of cleverness where everyone's fast and hip and snappy and critical- and insufferable, in my view- then there's that little holy fool who's poetic and soulful, looking at things slowly and saying the simplest things that everyone else somehow just forgot."

Leunig's world: Ducks and gentle creatures and teapots on the head...

Michael Leunig

Leunig's world: Ducks and gentle creatures and teapots on the head...

​Leunig didn't do very well at secondary school, he tells me, and he didn't go to art school, either.

He taught himself to draw while doing a succession of mundane and occasionally brutal jobs near the family home in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Footscray.

For a while there, he followed his father into one of the most soul-destroying jobs imaginable: working in a slaughterhouse.

"While a lot of my mates went on to university, I went to the meat-works! I was called on to kill cattle every day, and it's a job that brutalises some and sensitises others. A lot of ethical and philosophical reflection went on, and it made me a more empathetic and compassionate person with strong affection for the non-human world. That job was my university, in many ways."

Leunig's work often ponders environmental concerns.

Michael Leunig

Leunig's work often ponders environmental concerns.

​Leunig claims he's "a bit embarrassed" by the fact that the National Trust of Australia pronounced him a "National Living Treasure" in 1999.

It made him sound like a bit of a fossil, whereas in many ways, he's still the dreamy, creative kid who grew up in the early 50s, often drawing on the footpath with charcoal or chalk due to the high post-war expense of art supplies.

Artistic skill runs in the family: his sister, Mary Leunig, is also an accomplished cartoonist.

A self-described radical feminist and recluse who lives way out in the Victoria bush, her work often ponders the relationship between women and power, and sometimes strays into family matters: In 2016, she drew a cartoon in which she blasts a giant gory hole in her more famous sibling, entitled "I finally get the recognition I deserve by shooting my brother in the bum!"

"Yes! I hadn't even seen that, and then someone asked me about it in an interview. It's pretty out there, isn't it? But that's Mary for you…"

Leunig on stage with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra


Leunig on stage with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

A refreshingly calm and thoughtful soul, Michael Leunig is dismayed by the narcissism of many who've grown up in the social media generation, who seem to care a little too much about how they look and who's looking at them.

Rather than the FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) that drives people to endlessly gawp at their digital devices, Leunig advocates JOMO- the Joy of Missing Out that comes when you learn to live more in the moment instead of being endlessly concerned about what everyone one else might be saying or doing or posting online.

As someone who recently survived a near-fatal accident, he knows from personal experience that there are more important things to worry about, and more fruitful ways to spend whatever time you might have left, hurtling through space on this crowded rock we call home.

Leunig likes to avoid overstimulation these days, so he doesn't watch many films or travel more than he needs to. He prefers to read, think, go for long walks, wander around his neighbourhood and talk to people in the street.

Detail from a Leunig cartoon.

Michael Leunig

Detail from a Leunig cartoon.

He still works a lot, even after his accident, but only when it's work he considers meaningful.

A twice-married father of four, Leunig draws two nationally syndicated cartoons per week, writes a monthly column, and collaborates widely with other creative critters, from symphony orchestras to jazz bands, from Scottish poet Ivor Cutler and NZ musician Neil Finn.

"Oh, he's a good bloke, Neil, isn't he? When Neil lived in Australia, we were in the same Melbourne suburb, and I used to see a lot of him.

"Neil and I did a show here in Australia with a classical orchestra, called Parables, Lullabies and Secrets. He wrote a lot of songs and I did some of the text for those. Like drawing, music is another way to get at the deepest emotional core of things."

Leunig with singer/ songwriter Katie Noonan and members of the Elixir Trio


Leunig with singer/ songwriter Katie Noonan and members of the Elixir Trio

Ultimately, Leunig wants his work to be nourishing to the human spirit, he says.

He's fascinated by the hidden internal lives we all have and committed to the notion that art keeps the soul of our society alive.

"And I am also interested in a few other key questions, such as - Where do I get a decent coffee when I'm in Nelson? What are the best places to go in your town?

"I expect you to come to my show and tell me these things afterwards. Actually, I've got a good friend in Nelson, so I've been there a few times before and loved it.

"You're lucky people to be living in such a beautiful and unique part of the world."

An Evening with Michael Leunig is on Sunday, October 14 as part of Nelson Arts Festival.

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