From Wanted For Questioning: Interviews with Australian Comic Artists
(Editors) Murray Bramwell and David Matthews, Allen and Unwin, 1992.
One of the first things I discovered when I came to Australia in 1972 was an extraordinary paper called the Nation Review. Toey, opinionated, snide, courageous, it was a paper with highly distinctive styles and personalities and it had cartoons in it like none I’d seen before. Not like those in Punch or Private Eye or The New Yorker, totally different. Michael Leunig’s wispy, inky drawings of urban existentialism managed to be both lyrical and madly funny at the same time. Each frame was a blinder. With evangelical exuberance I photocopied Leunigs to send to friends back in New Zealand. We might have produced David Low and Murray Ball, but we had nothing like this.
Michael Leunig has been describing the indescribable for twenty years or more. His published collections of cartoons are treasured by the thousands who buy them. His regular cartoons in the Age are one of the enduring privileges of living in Melbourne. Lately he has been writing what he calls prayers and the response has been stronger than ever. In 1991 The National Gallery of Victoria put together a Leunig Introspective — typically he spotted a word right under our noses that we hadn’t quite seen in that way. Thousands filed past the drawings cackling, sighing, remembering where they were when Mr Curly first appeared, and generally looking like a crowd scene in a Leunig cartoon.
Over the years Michael Leunig has been reticent about public statements beyond that articulated in his work. It was entirely reasonable of him to think he had already spoken very clearly. But with the appearance of A Common Prayer and the preparation of the Introspective, Leunig began to appear in the press and on radio, talking about things very much on our minds — even though we didn’t quite know it. He was asking all kinds of impertinent questions about the things we do and the reasons we do them.
I visited Michael Leunig at his flat in a vaguely-deco block of apartments in St Kilda. The lounge room was filled with his paintings — crusty, almost medieval looking acrylics — and a variety of black and white photographs, many of Aboriginal communities in Arnhem Land. Among the books on the shelf were collections of Rousseau and the work of Grandma Moses. Michael Leunig has a particular gift for being able to think aloud, plunging into his thoughts like a sea diver, bringing back strange and numinous discoveries. Even our first question went straight into the deep end.
Is comedy too often heartless?
There is this question of wit, isn’t there? It might be up for grabs what wit means but it seems to me that what is held up as wit does not necessarily contain truth. For instance, in cartooning if you do a gag which ridicules a politician it might make people laugh and get the result — hey that’s a great laugh, that makes him look an idiot — but often it is based on the most shallow understanding of the complexity of the problem. It stereotypes, nails something down to a fixed position. It deals a blow which stops something at that point and characterises it. That’s what caricature is. But it does not allow for the struggling and growing aspect of a person or situation. Sometimes that needs to be brought to bear on some Adolf Hitler characters but it should not be on someone who is inarticulate, in a vulnerable position, someone who is easily tripped. If someone is making a fragile search in what they are doing or saying, they can easily be knocked down and it’s a great opportunity for a sadist to unseat somebody.
I find a lot of humour tends to restrain things, it creates an atmosphere — look I’d better not say this. I might get it wrong and someone will take the piss out of me. This irritates me greatly because it doesn’t allow for that certain groping aspect of thinking and expression. So much of the greatest expression has been clumsy. Van Gogh described himself as being crushed by his own clumsiness. In conventional terms it was regarded as clumsy painting. We now know different. It is the sharp wit that can bring a clumsy person down. This is based on my personal experience as a child. I don’t accept the conventional view of the universe but in order to do that I must stumble, fumble, grope, be inarticulate — and there was always some bugger waiting to take the piss out of me.
Often wit is said to be cutting or having edge. The scalpel or anatomist is implied, the surgeon operating in absolute conditions.
I think comedians who create the incisive, clinical, vigilant air of sarcasm and so on are building a prison for themselves. There is a lot of finger-pointing in that sort of work — and projection. They are really seeing all the ineptitude in the world in someone else and not in themselves. They’re setting themselves up as being perfect and stifle their own true expression. They live in a world that becomes intellectual and therefore heartless eventually. Heartfelt comedians are cutting, in that they open things up, but they don’t resolve. I think humour is at its most marvellous when it enchants. It is a form of enchantment which opens something up, a new possibility but no answer.
