December 01, 1992


Filed under: Archive,Books


A Bunch of Poesy

Michael Leunig

Angus and Robertson

Everyday Devils and Angels

Michael Leunig


One Big Happy Family

Mary Leunig


Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Mary Leunig’s drawings are truly terrible. Look at any page of One Big Happy Family or her earlier works – There’s No Place Like Home and A Piece of Cake – and you’ll see. The images are domestic usually- wretched women, anxious children, absent fathers, images of gore, despair and death. They’re terrifying, and they’re meant to be. The first page of One Big Happy Family has a mother and two kids, covered in bruises, breaking bottles and cementing the shards along a brick wall. Elsewhere solitary figures are visited by angry angels or wizened wraiths with stakes through them. Couples lie in beds become graves, children bounce between turds on the footpath, parents glare at a yet unborn child with batons and belts in their hands.

The colours could be Kate Greenaway- and the tranquility; the content is beyond the imaginings in Struwelpieter or Coles Funny Picture Book. It is this violent dysjunction that makes the drawings so alarming. The careful cross hatching, the plumpness of pillows, curtains, furniture could be Helen Oxenbury or Maurice Sendak but this isn’t Avenue B it’s Elm Street.

There is a mix of literal domestic situation and Tiger Tim fantasy but- like the notorious pornographic picture of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs perpetrated in the sixties by a Disney illustrator- the mice fucking in the pantry, the fat fox with a child shoved down his trousers and the disintegrating Mr Potatoguts are doubly assaulting because of the benevolent euphemism of the comics.

The impulse is to resist these bland little drawings full of homely Bosch and to aestheticise the rejection by complaining of the immaturity  of the draughting or the political limitation of the social analysis. But that would be to entirely miss the point. When Mary Leunig vents spleen she’s very likely to have it exploding from the solar plexus of some weary innocent and rarely is there anything remotely funny to sweeten the message. She’s not interested in making it easy. Which is why some will reject the book and the reality it presents and others, including me, will choose their moments before  taking a deep breath and having another dip in the Styx.

Moving  to brother Michael is moving to a different galaxy but not one one any more (or less) real. Michael Leunig has flourished so much imaginatively of late and while he was always great he has acquired new strengths since confessing more openly to his doubts and concerns. His prayers for The Age, for instance,  are extraordinarily out of step with the times (and the paper they appear in ) which is why they are so invigoratingly.

Leunig has always mucked about with words, long rambly ditties carefully incribed in the sooty landscapes of his drawings. In the introduction to Everyday Devils and Angels he writes about being pleasantly lost in the state of mess of creation, investigates declensions of the awful – awfulise, awfulisation, to be an awfuliser, and ponders  Why She’s Cracking Up. The drawings are as ever – twelve-finger exercises with suns, moons, clouds, and the ever questing little Leunig homunculus. He proposes the corrugated iron flag – after all, most of us have already fought under it- and apostrophises autumn and the essence of Sydney. It’s worth owning just for the Melbourne bog man.

Shifting from the drawings to the words, A Bunch of Poesy is equally illuminating. Having the spindly writing from the drawings authoratively typeset has a subversive effect you might say. Here the drawings here little side salads to the verse itself, Ernest Shepards to the A.A. Milne, perhaps. Although Leunig is not at all hesitant to go down to the end of the town-

Things just seem to fall apart

String bags full of oranges

And things within the heart

Calamities evaporate and memories depart

People laugh at anything

And things just fall part.

The book divides between Life and Circumstance, Doom and Gloom and Seasons and Celebrations. The first two tend to be the larger sections. Familiar favourites are included – Sitting on the Fence, A Dusty Little Swag. There’s new advice  – What AIDS will do to your sex life, a report on the Melbourne Weeping Festival and for the economists- the Music Reform Package-

Deregulate the orchestra

There’s been too much protection.

A synthesiser does the job

Sack the woodwind section …

Rationalise the violin

No one’s going to starve

Eliminate the curly bit

It takes too long to carve.

A startling poem, the last in the book, is Deepest Blue, an elegy to Brett Whiteley –

Burke and Wills and Whiteley too

in visions of the deepest blue

Dreamed wildly of some inner sea

Where life they had not lived might be

And searching for this wondrous place

Made maps and paintings of a face

With graceful curves of dried up streams

By which the sea drained from their dreams

And so in lost and lonely camps

They spoke their prayers and snuffed their lamps

Burke and Wills and Whiteley too

Into the night of deepest blue.

Michael Leunig has rediscovered a useful fact about poetry- that it is about the things we feel most and find hardest to say. Not bad for a cartoonist – as this uncommon artist is commonly described.

The Adelaide Review, No.109, December, 1992. p.50.

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment