curly flat ~ the Michael Leunig appreciation site


Why Dogs Sniff Each Other's Tails

You probably already know the answer, as this latest publication is another retrospective in the same format as his last release "Short Notes from the Long History of Happiness", a hardbound stocking-stuffer offering a scant overview of his work to date. The story of the fire at the dog gala ball was related to Michael by his father, and appears in the book both in its original cartoon form and as a text piece.

There's a significant representation of his early (70's) work here, heavy on sexual themes and drawn heavily and without the detail of his later work. At the launch of the book Michael spoke about his fascination with sexual taboos in a social context, and confessed that he's always had a curiosity for other people's secrets, expressed here through various voyeuristic characters and situations. Indeed, Michael was taken to court in the 70's for depicting the male genitalia and was eventually admonished on appeal; the story is amusing as he tells it now, describing how the strength of the case rested on whether the penis was erect or not; but in the context of the time, an era when Richard Neville et al were challenging censorship laws with their "London Oz" 'zine, these were serious issues and both Leunig and Neville now question whether we've come too far in the liberalisation of expression.

As you'd expect, this compilation has a smattering of social comment, plenty of hopelessness, a little optimism and some succinctly expressed simple truths, seemingly taken from his collection at random and without a common thread. If you have all his previous releases there isn't much new here but for Leunig newbies, a concise digest of his work so far.

The book was launched in Melbourne on September 27th, promoted by Readings Books and hosted by ABC Radio personality Terry Laidler. A packed house of several hundred listened to discussion of the various themes that crop up in the book, after which Michael fielded questions from the audience then stayed to oblige the long queue of autogrpahites. One gets a sense of great honesty when listening to Leunig talk about his work; rather than offer platitudes to the sometimes inane questions, he frequently prefers to answer "I don't really know", which paradoxically leaves me feeling that the answer is too obvious to put into words; the drawings are his natural medium of expression and a verbal interpretation is, at best, superfluous.

Michael spoke quite passionately about our (he used the word 'everyone' but you can limit this to 'the more enlightened') quest to experience life in reality, as opposed to through the media; he has not owned a television for 10 years nor seen a movie for 5, doesn't read newspapers much and believes that everything he needs to know, he can hear from ordinary people. Through his work at various newspapers he has seen what 'comes down the wire' and what goes to print and has little respect for either.

Besides the duck, dogs are probably the most represented animal in Leunig's work; he has great affection for all animals but dogs in particular, despite having required plastic surgery on his hand to repair a dog bite, and makes the observation:

"The art of dogs receives very little attention or acclaim, except, of course, from other dogs".

"Why Dogs sniff each other's Tails" is published by Penguin Books Australia Ltd.

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