That’s why the gag has the punch line — and that’s an interesting word, punch. All these terms like killing them, I killed them. It takes an issue and deals with it and finishes it and leaves everybody helpless with laughter and that’s the end of the story a bit. The humour I tend to like sidesteps the punch line, goes beyond the punch line. In an act of grace it forgoes the gratification of the punch line and that power over the audience to lay them in the aisles, to kill them. We love that, we love to laugh and I don’t condemn that of course — but there is this other thing which is often neglected, which is making them laugh but leaving something open in them and open in the joke, something slightly unresolved, something curious, something slightly mystifying which allows a meeting ground, a merging between the comedian and the audience. We share a not-understanding of this.
I’ve often found the drawings I’ve done that I’ve liked the most are things I don’t entirely understand. They come with a great drive and conviction from within but I can’t really analyse them. These are the better pieces. They work at some other deeper level I guess, a subconscious level perhaps. A good comedian, like a good musician or a good poet, works on a level where they lose their knowledge and move into an unknown and they express the unknown and reflect it. They still keep their humour but they bring it into consciousness. This is a marvellous thing. This is when humour becomes art I think. This is why only an artist can do this. I’m talking about a humorist who is really an artist at heart, who has this connection to some disturbance within. They are quite prepared to publicly air that and it’s an enlightening aspect. I don’t know whether that all sounds a bit mad.
Hardly. Do you look at your work in wonderment at where it’s come from? You know, Laing’s question: ‘Who is the dreamer who dreams our dreams?’
This fascinates me. What kind of psyche or self can seem to do this, has access to that level and has this compulsion or instinct to go on doing it without quite knowing why? The obvious thing is that there is something compelling, it’s something they do the way birds build nests. They have an instinct to do it. I’m sure it’s to do with dreams — not in the narrow sense of the things we have at night — but the subconscious. I think it’s that other truth we are not so familiar with, the unspeakable, the elusive kind of truth. It addresses a great philosophical question of what it is to be alive. This can all be sent up as pompous but I think it all comes down to that. There is an enormous curiosity on the part of artists, musicians, philosophers — and humorists do it too. Their form of enchantment is humour as the enchantment of a painting is colour and form. This is the bit that removes people from their ego-consciousness, dislodges them from their reality just long enough for something to slip in, or come forth.
I think the humorist creates this moment whereby normal consciousness is slightly removed by shock, or by strange juxtaposition. Something doesn’t add up for a minute, they’ve lost their feet for a minute, intellectually, a little door opens and something comes out, rather than something going in. And it’s quite wounding almost, in a pleasant way.
A musician enchants with harmony, it removes people temporarily from a normal state. I think comedians can do it. Then what happens? Well they don’t know because they’re not seeking to control the situation. They only want it to be opened. I think a great humorist is not seeking to manipulate or control, or playing for a gag to have them in the palm of the hand. This notion, I know, is necessary for a practical working humorist, but so many times it becomes a power thing where you are manipulating and playing with the audience. If it is just playing for the sake of it — I’m wary of that. It seems to be self-aggrandising and leaves the audience with the laughs and nothing else. This is a retrospective look at this. I’m not saying a good comedian has all this in their head. They’re just compulsively doing this.
Wordsworth said that we murder to dissect. Are you ever worried that if you examine these processes you lose your gifts as a receptor’?
There is the Chinese saying that the bird of paradise does not land on the hand that grasps. This is a great problem cartoonists have working for the media. On the one hand they have to have deadlines, they have to produce. On the other hand they know damn well it-cannot be summonsed forth at will. One has to create preconditions and even then you have to learn it every time you sit down to do it. You have to learn again for the first time. That’s the disturbing thing.
Do you sometimes feel that you are only as good as the next thing you do. I don’t mean good to the world but to yourself?
