Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Event: Michael Leunig

Shearer’s final author event for 2012 took place on Monday 26th November and what an evening it was! We had a visit from the unique Australian artist, Michael Leunig, to discuss his latest publication, The Essential Leunig: Cartoons from a Winding Path and so popular was he that the event was held next door in the Palace Cinema to cater for the crowd of 180.

Leunig warned us that he didn’t have a prepared ‘spiel’, ‘no pleasing witty talk to deliver’. Instead, he gave us so much more – offerings from his heart and soul as he described for us the 'poetry and spirit in the playful winding path that the semiconscious pen makes on a piece of paper'.

Leunig began by describing the process of collating the 400 pieces, representing his career of over 40 years, for this latest book – many favourites, some never before published and many which had spread out into the world or been kept in public libraries.  Such a process re-awakened various emotions as he was confronted with issues he had lived through and rediscovered parts of himself. The process was not pain-free – expressing yourself over 40 years means making mistakes and airing regrets in public. And he came to realise as he looked upon his odd bunch of drawings, what an odd life he has had!

Leunig’s school experience was not a happy one and he believes he attempted to escape it by creating a mind-space where he could safely invent and creatively express his own view of life. His cartooning career began as a political commentator in a daily newspaper in Melbourne in 1969. Faced with a blank square each day on the Letters page he increasingly felt uneasy about presenting caricatures and point scoring and grew more interested in human nature and wisdom. One day, as an impending deadline grew to a close Leunig, in desperation, drew a duck. To this day he does not know why he chose a duck although he did grow up with them. All he knew was that he wanted the duck.

He grew to realise that it was an image he wanted to offer up, and that the world would be improved with a duck in it. In the political cartoonist’s blank square on the Letters page with its potential commentary on war, death, corruption and political manoeuvres, there went instead an innocent little duck.  And Leunig, himself, was transformed from a commentator into an artist. Now, he told us, he knew that instead of presenting something with a particular meaning or a punchline, he was now offering something lyrical and soulful in its dimensions, opening things up rather than nailing things down. Leunig discovered in this process that the personal is most universal; that the artist’s role is to express what is repressed. This, he explained, can be both the ugly difficult things that embarrass us and the beautiful things that nourish us but which we are too inhibited to express for ourselves. Leunig described sadness as one of the latter – ‘a beautiful door to joy’, a beautiful rich feeling where happiness can appear.

Leunig described his new artistic awareness as getting into a childlike space -more primal, sub-human, messy and daring where good ideas come once the mind is freed up. He described the beauty of watching children paint or draw – how uninhibited and non-judgemental they are. Or the indigenous artists from remote communities in northern and central Australia with whom he has visited and collaborated, who intuitively choose their colours and thoroughly enjoy their ‘mark-making’ and whom he credits with greatly influencing his art, humour and philosophy. Leunig then shared a saying from Lao Tzu to express his philosophy: ‘True art seems artless.’

Leunig’s duck became the catalyst for his receiving a letter from a woman named Marie-Louise, a contemporary of Carl Jung, who wrote of the archetypal significance of the duck in German folklore. He learned that the duck appeared when the protagonists became trapped or blocked on their journey and it would fly them to safety. So, in Jungian terms, the duck represents transcendence or a transition to new territory when the soul becomes blocked. Leunig is rather pleased that his whimsical duck has an eternal meaning, although he also loves whimsy.

Leunig went on to create other whimsical characters such as Mr Curly and Vasco Pyjama as well as the odd teapot. However, a watershed moment came in Leunig's daily cartooning work with the advent of the 'war on terror' following the 9/11 atrocity. As an artist, in dread of its implications and at odds with the political climate of the time, Leunig became filled with sadness and despairing of human nature. His work showed a decline in the more lyrical or gentle themes and he stopped drawing Mr Curly altogether. He eschews the growth of information for the collective masses through TV and movies as much for their hyperactive over-stimulation as for their lack of wisdom. But Leunig continues to try to make meaning of the world otherwise it becomes a trauma.  He offered this as his definition of trauma – an inability to make meaning.

As he grows older, Leunig says he feels more at peace despite the world often ‘going mad’. As he described it, he feels ‘less worldly and more other-worldly.’ He painted a lyrical picture in our minds of little wings fluttering and sometimes lifting him off the ground. And he maintains that it is only the collective that bothers him, the individual is usually lovely.  He still holds a special affection towards his characters, which are always in profile, have large noses, and are of unidentifiable age and sex, yet which portray the human spirit and innocence, mainly through the expression in their eyes. Leunig described the beauty that can be found wherever a human creates something authentic and offers it to the world with love, not for active monetary gain.  He concluded with - ‘Do what you love and offer it to the world.’

Thank you Michael Leunig for carrying us on your wings and transporting us all along your playful winding path of poetry and spirit!


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