curly flat ~ the Michael Leunig appreciation site

I'm forever indebted to Marlene "The Amazing" Frost for going out of her way to make this article available to us...

Lifts the teapot and shoos away the ducks to confront the raw emotion driving Michael Leunig’s life and illuminations.


MICHAEL LEUNIG’S “feral” childhood – wandering treeless paddocks with his pet duck, daydreaming, playing heroic explorer in the local tip while his father worked as a slaughterman in the local abattoir – seemed normal enough at the time. “My father came home tired every night, blood on him, cuts on his hands, after his life’s work with knife, killing, boning and slicing sheep and cattle,” Leunig recalls.

“The other industry nearby was the Government Ammunition Factory, and on sunny afternoons you’d hear the chattering of machine-guns testing bullets. “I accepted it all, as a kid does. Now I think, what a funny way to grow up – seeing your father come home cut and bleeding, listening to bullets firing, and my playground was the tip!” He gives a gentle laugh, and a quirky smile.

The curly-headed, lone-dreamer, the second eldest of five children in the working – class Leunig family from Melbourne’s outer western suburb of Footscray, grew up to become Australia’s cult cartoonist–philosopher.

If you ponder where Leunig’s special line of creativity springs from – his free-flight, acrobatic imagination, his periscopic understanding, joys, raptures, tender and lusty romantic throughs – you might as well start with the boy and his duck. Then, the childhood landscape which became the landscape of his cartoonist’s mind. Those vast, flat plains and empty horizons making a stage where anything could happen with a friendly moon hanging like a night lantern in the huge starry shy. And memories, like fairy and pixie games with his sister; discovering sex and pecking orders watching amorous ducks and drakes; and stumbling upon treasures and dangers lurking in the tip, at age 10, which burnt his legs so badly he couldn’t walk for five months.

He would experience more hurt and scarring ensuing years, as creative souls are blessed or cursed with, feeling life’s highs and lows at greater intensity.

All along he remained Melbourne’s most popular cartoonist – first in Nation Review, then The Age – feted with fan mail and people pouring out their innermost feelings in letters, thinking this insightful artist along understood how they felt. What the adoring public probably didn’t realise was that the naked honesty in his cartoons, poems and prose – prayers came from his own depressing, loneliness, dreams, desire to be heard and his tortuous, but finally revitalising, inner-life crisis. “I’m now certain that a mind-life crisis is as important a process to go through as puberty. I’m immensely grateful it happened to me, otherwise I was candidate to join the Walking Dead,” Leunig says.

“I see a great fear of life around me today. Often it’s couples in Walking Dead relationships, the safety of one corpse propping up another, both afraid to take a real look, avoiding disturbance. They fear disturbance as something bad, instead of recognising it can lead to good. It’s a major worry society has to face up to.”

Leunig does worriedness well but also increasingly, happiness. “In many ways, this last year has been both the worst year, and the best year of my life” – an acrimonious divorce and property settlement (were he remains outraged that former wife ended up keeping his early private paintings), remarriage to photographer Helga Salwe, a new baby daughter and a creative surge of new projects. “I’d taken a real look at myself, and I became determined I wasn’t going to feed that legend, of promising young artist declines into embittered lonely artist, letting his wounds destroy him, doing bad work, finding solace in drink, drugs, debauchery, or degenerating into a showman.

“Plenty do, but others don’t. They gain a maturity, a level of inner peace and completeness, that lets them use their life experience to go on to even better work, attempt new things, with a spirit that remains vitally alive. They learn to understand the wounds that are often the driving source of their art.

“These things aren’t givens; it takes work and disturbance to re-organise your life the way you wont it. A lot of life is about recognising the chances life offers, that ides, that person, deepen that experience, and having the courage to pursue them, or they will surely pass you by, and you regret it if the rest of your life. Sometimes the chances come in the strangest, most unexpected way.”