There is that pressure although that can become a tyranny too. There is a level in making humour or a joke or an enchanting kind of piece where it is good enough. Just as it is for a piano player to play an old song, an old good-enough song. You don’t have to sing a new song every time.
You mean like musical improvisations, variations on a theme?
Indeed. I think a humorist must come back and restate and restate in some shape or form. There’s something very stabilising about that. I think restatement is something we’ve grown away from because as a culture we tend to praise novelty and gimmickry. Novelty and freakish-ness often pose as originality, some kind of freakish new trick, but it is not. We tend to be hung up on tricks and looking for the new angle and the latest style. To fly in the face of that is an attack on that ethic.
So you might restate with some of your nocturnal images, clouds and moons say ?
Yeah. With the basic symbols. Your work doesn’t exist as the next gag or the next act or whatever. It’s the notion of the body of work, the on-goingness, the history. People need to have that about their comedians and musicians, the sense of the roots of the thing and the interconnections and interweaving, being taken back to familiarise us. It’s very grounding. One creates a sort of infrastructure I suppose, subconsciously over many years. It allows you to create a world and within that world to bring people into it. You gradually flesh the world out and as the years go by you’ve created a fantasy, an imagined world where there are certain things that you might expect to happen that can then be put in. You can draw characters and fit them into that world. It’s a good connecting thing.
A cartoonist will create a standard figure — the Everyman, Everyperson image and that becomes their working . . . carrier, their messenger, their angel, in the notion of the angel as messenger. In my case I create this character gradually over the years, this poor little wretched fool with big wide eyes, a bit of an innocent. He’s a bit genderless, a bit ageless — not quite human, more humanoid. A bit like a monkey or a foetus. But it’s a life spirit, you see, that people can trust. There’s no possible threat with this character. So this creation can say all sorts of things. It can propose the most ridiculous things, or soft, touching little innocent things or it can be bawdy. And it’s always forgivable because I created this character and I need to keep restating it. People know it, know it can say anything and they always forgive it. That’s how I see it.
Let’s talk about A Common Prayer.
I might ask myself: Why did I start these cartoons? What am I on about anyway, apart from the mysterious aspect? Well, I reckon I’m something of a dissenter. I’m the kind of person who looks around and says: ‘It can do better than this'; asking: ‘Are we building a new world?’ This duty of every generation of humans, the obligation to that old idea of leaving the world a better place than you found it, these sorts of ethics. I suppose there is something of the old reformer in me. I don’t understand the psychology of why I’d want to do that but, nonetheless, that’s how I started, with some dissatisfaction, wanting to propose a new possibility, to look at the old ways and say: ‘This isn’t good enough’. And wanting also to confess. I wanted to confess in jokes, confessing what it is to be human because of the official version we are brought up with at school — be on time, be a kind, reasonable soul, get your life in order, do unto others — we all get the official version. But there is an unofficial version. We’ve all got our unofficial version but it’s so hidden and shameful because it doesn’t fit the conventional version of the ordered society. So in humour I can confess my feelings, say: ‘Hang on, I feel a bit odd about this’, or ‘I make mistakes about this’, or ‘I get depressed’, or ‘I get lustful’ — all these kinds of things.
But there comes a point in your life — and I think I did with A Common Prayer, when I got so impatient. I got so sick of being crafty about this. I wanted an aspect where I’d come out and say it and declare it, as well as make enchanting jokes. I’m sick of enchantment, of only trying to capture people. I want to just say it. There’s an impatience there.
When did this form of writing begin ?
The prayers came about two years ago. That’s when my marriage broke up and I was in a hell of a mess.
Were you still working?
I was still working and suddenly things had become grave and serious because things had gone horribly wrong. I was grieving and I didn’t know how to handle it. I became alienated from many of my friends. I was disconnected from my family — my parents and my wife and children. I think I got to a point —what they call a midlife crisis I suppose — where there are certain aspects of your life you can’t go on with. You just want it to fall down. So in a sense you’ve been living a lie unbeknownst to yourself or there is something you want to get to that you haven’t been able to get to.
