Wednesday, 9 January 2013

The Penguin Leunig – a book of cartoons by Michael Leunig

I bought this copy of The Penguin Leunig in London recently but it was published in Australia in 1974. The condition of the cover gives the impression that the book may have languished for many years in a shop or warehouse and when it first arrived the pages held tightly together as if they had never been parted to be read.

Michael Leunig is an Australian artist and cartoonist, his work is fairly well known there – while growing up in Australia I came across his drawings many times in the major Australian newspapers – but I am not sure that many people outside of Australia have heard of him. As stated on the cover there is an introduction by Barry Humphries (aka Dame Edna) in which he says that he hopes the book will bring Leunig to the attention of a wide international audience. Did that happen? I don't know, perhaps someone reading this blog will be able to say. I certainly think Leunig's art deserves more attention.

Leunig's cartoons and sequences are always consistent in their style and immediately recognisable but his subject matter, themes and moods can vary quite dramatically as he illustrates the inner and outer worlds of his characters. I have never been sure what to make of the way he portrays relationships between men and women. Though his couples often connect on a physical level, emotionally they appear disconnected or worse – these cartoons can sometimes seem quite brutal. Then there are the Leunig cartoons that make gentle fun of Australian politics or the Australian way of life. I can't find it in the book or online but I remember a sequence he did of an Australian barbeque – a group of men gradually get drunk while their food burns (I am not doing it justice here, it is funnier than it sounds). But the Leunig sequences and cartoons that I have always loved best usually feature a lonely man, perhaps a duck, or maybe a teapot and maybe even Mr Curly. This strand of Leunig's art is restrained, sensitive and poignant. 
OK, it's not a sequence, but it is so loaded with emotion that it feels like one.

The drawings in The Penguin Leunig range along Leunig's spectrum. Somehow this strange mixture of earthiness, symbolism, humour, sensitivity, occasional violence and poignancy comes together in, what is to me, a particularly Australian way. Is that why he is not so well known elsewhere? I would love to have your comments on this.

If you do not have your own book of Leunig art you can see his work on his website or in a gallery on  The Age newspaper's website.

Leunig's artwork has been used in this blog post with kind permission from his assistant Nicola Germaine and is of course ©Michael Leunig.

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