At 47, Leunig has already been honoured with a highly successful retrospective of his work, at the National Gallery of Victoria, and a dozen books of his collected works have been published, mostly by Penguin. He’s painting towards an exhibition and exploring theatre. On February 17, the British Trestle Theatre Company opens its production, State of Bewilderment, based on Leunig’s cartoon characters and prose, at the Sydney Opera House, then touring Perth and Melbourne. The play, where actors use 40 masks to achieve Leunig characters like Mr Curly, the Little man, or the angels, toured the UK for four months.

“It was enchanting how it came about,” explains Leunig, pouring the first on many mugs of tea in his Melbourne home. “Trestle Theatre read my books and invited me to England. I spent a surreal day with them, walking through fields of brussels sprouts, talking, ending up in a forest full of squirrels. Next day we were sitting around a table making in Plasticine, and the play was on its way.”

WHEN LEUNIG left Melbourne’s Maribyrnong High School (which had a number of refugee pupils and staff from Europe who carried psychological wounds – a factor Leunig appreciated), he wanted to be a psychologist or documentary filmmaker. Good at English and art, he excelled at drawing funny pictures, and teachers told him the he would make a top cartoonist.

“I was still a loner at school. I was sure there must be more to life than talking about football. I liked the notion of people with free spirits, poetry in their souls and an awareness of the ‘otherness’ in life, but that sort of person was not very evident in Footscray.

“I had this psychological preoccupation with what’s going on in the world, that things deeply concerned people in their inner lives. I wanted to find the truth, things people don’t own up to, don’t talk about. I had those thoughts inside me and I could never find anyone much who’d listen.” He began to feel he was a bit of an oddity and wondered if others were the same.

He started an arts degree at Monash University, drew great cartoons, but was not great at lectures, then was conscripted in the Vietnam call-up. “I’d followed the politics of the war, didn’t believe in it and registered as a conscientious objector. Like all the first wave of objectors, I was treated pretty appallingly, splat at in the street, called a traitor, coward, and it caused a big division amongst my friends. The hostility fuelled my sense that I am an outsider.”

Rejected by the Army anyway because of deafness in one ear, he moved to Swinburne Film and Television School for two years and drew more cartoons for underground publications. On the strength of these cartoons, Leunig was offered a job on the short-lived newspaper, Newsday.

“It was a good time for cartoonists: the old Liberal Government had been in for 22 years, with its preposterous conservatism, there were funny old characters like Gorton and Bolte to draw, and the morass of Vietnam.

“I didn’t have my own style, I was copying other cartoonists like mad at first, trying to do smart political cartoons. “The Newsday editor sent me to Canberra to have a look at Parliament and the politicians I was drawing and it proved a disillusioning shock. I’d been so idealistic; I didn’t realise politics was so much about deals and cynically making decided mainly to stay in power.

“I decided I’d never make a political cartoonist. I wasn’t any good at that Machiavellian stuff of treating it all like a tennis game. I was much more impassioned. I wanted to know what was really going on inside the head of the prime minister and the politicians, not just what they were saying on the floor of the House.

“I had to become more of an artist, more personal, take refuge by commenting on the inner life, rather than the outer. “One Saturday morning, I was supposed to be doing a Vietnam cartoon, and I just couldn’t. I thought Vietnam was such a hideous mess, anything a 23-year old kid said was irrelevant. I wanted to flee from the squalidness and I started drawing an optimistic fantasy about the human spirit… a man walking along with a teapot on his head, followed by a duck.

“I’d never drawn such a thing before, the teapot just landed on his head. The editor said he didn’t really understand it, but he liked it and ran it. I suppose I was saying that, as the world becomes more disconnected and fragment, I feel this need to re-state what is constant and the teapot symbolised it. A warm, shared, comforting, familiar thing.”