So I started doing psychotherapy which is a marvellous process. I was lucky and found a therapist by accident. I didn’t go seeking one. I was talking to someone who said: ‘Why don’t you do this?’ And I thought: Hang on, stop all this trying to be a nice guy, Mr Funny Man, Mr Sweet and come out and say what you think. Psychotherapy is based on the notion of looking for the truth of self not the ego view. What are the other things that I’m not really aware of? How did I get into this mess? Why did I marry that person who now I can’t exist with? How does this happen? What strange inner agenda is going on? What strange autonomous person is inside making me do these destructive things? So you start asking these questions, and they are sort of religious questions, about the inner, or the truth of self. There is an element of crucifixion in that suffering, that breakdown. It is why you can’t go on. Why have you forsaken me you say to yourself; there’s a religious parallel.
Yeah. Absolutely. And when you see this great religious mythology, it’s not this oppressive dogma — although it has been practised as such — it is also a marvellous fable which does articulate, in its non-literal way, the great important stations of life. So I’d been like a magician up that time who suddenly wants to say to the audience: ‘Look, it comes out of my sleeve! I’m sick of this lie. I’m sorry for this terrible thing. I’m letting down all my fellow magicians. I’m letting you down because you came for a trick, but I just want to tell you how we got this rabbit here’. In a way you are betraying something.
What was the response. Do people tell you ?
Yeah. I get heaps of letters. I got one from Manning Clark. There’s been an overwhelming response from people who want that to be said, that fumbling bit.
Do you find this nourishing for you?
Well I must say it is. For the first time I’ve had an actual sense of t practical value of some public expression. I was always a little unsure what the cartoons added up to. You also get disturbing letters from people who are dying of cancer saying how much this has meant them. You realise that you are fitting into a very traditional role. It’s not an extraordinary role. It might seem so nowadays, but it’s a very ancient, normal thing to do, to make these reflections about life. I became interested in the notion of soul, by the word God, love. All these real big, fundamental words we kick around all the time.
Often that language gets transferred to the idea of the beloved.
You mean we put it on to someone else and ask them to be everything. I think the relationship with the beloved does have a religious aspect but it’s not the be-all and end-all to get someone to live for us. I think this is what we as a society do. Culturally this has become our way project on the other. You be the bad guy, you be the soulful one, be the object of adoration, you be the one I worship or hate.
I became tremendously aware that struggle had always been invalid because to me it lacked a certain integrity. I thought I was a miserable thing who should somehow overcome struggle and this searching. Everyone seemed to have the answers except me, this was a sure sign. Via psychotherapy and other things you dignify that. You understand that that is a condition of life — to struggle, to search, to quest. As Keats would say, this is soul making. So I think prayer is the language of the soul. It is the soul that reaches towards the light. We have these notions of the spirit. I think the Christian one says: ‘Don’t abandon struggle, don’t think you can transcend that, because that is the great nourishment’. Prayer is an expression of the struggle towards reconciliation that I found in my pissy way, starting from scratch really. It struck me as a marvellous literary form with more freedom than any other. It was removed from criticism, you didn’t need to be enormously clever to do it.
Did you feel as a visual artist that anything you did with words was a bonus, that the heat was off you?
Exactly. Although the heat was off me in one way but it was on me in another. Some of my colleagues and contemporaries said: ‘Oh, he’s lost his head. He’s found God, he’s born again’. I don’t see any of that. To me it’s using a traditional form which is not just traditional but has enormous truth —just as the fact that people like to go for a walk is a great truth. It’s something we need to do. This was a marvellous form that had dropped out of usage. It was a way, like creating the litde creature who could say anything. Prayer was a form by which all sorts of things could be addressed that couldn’t otherwise be articulated. The only way to address the irreconcilable, the contradictory aspects, is with the language of struggle and humility.
I’m wary of all these words. But the starting point is — this is how I’ve struggled. This is what I feel. This is what I confess. This is what I yearn for. It is not knowledge, it is an expression of yearning, a public expression of what you think this human condition might be. The point of connection, after all these letters of response, is that so many people have a fundamental need for this to be publicly aired, .this pathetic struggle, the failure. There needs to be that because the media highlights the people who have succeeded, people who have a punch line, people who are complete. This is the expression of the incomplete which reaches towards something rather than gets it and tames it.
