I’m just after an interview. Michael Leunig has designs on my dreams.
The cartoonist, philosopher, poet, Australian Living Treasure and, at times, he says, “a bit of a ratbag, as we would say in this country” is heading our way for the Auckland Writers Festival. Apart from the odd cartoon that caused an uproar and even, once, an international incident, his work is peopled by guileless, vulnerable, hopeful creatures. This is the man who responded to an editor’s request in the 60s for a cartoon about the Vietnam War by drawing a man with a teapot on his head riding a duck.
The cartoons can – are meant to – mess with your subconscious. I’d been reading his book The Essential Leunig before bed. That night I dreamt of a vivid, prelapsarian seashore where people swam with dolphins and elephants basked companionably in the shallows. “Oh, good. Yes, that’s a rather lovely dream,” the 68-year-old says down the phone from his office in Melbourne. “It doesn’t get better than elephants basking in the sea. And the dolphins.” He sighs. “I need that dream.”
His own sleep has been preyed upon by predators. “I’ve been having a lot of shark dreams lately. I’ve always had them, ever since I was a kid. Lately, they’re there.”
They come, he thinks, from early bad experiences. There was the time his father, a slaughterman, took his mates and his small son out fishing. “Nothing was going to stop them, even if the weather turned bad.” It did. “Big waves and the sky was black and the sea was dark. The boat’s engine failed, everyone was ill. It was the first time I ever saw a grown man cry.”
They made it to shore, just. He remembers the terror; the sheer, mortal relief. “You’re doomed and by a miracle eventually your feet are back on dry land. The jubilation is enormous.”
The fragility of human existence coupled, as it is, with the exhilaration of being alive: it’s a recurring theme in his art. “Oh, very much so. They’ve always popped up: a little boy in a boat with the dark and the storm. A constant theme. As one old sailor said to me, ‘Anyone who says they love the sea doesn’t know the sea.’” Of course he still loves the sea. “But yes, it’s a dark, deep thing.”
Against the darkness he sends his battalions of blameless ducks, curly people and anxious, everyday angels. “It’s a kind of hieroglyphics,” he says of his style. His signature character is absurd. “Such a big nose – it’s ludicrous. Big wide eyes. It’s almost sub-human, almost baby, let alone a child. Almost prenatal,” he says. “It’s really important to me, that primal side of humanity. I see there’s a great divinity in that also.” One of his books is called Holy Fool.
There’s rage and alienation, too. Cartoons rail against jet skis, conformity, war, media – the whole mad modern world. “What violence do you want,” says the female half of a pizza-scoffing couple, brandishing a television remote. “Sporting, military or random-psychotic?”
You can detect at times a feeling of disgust at how we complicated mortals fall short of Leunig’s simple, holy fools. “Do you mean do I have to fight off feelings of revulsion at humanity? That’s true. It’s a kind of despair at human nature and the human condition and what humans do.”
He holds to his belief in something essential and pure. “I think we all have it. It’s whether we’re prepared to access it and understand it as a source of regeneration and creativity. I’m a great believer in it.”
Keeping the faith in what he calls “mature innocence” can be an uphill battle. “Given the climate, people are very cynical and defensive. The humour is so hard and biting and politics is hard,” he says. “It’s almost the act of a kind of a martyr to believe in it.”
If Leunig hasn’t quite been martyred for his art, he has, at times, been roundly pilloried. Images can have such power. “You can underestimate that because they go around the intellect or they go underneath it. It has a primal effect.” Tyrants, he says, have always understood this. “They’re limited in many respects but there’s a power they have which is indelible and can be very unfair.”
As he says, “Make a political cartoon, you’re going to tread on toes.”
His cartoons on the Israel-Palestinian conflict spring to mind. “Of course. But I must say in all of those things it always took me by surprise because I didn’t set out to offend. When you sit down to do a cartoon, you get caught up in the intensity of your thinking. You’re trying to throw a light on it, and lo and behold you realise you’ve hurt people.”
A 2002 cartoon used the image of the gate at Auschwitz to draw parallels between the genocide of Jews in World War II and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The problem, as many furious commentators pointed out, is that when you use Holocaust imagery, the target becomes not just a particular government but all Jews. Leunig is politely unmovable on the matter. “The Holocaust thing was rather horrible because Melbourne is a pretty big Jewish town. It has a huge Jewish post-war settlement and Holocaust survivors and, oh boy. That was ferocious.” He was sorry to hurt, he says. “But I don’t resile from the sort of things I was trying to say. And it’s not alien – Israel, the Jewish community itself, is split over these same things, so my position wasn’t all that radical.”
The cartoon was rejected by the Age when he submitted it. “I’d shown it to my Jewish editor and he rang me back and said, ‘We can’t run that.’” There was an argument. “A friendly debate.” Leunig lost. “I said, ‘Okay. I’m not going to make a song and dance’ because I respected his sensitivities and his advice.”
The cartoon was leaked. Leunig agreed to talk to the ABC’s Media Watch. Then news broke that the cartoon had been entered in an anti-Semitic cartoon competition in an Iranian newspaper. “So I was suddenly seen to be the first entrant in this Iranian competition denouncing the Jews and laughing at the Holocaust. It was a nightmare. The editor rang me the next morning and said, ‘Is this true that you’ve entered this?’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
The hoaxer who submitted the cartoon eventually confessed. “Too late,” says Leunig. There were threats. “Someone sent me a picture from New York of an angry Muslim demonstration with these crazy-looking guys burning things and there’s a poster with my name on it as being someone who has to be eliminated along with the Danish cartoonists. They got me mixed up somehow so there was some fatwa out. They were coming at me from all sides.”