Newsday folded, and Leunig gravitated to Nation Review. “It was very daring paper then, edited by Richard Walsh, who had a good eye for the quirky and cheeky. One day he was peering over my shoulder as I was drawing a lean, nosy, sniffing dog. He thought it was a ferret, and gleefully adopted it as the paper’s symbol. I started creating my own new universe, a vocabulary of characters and recurring symbols.” Leunig is a tall, robust man with a soft, though strong voice, but his cartoon characters are invariably small. His Little Man was first to evolve. “I’d stopped drawing the particular, like Gorton and Whitlam, and looked to the archetypal. I found my own version of Everyman. I don’t call him anything; to me he’s the human spirit. He’s small, a bit of the inner-child symbol with that sense of wonderment, a bit feral, a bit cheeky. The big nose makes him look a bit foolish and vulnerable, allowing him to be the carrier of all messages, go into any situation, and somehow, miraculously, survive!”

Mr Curly was delivered next, a small man with an antenna, frond-like curl growing from the top of his head. “The curl is symbolic of his individuality, his unfolding growth and consciousness. He’s a perky, springy, vibrant soul who likes nature. The curl is very common in nature, it’s the way plants like ferns grow; there is an unfurling motion in astronomy.

“I like the curl. One of the finest qualities of the curl is, it’s not straight!” He laughs loudly. Vasco Pyjama arrived, the spontaneous risk taker, the great explorer, out there chasing his curiosities, facing the wild, a bit terrified, but keeping on. Even the bleakest Leunig cartoons always contain that ray of hope that will survive if one keeps faith and keeps on. “The moon is another symbol I like and compulsively put into things. It’s a remote, friendly light, a symbol of nocturnal wisdom, otherness, a feminine symbol. One seems to have a relationship with the moon. I do angels a lot, too because angels are friendly, winged spirits. When all else is squalor, an angel adds a hopeful dimension.

“And ducks, well, ducks just waddle along and get on with it, they are pristine and wonderfully self-cleaning, their beaks are smooth and non-threatening, they like food and sex and can be very comical. One of the great English poets wrote, ‘From the troubles of this world, I turn to ducks…’”

Leunig characters tend to defy gravity and, Chagall-like, transcend into cosmic realms. “I like Chagall and Klee, the spirit lifts off from the earth, and all things become possible. But I like Picasso, too, because he was right down there in the realm of the struggling soul. “There is a lot of tumbling and rolling about in life,” he adds later.

When Nation Review ran out of stream, Leunig moved to The Age. “I couldn’t be as naughty and smutty as I’d often been at the Review, so the obscenity I developed at The Age was to be wildly irrelevant to the current focus of concern in the newspaper.

“One day the world seemed to be going loony, and I couldn’t find an appropriate image so I drew a man in a flaming bed, hurling to earth like a crashing plane. I think I was saying that even our bed, once the final secure place to retreat and dream, is no longer safe.”

WHILE MICHAEL Leunig’s public grew through his Age cartoons, his private life began to trouble and torment him. “I became generally depressed, but I didn’t really know why. It was debilitating.

“At critical times, one’s relationship can be the means by which you get to the bottom of such things. A good marriage is like therapy, because a deeper understanding of self comes from a deep and confronting relationship. Unfortunately that wasn’t the nature of my marriage.

“I’d married early, my first girlfriend, and although we were old friends, we were not as profoundly connected as I had imagined when it came to the crisis. It’s a common story in the failure of marriage: one party needs more of that certain ‘something’ than the other; more of that emotional exploration and meshing. One can’t live without it and the other can’t bear to have it; it’s too threatening, too disturbing. The one who needs it implores the other, who cannot understand and pushes away. A mutual frustration develops, and husband and wife grow apart.”

The pronouncements he’d been hearing since childhood continued. He was a dreamer, he didn’t know about the real world, didn’t have his feet on the ground; he should provide fir his family, provide drawings for the paper, stop making trouble and “get real”. His art, his need to follow the muse – at first seen as drawing funny pictures – was now developing into something he felt his families regarded as threatening, and out of their scope. A code of silence about his work arose, and continues, which he found hurtful.

“There was a long period of endurance, winding down. Then five years ago, it was suddenly finished. The feeling inside me could not be denied or held down any longer. It was this huge emotional crying out, a wanting of the life due to one, that has not been lived. Wanting an intimate, loving, understanding life with a partner who could accept the muse as something important and nourishing, not the enemy. “It came to a specific choice – I could stay – compliant paid-up member of the Walking Dead, or I could leave and start to live the life I knew I needed.

