Much-loved Australian artist Michael Leunig discusses his new collection, The Wayward Leunig: Cartoons That Wandered Off. The companion volume to his best-selling The Essential Leunig, The Wayward Leunig showcases 400 cartoons selected from five decades of work. This new collection is as wide-ranging, potent, hilarious, insightful, relevant, original and beautiful as the first.
In association with Penguin Random House.
Audio transcript for In Conversation: Michael Leunig
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (S), Michael Leunig (M), Audience: (A)
Location: National Library of Australia
S: ... elders past and present for caring for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
We’re delighted that so many of you have joined us this afternoon to hear from one of Australia’s much loved artists, Michael Leunig. Michael Leunig is a cartoonist, a writer, painter, philosopher and poet. His commentary on our political, cultural and emotional life has spanned more than 40 years and has often explored the idea of an innocent and sacred personal world. His particular blend of whimsy and wit, provocation and really pure magic has beguiled Australians since his first cartoon in 1965. His prints, his paintings and his drawings have been exhibited broadly and are held in many, many public and private collections. The Library is very lucky to have a long-held friendship with Michael, not only in relation to his archive but also in celebrating his work. In 1998 the Friends of the National Library published the book, Michael Leunig, A Celebration, and we experienced his sheer untrammelled popularity with signing queues that have only ever been trumped by the queue to see Treasures from the World’s Great Libraries exhibition.
Today Michael will share cartoons included in The Wayward Leunig: Cartoons that Wandered Off, which features 400 idiosyncratic and delightful cartoons spanning five decades. We will have a rare opportunity to watch one of our most beloved artists draw live and listen as he reflects on his astonishing career. So I’d ask you to welcome Michael Leunig.
M: Yeah, thank you so much, Anne-Marie. That’s lovely. I’m really pleased to meet you all. I don’t know you but I meet you now and thanks for being here. I must confess that I always find this moment a little strange because I can’t imagine why you’re here in some sense, what is it that I can impart or say or give? I normally do it in my drawings and I’m ... I never get used to the idea that you will come and give up your hours. I’m not being falsely modest, I’m genuinely bewildered and I don’t have a particular theory or expertise or ... nor can I play the banjo in a way that will make you laugh so what I prefer to do today is to simply sort of talk spontaneously, engage with you and there’ll be time for a question or two and that time can be any time as far as I’m concerned.
M: I like that. I’ll remember that and I’ll just finish the sentence and ... but I do like that, I think a cartoon has already been made, thank you. So let that be the mood of the day and yes so we’ll talk later perhaps and soon. So what I’ll do, I’ll just go to this desk here and pretend I’m at a cartoonist or ... desk which is where I work. I don’t normally work in front of an audience. It’s the very essence of a cartoonist to hide from the world and sort of do it quietly in a monastic sort of way. So this is not my natural environment but I’ll do my best so what I’ll do ... well I don’t know what I’ll do, we’ll find out but I’ll sit down for a start and look at you.
So there’s this book called Cartoons that Wandered Off, and you know looking for a title for a book is always a bit of a random process. It was a gathering together of cartoons that I’d sort of overlooked a little bit in the putting together of a first collection. And sometimes one’s first selection is a little unfair, it’s ... it gets embarrassed about things and puts them aside and later you realise no, these were lovely too, they have their place so this collection is a sort of ... it’s a companion which is the second choice, I guess, but it’s probably a lovelier choice in other ways, I don’t know.
So ... but wandered off, it’s really what I’ve done all my life and I guess I value the idea of wandering, and which of us have not wandered in our life? I mean life is a kind of wandering, is it not? Just yesterday I had a conversation with a man who’d made a public speech the night before at an art gallery opening and he was very pleased to say that someone came up to him and congratulated him for not using the word I as he made his speech and I’ve heard this now and again that you should keep the word I, keep yourself out of it. I’m sorry, I can’t do that. Because being a cartoonist is very much about ... well for me it has been about that wandering of the individual, the individual which our grandparents might have called the soul or some ... one of those words that has fallen from favour in some circles.
So I realise my work has been about life’s wanderings and these unfocused sort of unambitious thoughts where the mind wanders when we lie down on the pillow at night or sit waiting for a bus or even when we’re at work or wherever. And I ... immensely interested in the wandering impulse that children have so beautifully and the thing we set out to do in life and we sort of are distracted from by a whim or a little impulse. My school days were full of wandering away from what was at hand and looking out the window and oh look at that hand. The ... and I couldn’t sort of remain focused and this is sounding a very ill-disciplined, distracted mind and it was in some regards but it was also a very curious wandering mind. And so ultimately of course I didn’t do too well at school. I loved school, I loved my friends, my teachers but I didn’t do so well.