Are there particular preconditions for creativity ? Is harmony a problem ? Are conflict and discontent necessary components’?
I understand what you are saying. Through friction and conflict within the self things do come into consciousness. My view is that you don’t achieve harmony. It’s a matter of owning the contradiction not trying to resolve it, even trying to enjoy it somewhat. I think the greatest affliction is when we imagine we are harmonious. Hesse says: ‘I am not harmonious, I am a bird in a storm’.
To talk about your cartoons some more. I’m interested in a recent one in the Age. It showed a huge Evel Knievel style ramp with ‘Jeff written on the side of it, placed in front of Parliament House. Instead of going up the ramp and over, the stunt driver has ploughed straight through it and the demolished car is a smoking ruin on the steps.
In the Roadrunner tradition!
You are prepared to make a political statement about Jeff Kennett and you are prepared to make a tough one. But the onlookers aren’t sneering. It’s full of people watching who are in some way implicated. You don’t make it easy for the observer to separate
I rarely touch politics though there are times when I like the notion of political cartoonists who fulfil the old democratic role of the press. You point out contradictions and you illuminate absurdities and you bring things to the archetypal level so we can understand them in a different way. The Jeff Kennett cartoon was an archetypal situation. Everyone understands the notion and they accept that we go up the ramp — then he suddenly crashes through and that somehow sums up something about Jeff Kennett’s whole approach. It’s just a different way of understanding and encapsulating something of the dynamic of the man. But I don’t often do that.
It was as though you produced a political cartoon to deal yourself back in.
The question to me is: What is the hidden component in the way we conduct our political lives? What are the personal torments that drive our politicians or our economists? Why are we creating for ourselves a society which seems to be increasingly harsh and cruel and difficult in many respects? Why is it speeding up and why are people in distress?
You are turning yourself to the public pain, I guess, and you’re thinking: Why do we do this? What lies within us? What is incomplete? Why do we create a careless, brutal society in many ways? Why do we create an evil society? Really lay it on the line. It’s not just not functioning, it’s a possible evil. We might be much worse than we think we are. Not just a little bit of finetuning about the economy. Our fundamental understanding of life might be contrary to what is really workable in the natural world. I feel I’m looking at the very central things of the human heart, the human passions, human ignorance of self. This ignorance of self, this odd shallow level at which we prefer to live our lives. It’s fine as far as it goes but it is a denial of something.
It’s like trying to unearth, like an investigative journalist trying to find out what’s really going on, trying to get to the corridors of power if you like — and they’re not in Canberra, but they’re in every individual. Every individual has a responsibility for the way the society is, that’s the way I see it. By contrast, the traditional political cartoonist lays the blame at the foot of the politician, the elected leader, the one on to whom we project, the father-figure we ask to lead us out of our troubles. Why do we ask them? To what extent are we responsible? So you have to do this traditional thing of turning people back on themselves, deflecting the view, holding the mirror up — not to society, but to a person and say: ‘What are you?’
I’m reminded of your cartoon of the Messiah as an enormous chook. It wasn’t exactly what people had in mind.
Yes. But we do that. We are at an infantile level of politics in society — or we’ve regressed there. With industrialisation and centralisation of things we seem to be asking to be carried. We let television lead our lives for us. We ask politicians to make it right. Of course, we must ask that. But we must ask other things as well. We live in a culture of avoidance and denial largely — and pain-killing. The longer you leave things unaddressed, the greater the bill to pay eventually. I think that’s when societies collapse into war and things go astray.