“I thought it was better for my children that I be a separate father, rather than a dead father. It’s sacrifice, but it’s better than becoming an embittered dead soul. I adored my two sons and hated leaving them, but I wanted the cold war to end, because it was destructive to all of us. Staying together for the sake of the children is a deadly choice. Children need an example of real love in their lives, and ending the marriage gave both parents a new chance to find a loving relationship, which was ultimately a more positive step than enduring a dead relationship. “I had a lot of grief about what I was doing, I was so used to being regarded as the one at fault, I accepted that role about myself and felt heavy guilt. One day I walked into the Marriage Guidance Council.

“I talked to this wonderful woman therapist, and it was such a relief – one of the most clear experiences of being heard. It was suggested to me that what I’d been thinking and feeling for all these years was perfectly valid. She invited me to come back and I returned weekly. “Good therapy is tremendously interesting. It’s learning, like doing a university course on understanding human nature. It is also difficult, slow work, and a commitment, but it suited me. I started reading Jung, Winnicott, other psychologists, and you soon recognise other people going on the same voyage into self-knowledge.

“It is gaining a form of maturity; you do the growing up you were not able to do in the family or your early relationship. You learn a lot about relationship, dependence, and the importance of giving validity to one’s own reality. The more inwards you go, the more outwards you can go, and relate better to the outside world.

“My energy came sparking back, I felt calmer. It’s given me a more confident connection to my work and private life. You need a good inner to have a good outer life.

“We need a new, dignified term to replace mid-life-crisis. People are nervous about admitting they are going through this crucially important stage, because the term carries an expectation of being mocked.”

Early on in his artistic career, Leunig decided he’d “own up” to all sorts of troublesome/poignant/forlorn/ribald/hormonal/embarrassing/fantastic personal thoughts, in the belief if he owned up first, it would help others feel easier. “It’s this obsession I have to tell the truth about life.” He has belief it will help others who desire to understand, but feels vulnerable “about certain peoples’ eagerness to misunderstand your honesty.” “A lot of people attack psychology, because you no longer leave unsaid the things you want to express. You are no longer so afraid to break the old rules of not raising certain topics because you know it well evoke a foul temper, a martyrish lecture. I disagree with that notion that truth causes chaos. There is dignity and composure to truth."

LATE AFTERNOON, we walk through the nearby botanic gardens, and end up by the duck pond. Along the way he talks of many things. His constant love for his two sons – the elder is doing art.

“I have learnt how important it is that a parent encourage a child’s true self and curiosity, give it a validity, rather than only praise obedience and compliance. Unless the spontaneous gesture is listened to, it becomes insulted and goes into retreat. “It is very conforming time now, and this is a great worry. The individual is an endangered species. I guess that’s what an artist is always trying to do-be a fulsome individual, with all its strange difficulties,” he says.

He is concerned that as society becomes more compliant, people are frightened to use their imagination and no longer dare to dream. “Many people never learn how to contemplate and reflect and say they are bored. Is it some kind of immense discomfort with oneself, or just being alone with another, just to be still?

“The loss of contemplation leads to fid-getting, all this cultural and emotional fid-getting that is going on. “A lack of contemplation is like not having a digestive system. There is too much velocity, grabbing, for fear of missing out. It’s so true, you may gain the whole world and lose your soul.”

A small boy races around the pond, calling “duck! Duck!” and two sleek white ducks speed in Leunig’s direction. He says: “See, they’re ducks. If they were drakes, there’d be a pronounced curly feather on the tail.” So, is that were Mr Curly’s curl came from?

Leunig grins. “Subliminally, yes, it might have come from the drake’s tail.” He leans back laughing, saying the curl is not compliant, and repeats an earlier thought: “One of the finest qualities of the curl is, it’s not straight.”

from "Good Weekend" magazine, copyright 1992 David Syme Ltd.
Thanks to Marlene Frost for lending me the clipping and Roberta Spano for the trasncription.
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