I ended up in the factories instead of at university with my friends and was very sad about that, but that was my art school, was the factories and ... and the wandering that happened in the factories in my mind, dreaming of little poems to write, little songs to write, all the things I was so fascinated with as a child as I would hear the stories of, say, Oscar Wilde on the radio or ... I wasn’t brought up in a cultured sort of a background, I came from what we call working class background. There was no mention of art. There were no arts festivals. There were no artists that I knew of, nor were there many paintings in my life. And this was I think looking back was an ideal start for an artist in a sense because there was no precedent, it was just open. It was there for me to discover, not to be taught and I think there’s something very important about that in creative life, not to be taught it but to find it and that maybe our parents or our teachers provide the environment where we might find rather than to be instructed towards it. And in our wanderings we find these delights which become art.
And on that subject ... I’ve spoken of this before, perhaps if you’ve heard it put your hand up and I’ll slow down a bit but as a child I ... a very important part of childhood post you know post-war when I was back in the 1950s I would ... we didn’t have many toys but there was a backyard and it was quiet and there was a garden of sorts and as children we would make what we called fairy gardens. So we would get little flowers and little blades of grass and twigs and sit there quietly alone. And we would make an imaginary place where the fairies would be welcome that night when I was asleep. And I would spend a lot of time laying out little petals, leaves, stones very elaborately with great imagination, great wondering, great eagerness, great aliveness to the realities of the fairies and the possibility that these magical enchanted little life forms would come into my creation.
And of course these aren’t the words I put to it back then but I mean that’s what was happening and then I’d go to bed, get up early in the morning and go out and sure enough the fairies had been and the pixies and there was you know the little sign, little footprints of the pixies or the fairies or the little ... they’d drunk the little concoction I’d made with rose petals and water and they would ... yes, they’ve drunk it, look, it’s not as ... it’s gone etc. And imagination running wild and believing in, just believing so much in them. And finding evidence of and I think how beautiful was that child activity. And it has dawned on me in later life that in fact it’s the perfect metaphor for the making of art, for the making of a poem, for the making of a painting, a small drama, a song, a piece of music is to sit alone and to believe devoutly in something and create an offering. And I think it is made with love, I think the truest art is made with love and the child knows how to make with love a little fairy garden so there’s this beautiful forerunner of later creative life.
And so much of having wandered away from normal life to make a fairy garden and I think the artist in particular represents this human capacity to wander away from this ... the velocity and the focus of this life and all that ambition and the way things should be and the conformity of that. The compliance of that ‘cause when the child makes a fairy garden it is utterly free and it is enchanted by nature, by these little natural elements so I liken this so much to the making of this thing we called art. And I do wonder about this word, art, a lot. That the ... Barry Humphries when I was very young was very encouraging of my work and it surprised me, the famous, great, wonderful Barry Humphries was encouraging of me and I don’t know how he discovered these early efforts I’d made but anyway he was very encouraging. And he said, ‘Michael, in Australia you’re going to feel very ashamed to call yourself an artist, you might feel very ashamed.’ And at the time I thought he meant ... and he did probably mean ... that it’s a bit philistine you know people didn’t appreciate art and you might be made feel you’re irrelevant and silly or whatever and yeah, sure, I understood that.
What I didn’t understand that in later life I would sometimes feel ashamed because what has become of art in my mind sometimes, and I see how so much of art when this deluge of art festivals all sort of worthy, but oh it’s become so huge now, the artiste, this sort of word artist and art and this kind of product which is churned out and ... and the sort of media, the fashionability of a lot of it and the way it has wandered off in its own way away from meaning and has become so sort of cool and intellectual and ... when I say cool I mean a bit cold and as if it’s lost its sincerity and its ... its sincerity, I suppose, and its love. And the loving act that I feel it really is and can be and it’s become more academic at times and associated with prestige and media and fashion and it’s very much of this world, of power yet I think art can be so much about freedom from the intellect, the oppressive intellect, the brain-ridden life.
And it can be so much not of this world, not as an escape but just another dimension of life and I think yes, at times I do not identify with what is seen to be the art world. As the British historian Kenneth Clarke once said, in modern art we must be aware of energy which poses as talent, and freakishness which poses as originality and I think there’s something in those terms. I don’t want to sound excessively repressively conservative but I think there’s something grounded and natural in the desire to make art and you take away nature and innocence. You take away nature, you take away innocence and love and what is left for art? I ... that makes me feel ashamed of it a bit. Not too much shame.