Why do architects build buildings that are hard on the soul? Is there some anger in them, some dispassionate quality about them? Why do we build things that are hard to live in, these cities that have become increasingly unworkable? It’s not an accident. It’s not just a fuck-up. It’s not Murphy’s Law. Why do people kill themselves and each other? Why do they fail to love? Why do we live in a society that doesn’t mention love very much, or put it on the agenda of politics? The agenda of politics excludes too many important fundamentals as far as I am concerned. It’s wanting to put them back on the agenda. We’ve got to talk. Economists have got to understand human suffering and what a human needs fundamentally. It’s not just a house or a car. Why does this enormous embarrassment come over our society when we talk like this? I suspect that three hundred years ago humans had a much greater capacity to address these things and talk about them and weave them into their life. I think the notion of profit may not have always been with us. There may have been the notion of fellowship at certain times that was taken very seriously.
Or a notion of spiritual profit?
Yeah. I think we live in a time which says: You’ve got this life and you get as much out of it as you can and when it’s finished it’s gone. Once there was a sense of something else and marvellous things were created in the belief in that. We are losing things, we are letting things go, very important things. What about prayer? It hasn’t existed all this time for nothing, not just because of a whole lot of dogmatic Catholics who burnt people at the stake. There could be some other reason.
We give less credence to the dream life. We pay people to dream for us. Isn’t that a burden or a task allocated to you?
Yes. That’s why part of the task is a teaching one. A musician in some ways is teaching people to make their own music, inspiring them to pick up an instrument, or hum to themselves, or whistle or something. So part of what you do is to teach. That’s the prayer thing — teaching familiarity and reducing the shame and embarrassment. That’s what you can do in the media, you can hand some of it back. This sounds arrogant but this is the role thrust on us. And you do have your delusion, your necessary delusion in order to create.
Your working life has been very much focused, if not in Melbourne, at least in Victoria. Do you feel this is where you want to work?
Yes. The world is the one that lies within your horizon and while I realise there is more beyond the horizon, I think you must work from the microcosm. You can find it all there. In fact the more microcosmic your work, the more universally you speak. I’m not interested in trying to do that but if you do it’s probably because there is something micro-cosmic about it, looking at your own garden, or your neighbour’s garden or your friend’s garden. Pissarro said that you paint for yourself and five of your friends, that’s it.
Has that been a good rule for you?
Yeah. And a good rule when that fails is to paint for children because a child is an artist. There are children out there who were born ten years ago and they haven’t heard this stuff before. You might be singing an old song but they haven’t heard it before. And they are less critical and able to delight more. Often adults say: ‘What’s it mean, I don’t understand’. I say: ‘It’s just a picture’. Very young children can just look into a picture and that’s it. There’s a man, there’s a dog, there’s a moon there. And they might like the look in their eyes or something. They merge to it more easily while adults have a critical awareness that prevents them. They don’t have that difficulty with music. Music is marvellous because we don’t put that on a tune. We don’t say: ‘What does it mean?’ It flows into us, there is no barrier. It’s liberating to appeal to the child in people or children themselves. It doesn’t have to suit the Doug Anthony Allstars audience, it doesn’t have to stand that test. Or the Melbourne University Politics department. It doesn’t matter. You’ve got to release yourself from all these judgements and gradually liberate.
Painting has preoccupied you for a long time. Is it ever a question of whether you do a painting or a black and white?
That’s an interesting one. Working for the press is quite specific. You can reach out to readers with this idea in your head and you can get a result. But painting you just tend to do for the delight, I think.
The effect of the black and white work is that you are doing that for the delight — but at an industrial pace.
You’ve got to seize the notion that you have an absolute right to do this — as everybody has the right — and do it accordingly. If they don’t like it, they don’t like it. You’ve got to be able to create within that pressure and create a space around yourself, where you can work as if you were a kid in a sandpit. The best work is done like that. There is a deadline but you can somehow shut off and just enjoy the work.
Looking at the Introspective I am reminded of your many drawings for the Nation Review, clusters and clusters of them often in the same week. There was a lot happening.
There was a great sense of mischief afoot when I was producing, a sense of play. Mischief is a sort of good-hearted troublemaking, stirring things up and this was immensely helpful. When you are surrounded by people who share this and encourage you and dare you — of course this taps deeper. It gives you the courage — and you do need courage — to state that ridiculous thing. You require courage when you are younger and when you’re older you just have it — to go with the truly personal thing, with all its flaws, with what is truly yours and, of course, it takes a long time to know what’s truly yours. You thought the young work was yours but it was utterly derivative. You tried to live up to some standard. As you get older you are more interested in getting to your own truth. You get lost sometimes and it doesn’t lead to anything.
