Michael Leunig’s signature image came from a moment of frustration, some 40 years ago. He was 24, and working as a newspaper’s political cartoonist in Canberra, “a little wet behind the ears,” and feeling totally incapable of producing the required witty political satire. The Australian government was sending his former classmates and friends overseas to Vietnam. He felt frustrated and furious with politics. In this moment he thought, “I think there is something missing, I’ll add a duck.” And so his subversive, whimsical political commentary was born.
Mr Leunig’s inspiration for a duck a big nose, ambiguous gender and wide eyes comes from a desire to imagine the world as a kinder and gentler place.
“There is yearning in that thing and given the great disappointment of life, how bitter and cruel and hard, don’t we wish everyone was a bit softer and kinder, and if you can’t find it you try and create it, like a little playful angel,” he said.
Mr Leunig was speaking as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival at the Wharf Theatre on May 23, about life, his work and his recent book, Holy Fool, a collection of more than 240 of his drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures brought together for the first time.
He grew up in the western suburbs of Melbourne, in a family that “were working class when that actually meant something, now it is just a political perversion.”
While playing in a rubbish tip when he was aged about eight, he fell into a pit of hot ashes. It’s a gruesome tale, and the accident nearly cost him his foot and left him in bed for six months with severe burns. You can imagine that this would be a formative moment for the cartoonist, who considers himself to be an outsider. But it is not the memory of listening to other children playing outside that he really reflects on, instead, he remembers the doctor who fought to save his toes and who refused to charge his parents.
He also remembers all the people who came to visit him. Despite the painful injuries and the time confined to bed, he smiles as he tells the stories of those who came to visit: “It was filled with lots of love.”
Mr Leunig’s subversive, whimsical way with political cartoons is the product of a long history of resisting the norms. He twice attempted to complete his final year of high school and failed both times: “I really had to prove to myself that I couldn’t do it,” he said. “Maybe all those years I was resisting because I wanted to learn my own way.”
He has passed that on to his own children; now grown and “very clever” they were homeschooled from their rural property in the Victoria. “We had a lot of space and stumbled along it and eventually the paddocks and animals and trees began to teach them too,” he said.
Even after all these years of making a living as a creative person, Leunig finds the muse is not a constant. “It is a bit lost and found, but you know it will come back, it’s your friend.”
Friend, maybe, yet the process of creating is never simple. “You have this idea, intellectually, in your mind. And try to make it and it’s terrible and you try to fix it and it only gets worse and you are looking at this terrible thing.”
However, it is intensely cathartic, as “the ego is stripped away, because it cannot get any worse. Stay with the disillusionment … in this moment you will find your inner child, and learn to play.”
Mr Leunig’s cartoons frequently feature images of his characters with trees and birds and, of course, ducks (not to mention teapots and idiosyncratic curly people). “I’ve got to bring in nature, it’s missing in the ecosystem of debate,” he said. “The world around us is bitter, cruel, futile and destructive, so you have to bring in nature.”
Softly spoken, with the quiet air of a philosopher, Mr Leunig muses as he speaks. He took the audience on a trip along his stream of consciousness, where he talked about his worries for the future of human nature, and the fate of mankind. He has disparaging things to say about politicians, but they are spoken with gentle grace. Mr Leunig is a moral philosopher of our times: He worries the “world is suffering. The human heart is not happy, and unless the politicians can care about that, the system is broken.”