Anyway I’ve wandered there. I think it’s time now to ask this gentleman what the question is if we can just ... yes, would you like to?
A: Hi. My name’s Matthew Cohen, I’m a local artist from north Canberra, also an animator and a cartoonist. I notice that you’re approaching comics with a lack of panels and speech bubbles and backgrounds, it just reminds me of another cartoonist, his name is Jules Feiffer, so the question is do you know that cartoonist? And if so how well do you know him and have you met him?
M: I have not met Jules Feiffer. When I ... back in the 1960s when I was working for a more sort of radical kind of newspaper we used to run Jules Feiffer’s cartoons, very familiar with the work. Would often be two faces speaking to each other, it was really a lot of writing there and they’d be having a conversational exchange. He’s been a ...
A: Is it true that you were inspired by him?
M: Possibly, not ... I wasn’t particularly focused on him but yes, I enjoyed the work immensely and there were a lot of those people then ... European cartoonists, Tomi Ungerer and you know even the American ... who’s the man from The New Yorker ... Ferber etc, there were a lot of different sort of cartoonists back then. I think cartooning has lost a lot of that organic peculiarity, it’s sort of looking so much at this world and these politicians and I loved the fact they were a bit other worldly and psychological and emotional and just pec ... very peculiar. Lot of the Europeans, was a Folon, the French cartoonist, yeah, I took inspiration from a lot of the European cartoonists. I don’t much care for Australian cartooning in general, newspaper cartooning, I don’t follow it much, I find it a bit banal. I mean it’s good in its own terms but it’s not my interest. And looking at the politicians and saying look, see how silly they are. I was interested in saying look how silly we are too, I feel that is the role of the cartoonist as I’ve said before.
It’s not the job of the cartoonist to point out that the enemy is the devil but that there’s a bit of the devil in all of us so one is I get criticised ... I have been criticised for being soft on terror or something like this you know these kind of ... and we should get behind the American invasion and stand up for the troops and I ... I’m saying yes, yes, alright but that’s not my job, my job is to be the voice of wait a minute, let us look at our motive here, let us ... and it’s not an easy position or a popular position but it is the work of the newspaper cartoonist in my view ... not to represent the powerful but to represent the powerless, not to represent the fashionable but the unfashionable, the unpleasant, the non-beautiful, the marginalised. That is the work and in ... because I believe in the darkness there’s a lot of extraordinary insights to be found. I’ve wandered off from your question.
A: Let me know if you met Jules.
A: Let me know if you met Jules Feiffer.
M: Let ... did I meet him? I’ll tell you, I confess I was born imperfect in that my right ear didn’t work at all when I was born and I always have a bit of trouble hearing, it’s not ...
A: I recommend you should watch a short film that Jules Feiffer worked on, it’s called Munro.
M: And what is that about?
A: Well it’s about a four-year-old boy joining the army.
M: Okay. I’ll look out for it but thank you for that anyway. Yeah, bless you. Yeah. So there we are and then I have to eventually at this stage of life, this ... quite a late stage of life where you kind of ... I have to sweep together these cartoons and look back and put them together. Well I don’t have to but I chose to do it and it’s a strange time of life to look back at what has happened in 40 years and so many of my mistakes have been published now you see and ... not as bad as an architect you know whose mistakes are built and we have to live in them. But it’s still excruciating from time to time and I think to be so extroverted in some ways and yet so interior in other ways is a strange paradox for me. And to put all this stuff out there and it’s kind of ... I used to be called oh that crazy guy and in just to be lyrical is seen to be crazy sometimes and so my voice is just trying to bring a little more lyricism in the way we talk to each other or the way we see each other, that ... and the mystery of life and what is mystical. I see great value.
As I keep saying again and again ... if I speak in public about this I’m so glad that my airline pilot who flew me here today is not too much like that, he’s very focused and very present and you know clinical. I think it’s a wonderful quality and I think I have a lot of that anyway but it’s such a joy to not have to be bound by that and I think ... and not have to repress that. I mean the artist’s work is to express what is repressed, that is one of the artist’s work and to express what is repressed. And so much of what is repressed is actually joyous, it’s not just that we repress our dark worries or our dire self, we repress so much delight which we dare not share sometimes ... except around our kitchen table we can but in public, in our culture I think a little too repressed some ti ... about you know about life and so the artist is always trying to open it up a bit, open it up, it’s okay.