There’s a lot of plagiarism isn’t there? It must trouble you?
Yes. It has troubled me from time to time. I’ve had to work my way through it a bit. It produces a sort of anger and I can’t quite analyse what it is. I suppose it is a hurt. Or as John Clarke puts it, you spend a hell of a lot of time trying to work out how to open a door and do all this exhausting work and, just as you open it, a huge crowd comes roaring in, knocks you down and runs through the door. This might just be an infantile thing, a sense of injustice or something where you say: ‘I don’t want to go through that door now’, or ‘You buggers are mishandling this thing that I slowly tried to construct. You grabbed it and turned it into something else’.
The idea of the patent is important. In other branches of the arts it’s a legal matter.
You have your creation which is something of a child in a way. It is still growing, still forming. It’s a fragile relationship. A great respect is given to the integrity of your own work. It’s like a little garden. What hurts is when someone comes in and is brutal with this little thing and they come and flog it off. There is a sense of your work being killed.
Have you been under pressure to sell originals of your drawings?
Yeah. It’s something I’ve never done. I would have only sold the odd one in my life. I don’t know why I feel like that but I tend to hang on to them. There is an illusion or delusion that you must keep this relationship alive. I find it is necessary to keep these characters and creatures as if they’ve been dream characters who live somewhere and they come forth from time to time and you must respect them. You respect your own world as much as you possibly can. There are times when it goes away and leaves you and you must respect that too. Even when it drives you mad and you wonder whether it will ever come back. I experience that from time to time. Having a good relationship with your work is having a good relationship with self and your world.
Do you talk to yourself in public?
I do experiment publicly. It doesn’t bother me too much although I look back now in horror sometimes. Although I look at a lot of early drawings and see a great vitality too.
I think of that strange early one —Don’t Walk on the Grass. And the first of Mr Curly and Vasco Pjjama.
They were all in the Nation Review time, part of a lexicon I suppose, creating my own language with these people who are all expressions of the inner me. I suppose I was speaking a lot. I look back at a lot of these and understand now what I was saying. People used to say to me: ‘You must be a lonely, alienated sort of character’ and I’d say: ‘No, I’m as happy as a bird, I’m really very gregarious and have a wonderful life’. Now I look back and say: ‘I thought I was gregarious but there was obviously a huge lonely part of me’ and this little character was doing it for me. And there is a classic situation — when the innocent confronts a large evil, what’s going to happen? Is this little beautiful thing about to be crushed, in which case it becomes tragedy, or does this little thing sidestep by some divine sort of happening, does it avoid the inevitable doom, and then it becomes humour. Often with the avoidance comes a gasp — like Charlie Chaplin. How does he do that?
Are there temptations to be more splenetic, more angry — to let rip ?
Occasionally. In the Gulf War I got so disturbed and confused. I got so anguished I could hardly work but I think at times like that there is a role for the public cartoonist to be specific and be angry. To say it to people. I did a few things for the Gulf War and a woman who lives in the flats here came and said: ‘Oh, thankyou, thankyou for saying that. So many people feel that and there’s no way we can say it’.
Was this a prayer or a drawing”?
It was a prayer. So you realise that part of the role is purely functional, saying it for people. And sometimes you have to be slightly angry and give it expression. There is a temptation to be angry and you get lost in that sometimes and you often do bad drawings with that.
But you have said that the value of therapy was not being ashamed or appalled by these reactions.
Yes. Suddenly realising that I wasn’t improper. Anger is not to be feared. To accept it and realise it is there.
