Hope in Dark Times: An Evening with Michael Leunig
By Angharad Lodwick
I arrived at the National Library of Australia for this event with a bit of time to spare, so I went to pick up a copy of cartoonist Michael Leunig’s new book “Hope in Dark Times” from the NLA bookstore. A veteran of these events, I figured if I picked up a copy early, I’d have more chance of being further along the line to get it signed. However, I was a bit confused when it appeared that Leunig’s books had in fact already been signed and that he wouldn’t be doing a book signing afterwards. I picked one up anyway, and still had enough time to snag a fantastic front row seat after another attendee kindly waved me over to show it was vacant.
Leunig was declared an Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia in 1999 and although that was nearly 20 years ago, the auditorium was almost completely packed out. As he was being introduced, the reason for there being no book signing swiftly became clear. Last time Leunig visited the NLA, the line for people to have their books signed went out the door and circled the library!
Leunig was interviewed by author Kim Mahood, who said “I’ve never been on stage with a national treasure before”. Mahood need not have worried as Leunig enthusiastically and confidently answered each of her questions at length.
Mahood’s first question was about the quote by D. W. Winnicott on Leunig’s website, which reads:
In the artist of all kinds one can detect an inherent dilemma which belongs to the co-existence of two trends; the urgent need to communicate and the still more urgent need not to be found.
Leunig explained the tension between communication and privacy that he has always grappled with. He said that young children are beautifully peculiar with their own, innocent way of knowing That part of us – innocence, creativity, capacity for loving – is also the part we try to protect from the hard parts of the world, like ego, ambition and competition. He said that as a cartoonist, it is easier to preserve that innocence. Cartoonists are allowed to be the village idiot and get patted on the head.
Mahood then asked Leunig about his characters who are often a “baffled everyman occasionally accompanied by a direction-finding duck”, and asked how his iconic ducks began. Leunig said that people put things in art because they like them. Newspapers are already filled with footy players, politicians and criminals. Why not a duck? He continued, asking who can ever argue with a duck? Who has ever said a bad word about a duck? “The same can be said for teapots,” he reflected.
He went on to talk about his cheeky impulses and inventive playfulness, and his views that there was too much emphasis on excellence and ‘award winning’. “I detest award-winning,” Leunig proclaimed jokingly, “God help me if I ever win one”.
As much as he has received acclaim, Leunig has attracted his fair share of criticism over the years, and one thing I was really interested in hearing about was the thought that goes into his cartoons. Leunig told the audience that he doesn’t like clever cartooning or, he explained, cartoons where people “nail it”. He doesn’t like to nail it, he likes to pull the nails out and let the issue open up. In Leunig’s view, the difference between a joke and humour is that jokes are dismissive of the issue at hand whereas humour opens it up.
Mahood asked Leunig about his earlier life, and he described growing up in an industrial Australia, one very different and much quieter than the Australia today. He reflected that there was plenty of kindness back then, but probably also plenty of bigotry. No TV, but also no art.
His upbringing in Melbourne exposed him early to aspects of Australian culture that he shuns today. He said that he saw Footscray win their first AFL premiership as a boy and was so satisfied, he never had to go again. He said the tribalism of footy, the “them versus us” mentality, reminds him of the tribalism of politics and even war. Leunig said in his cartooning he often has to ask the big questions. He noted that he is “not very good” on Australia Day and ANZAC day. He says he’s not proud of the patriotism that has been whipped up over these dates which wasn’t there in the 50s.
The audience at this event was very engaged, and was comprised of many long-time fans. There were lots of questions at the end, but several focused on the criticism Leunig has received over the years. One lady asked how he keeps sharing his art when people keen throwing sh*t at him, and another wanted to know what sort of sh*t he gets and asked who was giving it to him. It was jocular, but the conversation took a more serious tone.
Leunig said that sometimes what he draws causes offence and the sky falls in. He reflected on the rise of militarism during the Iraq war. He even received death threats due to some of the cartoons he drew about that war. Leunig noted that we’re living in increasingly reactive times with the rise of social media and people have to deal with trolling, acrimony and hostility.
Leunig said that he has also had to deal with intellectual snobbery, and people looking down on him because he draws cute ducks. He said that you don’t have to be brilliant to be envied – you just have to smile and people will envy you.
Drawing back to Mahood’s original question, Leunig said that it is a natural thing to want to speak to society. He said the question is not why does he speak to society, but why don’t others? Then he smiled and said that they probably do, but in a more constructive and planned way.
Although he wasn’t going to sign books, Leunig was available after the talk for photographs and chats. He finished the event with one of his own quotes and said to the audience, “Be brave, comrades, life is joyous”.