One of the sort of terms of praise a cartoonist might get ‘oh you’ve nailed it,’ meaning you’ve summed it all up in that cartoon. Well I don’t know because my ideal cartoon is one that doesn’t sum it up or nail it, it sort of un ... it takes the nails out, it opens it up, open it up, it’s alright, it doesn’t matter, you don’t ... you’re not going to get judged, we can be free so it’s about liberation from this idea that you can nail it or sum it up because I like it’s inconclusive, it keeps on opening out, life keeps on opening out and opening and opening until there’s a beautiful mystery there too as well as all that knowledge. And there’s a mystery which is nourishing and delightful and it’s innocent and I do have this notion I’ve spoken of before which I call mature innocence, that we ... even though we be adults we can remember the sensations of childhood if we are reasonably fortunate, we can remember the freedoms and the wonderments of childhood and I think they’re so ... the capacity to access that same innocence and to open the mind is so fundamental to the creative process.
You stop being clever, get over the need to be clever. I’m not instructing or advising you, I’m talking about the ... what I tell myself, that this cult of cleverness in which I grew up ... not in my family but in the world around me ... you’re going to be excellent, you better be excellent, you better be clever. Yes, yes but don’t get too excited about it, it’s just natural to be sort of intelligent and clever, you don’t have to make a song and dance ... you don’t have to hand out so many excellence awards, I ... the world is dripping with excellence awards. There’s probably not a person in this room who’s not award-winning somewhere and I think give me a person who has not won an award and I’ll show you my ... someone I want to hug. So I’m in rejection of all that. As much as we love things done well, of course we do, we love skilfulness but this kind of braggart thing and look at me, I’m excellent, look at him, he’s excellent and you’re not and you are and that, you think come on.
A: Am I?
M: What’s that? Are you? Did you say?
A: Am I excellent?
M: Are you excellent? If you like. You decide but ... and what is it anyway? Because we are flawed too, and we are stumbling too. You know that airline pilot today, he sort of bid me farewell with a smile and I thought oh you’ve probably got your problems too. And ... which is enjoyable, we love each other for our vulnerabilities and our frailties and we make humour with our vulnerabilities and frailties and I think the loss ... I think humour is ... sometimes the Australian humour, if I may say that ... only because I grew up in this country and the humour I saw and felt around me was so sort of forgiving I think and I watch social media a little bit now and I see this harsh quality, there’s judgement and people annihilating each other and humourless and I make a joke in the paper and then I’m convicted for having a wrong attitude. I think come on, in ... it’s meant to be ambiguous and there's a capacity to handle ambiguity and subtleties and tongue in cheek etc. Not much tongue in cheek sometimes on social media.
So that leaves me here at a piece of paper and I think I will draw something ... I don’t have a routine as you’ve probably worked out, I don’t have many things to draw.
A: Draw Mr. Curly.
M: Yeah well I’ll draw Mr. Curly if you like and well this person called Mr Curly and it was just a character I found one day. I never went to art school and learned how to draw but every child draws usually and usually draws very well and ... and then at some later stage gives up drawing and feels ashamed of their drawing quite often. So this is this character I made at some point, gradually on my wandering journey of drawing. Not much variety in it, they’re really like symbols or hieroglyphs I would say of ... yeah, it’s appearing. So there’s Mr Curly sort of progressing somewhere or wandering, going for a wander. Of course inevitably with a duck. Not the duck again but it is and I think it’s really lovely to go on repeating things. Like Tony Abbott knew that.
And you know so you would put that and then I would do that because ... and why did I do the duck? Why did I do the moon? Why do I do this teapot here like this? Now I won’t do it there, I’ll do it like this, hang on. Yes, I’m excusing you.
A: Do you remember when you did your first drawing of Mr Curly?
M: Ah I do ... oh well I remember the first drawing I ever did of Mr Curly, I don’t know when it was, in about 1970 or something? So there’s Mr Curly and he’s wandering off obviously and then of course I would say oh it’s incomplete, it’s incomplete because I just want to keep adding things so I would just get another old symbol of mine ... oh well, it belongs to the world, it’s not mine but you know? And you just pla .. I just place things here, there and everywhere so it’s all based on ... well not all based on, one does a lot of thinking but that just happens to be a s ... a teapot sitting on a sign etc and then the intellectual comes along and says well what does this mean? Not the intellectual, the too intellectual, I mean this cultivation of the brain and that sort of calculated mind which is so lovely and beautiful if you can also go into the garden and ma ... grow flowers. So they’d say what does that mean? I say I don’t know what it means, what does it mean to you? Does it sort of ... is there just a smile in it? Beca ...
