Among my family’s most prized possessions is a small framed drawing of two faeries holding hands, flying through the night sky. It is an original by the Australian cartoonist Michael Leunig. He gave it to my mother after it accompanied an article she wrote in The Age newspaper in the early 1980s, about my 5-year-old claim that I was the Queen of the Faeries. Until recently, this was a simple treasure: a drawing of me and my mother imagined by one of Australia’s most beloved artists. My feelings about it recently have become a bit more complicated.
It is hard to explain to a non-Australian how the work of one cartoonist might so deeply infiltrate our national identity. Leunig’s drawings have appeared regularly in The Age for decades, but his influence extends far beyond those pages. He has published dozens of books, has collaborated with chamber orchestras and some of Australia’s best known singer-songwriters. His work has also been displayed on Melbourne trams and been turned into stage productions and claymation characters for children’s television. In 1999, he was declared an Australian Living Treasure by the National Trust of Australia.
Leunig’s cartoons are typically imbued with whimsy and often depict wide-eyed characters who are overwhelmed or overpowered by the modern world. They have occasionally been controversial, especially his work about motherhood, child care, and sometimes women in general. But in recent months, his art has become increasingly focused on what he perceives as injustices related to Australia’s Covid lockdowns and vaccine mandates. A couple of weeks ago, he submitted a cartoon to The Age that 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 vaccine syringe replacing the gun turret. The drawing was rejected by the paper, Leunig posted it on his own social media accounts, and after a large public outcry, he was fired from his Monday editorial page slot. (He retains his Saturday slot in Spectrum, a lift-out section that is more lifestyle-focused than the Monday editorial page.)
When living as an Australian expat in America, I often would urge friends and partners to read Leunig’s books, as a way to understand the soul of Australia. This was particularly true for his small books of prayers, which are nondenominational and only barely religious, but which thrum with humanity, love and sometimes anger. His work has always spoken to me of a certain Australian innocence, as well as a wide humor that doesn’t shy away from death and sex but rarely uses those subjects gratuitously. If I were to pinpoint the origins of my own dark sense of humor, one influence would be an old Leunig cartoon titled “the awful aspects of spring,” in which the new dog digs up the old dog at a backyard barbecue.
There has been plenty of commentary about Leunig’s recent turn, but the best I’ve read is an essay by the University of Tasmania lecturer Robbie Moore on the website of Meanjin, a Melbourne-based literary magazine. It’s worth a read, if for no other reason than to understand the depth of thought and anguish that Australians are pouring into the turn in Leunig’s work.
It is always risky to tie any identity to the work of one artist, let alone the identity of a whole nation. And looking back over Leunig’s work in the context of his current controversy, I feel somewhat abashed at the ease in which I might fall into the idea of Leunig’s most famous character, Mr. Curly, as the Australian everyman: the simple, lovable guy who just wants to hang out with his duck. That image does not speak to the real strengths of this country, which include diversity and togetherness. But I also understand why so many people are feeling loss right now, a sense of betrayal that this artist who used to represent the goodness possible in our individual and collective Australian souls is now a mouthpiece for angry conspiracy-minded individualists who might compare themselves to victims of a massacre simply for being asked to do a small thing to protect the vulnerable in their own communities.
We’ve lost so much to this pandemic in Australia: years, milestone celebrations, and most tragically, thousands of lives. I probably will never let go of my love for much of Leunig’s work — it is too ingrained in who I am, in the story of my family and our collective identity. But I do feel as though I’ve lost something important thanks to his current work and stance, and I expect many other Australians do as well.
Now for this week’s stories: