In Conversation With Michael Leunig

“There’s a great idea of what an artist does in my mind, and that is to express what is repressed. That is what is repressed personally, what is repressed in their culture, and what is repressed politically. The artist is interested in what is below the surface – the truth.”

For many Australians, Michael Leunig expresses what they cannot. His cartoons are instantly recognisable and touch upon elements of the human psyche in an inexplicably beautiful way. His interpretations of political issues are often shockingly raw, and yet he also creates works that are full of whimsy and hope. Countless people have copies of his illustrations stuck on bedroom walls or fridges. Exactly why, they don’t always know; Leunig is able to express sentiment that is frequently shrouded beneath layers of political correctness and touch on people’s emotions in a way that transcends easy explanation.

Michael Leunig is a deeply contemplative individual. He is softly spoken and exudes humility and a sense of calm. Before we meet he requests that we publish his self-portrait rather than a photograph because he is averse to mug-shots in the media. His expression of self is clearly intrinsically linked to his role as an artist.

His understanding of art is complex. “A lot of people think that it’s just there to serve causes sometimes, and while it can do that, it can bring forth ideas, art is also a thing unto itself. If works in mysterious ways. It breathes some spirit into culture hopefully.”

The idea of human nature is one in which Leunig is profoundly interested. He describes his love of walking down the street and engaging in conversations with strangers, and his understanding of the artist as someone who delves into the emotional and spiritual aspect of the self. The artist should explore the psyche and subconscious motivations present in society, and often does so more effectively than political analysts, whom he sees as being too often preoccupied with superficial phenomena.

Leunig has always been drawn to creative expression. As a young student at Monash University he contributed cartoons to Lot’s Wife before he was conscripted in the Vietnam War, which he avoided due to hearing loss in one ear. The atmosphere of political radicalism at this time was influential in crafting him as an artist. He was astutely aware of what he describes as a very dire situation and was actively opposed, yet he suggests that he doesn’t, and never did, live the stereotypical life of a political radical.  He expressed political sentiment through art, realising radicalism in a philosophical and artistic sense.

In order to create political art – cartoons in Leunig’s case – he says it is necessary to be strong and provocative. “If you’re going to be philosophical you’ve got to be strong, you can’t be weak about it.” Strength is a quality which Leunig has needed. Whilst he has been named as a national living treasure for his contribution to Australian society, he has also suffered greatly for his persistent commitment to certain beliefs.

During the Iraq War Leunig created a series of staunchly anti-war cartoons for which he was spurned by many of his peers. The pain he suffered due to this is still raw; “I’m still trying to come to terms with it; I’ve still got some despair and some terrible anger about the journalist support [of the war].” He describes his war era works as saying things which he thought were entirely reasonable; “just gently asking gently for people not to hate so severely, because hate keeps us off balance.” He comments that; “I’ve never been forgiven for that – for saying things which I thought were entirely reasonable… it was a horrible time.”

Despite this, many Australians identified with the message to which Leunig was giving form. He suggests that, “sometimes a picture tells a thousand words… because it’s primal. And war itself is a primal business.” Whereas words can be argued about, and used to rationalize and naturalise issues, Leunig believes that the visual medium can be uniquely powerful because it is non-intellectual. “A cartoon, a photo, just bypasses the intellect and is emotional. And it should be emotional.”

Many of Leunig’s cartoons also contain words, often in verse form. “There’s an interesting chemistry between a word and an image that I discovered in my own way, in my own evolution.” His work, he says is not highly evolved draftsmanship, but symbolic drawings whose value lays not so much in their aesthetic construction as their effect.

“You’re touching a lot of people – they don’t like this war, they’re frustrated, they don’t know why, they haven’t got the words. But if you say something for them which is poetic and strong… it touches what is semi-conscious in them, and they say ‘Yes, you’re feeling what I feel.’ And so there’s a therapy that’s happening in there.”

Although he never intentionally set out to achieve it, Leunig recognizes in retrospect that he has become a spokesperson for the everyman through his work. He suggests that there is a human tradition through which “the prophet poet speaks the grief of the people. There’s often a person who, not by force of their intellect, supplies some gifted empathy; they speak for the people.” The repercussion of assuming this role is that people who represent dominant ideologies “hate you for giving form to that feeling… and when they come down heavily on you you’re most effective.”

According to Leunig, the real power of art is that it speaks to people in a different language on a different level. His work is not designed to portray a neat calculus of cause and effect or direct viewers to a certain emotional response – it is evocative and has a mystique which he has seen reflected by people telling him that they have had certain cartoons on their notice-boards for years and yet are unsure of the meaning.

Leunig is a spiritual man, but not in a strictly religious sense. He attributes the meaning of the word to “some quality of vitality; vitality of mind, the joy of life, the sadness of life.” He comments that it is often when people are grieving that they are spiritual; “You see the real beauty and strength of people sometimes in their grief.”

Given the pain that Leunig suffered during the Iraq War, one has to wonder whether the artwork produced at the time was a reflection of personal grief. In addition to political pieces Leunig is renowned for drawing images of ducks and men with curly hair – light hearted, yes, but perhaps equally as profound as his obviously serious images.

“That little sublime quality that I am drawn to in my work is an insistence on some kind of beauty. We live in a world which is fraught with lies and ugliness. It’s a contemporary condition: modernity, industrialization, technology – it leads to a… loss of beauty and a false beauty.”

Leunig attributes beauty more to a philosophical sense of being rather than what he sees as its modern interpretation: glamour.

“We live in this cult of cleverness. We’re asked to be… very witty and intellectual to the point where we live in our heads. There’s something beautiful about innocence, some truthful intelligence about innocence. I’m not talking about being naïve or a fool; I’m talking about this capacity to see truth, to see beauty. A child can do that in some ways. So I’ve got this idea of mature innocence. One can go on and mature and yet retain this… love for an innocent way of life.”

Leunig realises this through creativity, stipulating in the same breath that you don’t have to be an artist to be creative. Creativity is defined by spontaneity and having an open approach to the world. It is also based in our interactions with other people; “You don’t just speak clichés to each other; you actually be present… dare to be frank and truthful with another or make a joke… that’s a great creativity.” Leunig’s artwork fits seamlessly into this brief.

To be creative, Leunig believes that people must be able to make do with little rather than constantly seeking stimulation and fulfilling the role of consumer dictated to us by a society fixated on economic growth. He counts moments of solitude as greatly important. He lives in the bush and likes to do naturalistic things – drawing, painting, pottering in the garden. He reveals that as a young man he discovered that he enjoyed leaving parties and hearing the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses fading as he walked into the night.

The whimsical images that Leunig creates therefore serve an important purpose. Whilst overtly political images clearly point to what is wrong with the world, ducks and curly-haired men give us an alternative. These quirky depictions may not be literal, but they do evoke a return to a more hopeful, unspoiled appreciation of the world, and make a mockery of the real one through virtue of the huge disparity between the two. As such, they are also political.

“All newspapers buy into the prevailing ethic, into popular culture… if you’re writing against the grain and mocking it a bit, saying ‘this is madness too’, this isn’t necessarily good for the whole image of the paper.”

As demonstrated by his commitment to opposing the Iraq War and sometimes scathing depictions of other social problems, however, Leunig’s primary concern is not for the image of the paper. “The artist doesn’t give the official version of reality; they give probably a more profound version – the official version is almost skewed.”

“You can’t turn to cartoonists to promote glamour; they’re there to speak for the ugly people. They’re there for the outcasts too, because the outcasts are very often outcast because they have very interesting ideas.”

Michael Leunig is a rare, unflinchingly independent voice in Australian media. He has been both loved and reviled, embraced by the public for the beauty of his art and abandoned because of the challenges it often poses. Interesting ideas are something he has in abundance, and, luckily, is not afraid to share.

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Melinda Bladier

The author Melinda Bladier

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