These are aspects of the male personality which we are not encouraged to examine. No. I suppose in Jungian terms — in the first half of their lives men tend to be alienated from the female side of themselves, they despise it and disown it — the vulnerable, failing, feminine aspect. I think in the later part of your life you discover that in yourself, reconcile with it and incorporate it into your life. I guess this is what I’ve done a bit. I think I’ve said: ‘I’m sick of this stupid thing about being a male’. I don’t feel it oppressive to myself but I just look around at this ridiculous role people try to live up to. It’s so damaging, you tend to want to shoot it down a bit. That’s when you get angry.
The need for infallibility, being beyond doubt, being in control, is a male characteristic generalised into desirable behaviour for the society.
This is why people lose political power, because they seem to be losing control and at all costs the politician cannot show any sign of loss of control or loss of understanding, even though it is quite clearly evident. It cannot be owned up to. This shits you in politics: so much of the political commentary and the fascination of power and supporting the myth of control. And the press love it. They’ve got the language to deal with it, whereas they’ve lost the language to ask other questions. They’re more used to dealing with political football games.
So while the ramp joke admirably fits Jeff it might equally be Bob or Paul?
Or the average male. The archetypal power-driven male who only knows one thing, the notion of a quick elevation. You might notice in that drawing that the ramp was in front of the steps. He didn’t want to go up the steps, the proper way, in stages. He wanted the ramp and the only way is to put your foot flat to the floor and run at it — and you’ll get there quick and easy. There is a sense of velocity about things, will and power can override the steps. We are living in a time where this happens and I think we come unstuck. [Laughs] God intervenes with the ramp and the unexpected happens. That’s a cartoon about an approach to life. And Jeff is an archetypal sort of character, that’s why he vacillates and why people are appalled and fascinated because they all know someone a bit like that or know a bit of that in themselves.
The best commentators in Australia show these things are funny.
I think comedians do remind us that we’ve got muck on our boots. Or that we could be slipping on the banana skin. I think a comedian awakens the archetype in people.
And the vernacular is closer, more direct.
There is this absolute desire to be direct because you’ve lived too much of your life in convoluted conversations. There is something marvellous about the unadorned statement. Getting quickly to the point can be so simple and astonishing. John Clarke is the master of that and it’s funny for some reason. Funny and shocking and true. We are all living in a time of manipulated languages and finely-honed scripts and political talk. It creates a pressure and anxiety within people’s sense of meaning. They’re twice, three times removed from the sense of what’s going on, what’s being said. ‘Will someone please tell us?’ And someone jumps up and says: ‘Look, we’re all fucked’. And that’s it sometimes. You need to say: ‘This situation is fucked’. It’s a lovely way of using that word because it’s irreparable. Humour is a relieving thing sometimes.
Maybe black and white drawing itself is a more direct means. So many forms have a kind of armour, a hard surface to them. Laser printing says: ‘This is a perfect statement, there are no blots, no signs of human error’. The equivalent of colloquialism might be the sketch or the diary — or the cartoon, as a proof or a first version. And it is accessible for sixty cents or whatever the going price of the daily paper is.
Yes, I’m fond of that notion — the accessibility. For sixty cents here’s a picture. Here’s a place in the paper that’s unlike the rest of the paper. This place into which many things can flow and be and disappear and another one flows in. I like that, it is a democratic thing. I still work with this little tool which I dip in black pigment on this blank paper, or else I use a stick with animal hairs on the end which is called a brush. I always give thanks for the organic, handmade aspect of it. These are handmade things and they get transferred to this other, marvellous mass thing. It’s an extraordinary jump from being a primitive working with animal hair like some medieval monk would do and then it goes into this industrial process. It is a strange juxtaposition but it sort of keeps you earthy. I think if I was drawing out of a computer, something, some quality would disappear. I’m convinced of that. Water, ink, paper, funny thing. It just connects you to what you are doing.
You do them in black and white. You could use colour?
I have used colour from time to time, say with the Bicentennial painting. But the reason I like black and white is that it reduces certain information, it eliminates certain things, brings it into caricature more. It caricatures reality, removes it, keeps it in the fable more. Black and white films have the same quality about them, where you are just down to basics and certain things are possible in that style. It’s minimal. I like that. I don’t know why black and white should work so well but it does.
St Kilda, Melbourne, June 1991