M: Wha ..?
M: I ca ... I’m sorry, I can’t quite follow what you’re saying there but that’s ...
M: Yeah, yeah. But thank you. But I ... so it is made up of whim and I used to resist the idea that my drawings were whimsical, I’d think of oh well they’re not whimsical, I really feel them and I ... I kind of ... I’ve put a lot into them and I ... you’ll just say they’re some throwaway and really it’s not important and you know me and my sort of lonely vanity thinks but it’s important to me, I love that person so there’s this delusion of love and affection for the way you draw the teapot, the duck and I ... the editor of a newspaper and you’re meant to be drawing about the latest political event and you do that and they go oh no, what are we going to do here? And I say yeah but it’s not so bad, really, is it? It’s kind of not so harmful and I think yeah, it’s a bit sentimental, it’s too sentimental, it’s cute and stuff but I say yeah but maybe we just need a little bit more of that. It’s like you’re doing ... cooking a meal, just put a little bit more oregano in it or something like that so it’s based on your feeling and a whim and sometimes there’s such sort of wisdom in a whim and is ... there mightn’t be any wisdom here, it just might be a beautiful dumbness you know a beautiful dumb, pleased innocence of that character with that little curl which is so silly and absurd and if that could sit on the editorial page with all the serious letters then I think that’s an achievement somehow. And that was always my guiding principle.
Of course I in my times of dire political stress, in times of war and invasions of countries and firing of rockets and the bombing of the civilian populations one becomes stricken with pain, and one is anguished and deeply moral etc. These things of course start to play and it’s outrageous and then you watch your fellow journalist saying yes though the Iraqis must be bombed and say how can you say this? How can you? You were humanitarians last week, suddenly you’re saying no, it must be done so there’s a certain distress and anger and dismay creeps in and one makes very dark cartoons which are not funny but they are poetic maybe, the poetry of a dark political consciousness.
So my work has been varied and wandered all over the place ‘cause that is my nature, I guess. But always coming back to these infantile themes because I think we grow ourselves up too hard and in the cultural way ... what we do personally is another matter but culturally it’s ... watch you know I don’t watch should I say but I glimpse occasionally something like ... what’s that show on Monday night? Q&A and it’s ... always seems to me to be the same sort of experts banging on and they’re really dire and they’re sharp and fast and they are so constantly there and just as the politicians are so constantly there deciding what the agenda is, this is what’s important, the newspapers are say ... telling us what is important, this is the news of the day and it gets narrower and narrower and every day you wake up and there’s more about terror, terror, terror and oh the younger generation, I don’t know. It must be hard for them so ... so one wants to wander away ... not escape it but to balance it and to remind us of our innocence and our joy for each other and love and etc.
So any other suggesti ... any question now? Or another question which may be ... or another drawing could be suggested? Yes?
A: The bottle.
A: The bottle.
M: The bottle?
M: Draw the bottle?
M: You mean is this a bottle with a fellow standing on the top?
A: No, it’s sort of like a message in a bottle.
M: The message in the bottle. Yeah well we’ll see. I ... yeah, I’ll try and do that, I think it was just a little fellow once, he was standing on a ... edge of a bottle like so and ... with his miserable posture, his downcast gaze which would ... could have opened me up to accusations of being depressed all the time because ... can’t go there, none of us get depre ... or downcast or concerned or sad, do we? And yet these are beautiful parts of humanity. So this fellow as I remember it, if this is the one you’re thinking, he was standing on the edge and was sort of big bottle, I think, like this. I better keep watching so I don’t run off the page here and there was the inevitable moon to create the feeling of nocturnal aloneness or something.
Now there was a ... here was a ... there was a woman and she was ... and a woman is identified in my drawings by the hair being a bit longer, very old ... and wearing a dress ... very old-fashioned definition of male, female. Lot of concern about this thing lately. Right so she was there and ... but she was floating up on the ... I don’t know whether I’ve depicted it properly there ... there was a kind of a ... she was floating. And he was filling the bottle very gradually with his tears and there was a little poem where the more he cried the more she rose up towards him until finally they came together on the basis of his emotion, his feeling ... his felt side. Yeah.
End of recording