The episode took a toll. “When a helicopter landed in my back paddock full of journalists, I was in trouble. It was very crushing and I reckon my health took a bit of turn at that point.”
He stands by the cartoon but does say this: “It’s complex … I didn’t grow up knowing any Jews at all because of the place I lived, basically. I didn’t understand the sensitivity. It dawned on me gradually.”
He also points out he’s been an equal-opportunity pain in the arse. “I’ve offended not just the Jews. I’ve offended the Catholics, the Protestants, the gay people, the women’s lobby … You name it.” That’s the job of the cartoonist, he says. “It’s the voice of the permanent opposition, one old cartoonist once told me. To not speak for the well-armed or the well-resourced or the beautiful or the most powerful. It’s to speak for the other lot.” The Auschwitz cartoon doesn’t appear in The Essential Leunig.
There were no helicopters in the back paddock but feelings ran high over his 1995 cartoon “Thoughts of a Baby Lying in a Child Care Centre”. The desolate baby blames itself for this abandonment. “I’m going to get myself back for this one day. I’ll punish myself!” it threatens. Ouch. “That was a big hot water to get in,” sighs Leunig. Doesn’t the cartoon blame mums who may have no choice rather than a society that forces many women back to work? He tells me what he told women who said the cartoon seemed designed to make them feel guilty. “I said, ‘I know it might sound arrogant, but guilt is not the worst feeling in the world.’ We all might have a pang of guilt occasionally in our lives and we’re big enough to take it and work our way through it,” he says airily.
He’s not about to budge on this one, either. “I think it was a good thing to do that cartoon. It did precipitate a huge debate in this country.” Academics and psychologists used the cartoon, he says, but none came out in support of him. “So I was very much alone and it hurt a lot. Some women were very cruel deliberately and I wasn’t being deliberately cruel. But that’s the breaks. That’s being a cartoonist. It really does involve a lot of hurt and a lot of pain; a lot of remorse, a lot of sadness,” he says. “If one is working somewhat in the subconscious or touching the primal and the subconscious in people, expect a kick back from that part of them too.”
He’s not about to complain. Well, maybe a little. “We’re living in an age of complaint and aggravation. As I say to people, ‘Look, it’s not an act of Parliament. Relax. It’s just a cartoon.’”
He has always, you suspect, been a bit of a maverick. He has described himself as the black sheep of the family, estranged from his siblings. Has that changed? “No, it’s only got worse. We had a fabulously rich and lively, happy working-class family that seemed to just implode in mid-life. I tried everything I could to resolve it but there comes a time when you know you did your best and it doesn’t work. So yeah, I don’t have that sense of support from a family,” he says. “Mind you, my parents didn’t understand what I did for a living, I don’t think.”
The way of the artist. The Essential Leunig is subtitled “Cartoons from a Winding Path”. His avoidance of the well-trodden track led him to art. “I’d come through school a terrible failure and I was working in the meat works. All my friends had gone to uni. I thought I was bright and intelligent but, anyway, no good at exams.” He fell into cartooning through his opposition to the Vietnam War. “I never went to art school and learnt how to draw. That’s essentially what a cartoon is, I guess. It’s free from all those rules of draughtsmanship.” Thus his ducks, his teapots, his regressive, numinous fools.
He’s something of an outsider professionally, too. “I don’t really fit to the world of art. I sometimes make cartoons about the world of art.” They are seldom complimentary.
He’s happiest away from gallery openings, at his real home, a place in the bush outside Melbourne. There he home-schooled his younger son and daughter (he also has two sons from his first marriage). One of his older sons is a painter. Another, Sunny Leunig, is a “magosopher” – something to do with magic and philosophy. “I can’t quite follow it,” says Leunig, “and I think that’s healthy.” Perhaps overexposed to his father’s notions of innocent wonderment, his son also offers Uninspirational Quotes on his website: “If you dream of success, don’t you think it would have happened by now?”
Success – Leunig senior has had his share. He doesn’t rate it, which must be awkward for a Living Treasure. “Well, fortunately I came from a culture where these things were always treated with suspicion.” When the call came, he told them he didn’t have a suit for the ceremony. They told him he had to hire one. “They were quite rude. So I didn’t turn up.”
Still, like an elephant in warm shallows, he allows himself to bask in the recognition he gets on the street. “My city, Melbourne, is like my village. I can walk about and end up talking to all sorts of people. I’m lucky. Earlier, I was more controversial, a little bit of a ratbag, really, for some people’s tastes.”
As befits a sort of reluctant elder statesman of the arts, he’s embarking upon writing a memoir. “Your Tim Finn, in the lovely song Haul Away, says ‘Everyone has their own little story.’”
And the rewards he truly values keep coming. “Bits of my work have ended up in important, not high, places; important moments in people’s lives, like death or the loss of a child. A little poem is read at a funeral or discussed by someone as they are dying, even. It’s lovely to hear back those personal responses, rather than winning an excellence award for being a funny fellow.”
A funny fellow: he is. He’s a man of peace who has fought some epic battles. He has a deep distrust of cleverness and acclaim. He is, conspicuously, clever and acclaimed.
It sounds like it has always been complicated being Leunig. But what sustains him against the storms of life and art, the sharks that prowl the dark, deep sea is, he insists, very simple. “This lovely thing of the human spirit which still retains an innocence. Of course most don’t show it, but you can find it and that is the art of being alive. To find it in each other and take heart in that.”
THE ESSENTIAL LEUNIG: CARTOONS FROM A WINDING PATH, by Michael Leunig (Penguin, $60).
Michael Leunig is appearing at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 14-18.