Don’t laugh anymore? Australians reassess beloved cartoonist.

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Among my family’s most precious possessions is a small framed drawing of two fairies holding hands, flying in the night sky. This is an original by Australian designer Michael Leunig. He gave it to my mother after he accompanied it with an article she wrote in The Age newspaper in the early 1980s, about my claim at the age of 5 that I was the fairy queen. Until recently, it was a simple treasure: a drawing of my mother and I imagined by one of Australia’s most beloved artists. My feelings about this have become a little more complicated lately.

It is difficult to explain to a non-Australian how the work of a cartoonist could so deeply infiltrate our national identity. Leunig’s drawings have appeared regularly in The Age for decades, but his influence extends far beyond these pages. He has published dozens of books, collaborated with chamber orchestras and some of Australia’s best-known singer-songwriters. His work has also been exhibited in Melbourne’s trams and has been turned into theatrical productions and clay figures for children’s television. In 1999 it was declared Australian Living Treasure speak Australian National Trust.

Leunig’s cartoons are generally imbued with whimsy and often depict wide-eyed characters who are overwhelmed or overpowered by the modern world. They have at times been controversial, especially her work on motherhood, childcare, and sometimes women in general. But in recent months, his art has increasingly focused on what he perceives to be injustices related to Covid lockdowns in Australia and vaccination warrants. A few weeks ago, he submitted a cartoon to The Age which places the famous image of a man standing in front of a tank near Tiananmen Square next to a drawing of a man standing in front of a tank with a syringe. vaccine replacing the turret gun. The drawing was rejected by the paper, Leunig posted it on their own social media accounts, and after a great public outcry, it was fired from his Monday editorial page. (It retains its Saturday slot in Spectrum, a section that’s more focused on lifestyle than the Monday editorial page.)

When I lived as an Australian expat in America, I often advised my friends and partners to read Leunig’s books, in order to understand the soul of Australia. This was especially true for his little books of prayers, which are non-denominational and barely religious, but which vibrate with humanity, love and sometimes anger. Her work has always told me of a certain Australian innocence, as well as a broad sense of humor that doesn’t shy away from death and sex but rarely uses these topics for free. If I were to identify the origins of my own dark sense of humor, an influence would be an old Cartoon by Leunig entitled “the horrible aspects of spring”, in which the new dog digs up the old dog at a barbecue in the backyard.

There have been a lot of comments about the recent Leunig turn, but the best I’ve read is a essay by University of Tasmania lecturer Robbie Moore on Meanjin website, a Melbourne-based literary magazine. It’s worth reading, if only to understand the depth of thought and angst that Australians pour into the turn of Leunig’s work.

It is always risky to tie an identity to the work of an artist, let alone the identity of an entire nation. And thinking back to Leunig’s work in the context of his current controversy, I feel somewhat baffled by how easily I could come across the idea of ​​Leunig’s most famous character, Mr. Curly, like the ordinary Australian man: the sweet, simple guy who just wants to hang out with his duck. This image does not speak of the real strengths of this country, which include diversity and unity. But I also understand why so many people are feeling a loss right now, a sense of betrayal that this artist who represented the possible goodness in our individual and collective Australian souls is now a spokesperson for angry conspiratorial individualists. who could be compared to victims of a massacre simply because they were asked to do a small thing to protect the vulnerable in their own communities.

We have lost so much to this pandemic in Australia: years, landmark celebrations and, most tragically, thousands of lives. I’ll probably never let go of my love for much of Leunig’s work – it’s too ingrained in who I am, in the history of my family and our collective identity. But I feel like I lost something important because of his current job and position, and I expect many other Australians to do the same.

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