A National Living Treasure

Artists, cartoonists in particular, are frequently criticised, or their work simply disliked, for an apparent childlike drawing style.

Like many, Michael Leunig’s style resembles the rambling intricate but superficially childish “doodlings” of the verteran Bruce Petty.

But as crude or simplistic as Leunig’s work (and Petty’s) first appears, five decades of boldly staying true to his style, his vibrant imagination and depth of sentiment, has earned Leunig a place among the immortals.

And in our hearts.

In 1999 he was declared a national living treasure by the National Trust and awarded honorary degrees from La Trobe and Griffith universities and the Australian Catholic University for his unique contribution to Australian culture.

Leunig was born in East Melbourne in June 1945, a slaughterman’s son and the second eldest of five children. He was educated at Footscray North Primary School and Maribyrnong High School, plus at various factory gates, street corners, kitchen tables, paddocks, rubbish tips, quarries, loopholes, puddles and abattoirs in Melbourne’s industrial Western suburbs.

Enid Blyton, Arthur Mee, Phantom comics, The Book of Common Prayer, J.D. Salinger, Spike Milligan, Bruce Petty, Martin Sharp, Private Eye magazine and The Beatles were early creative influences and his political consciousness intensified radically upon reading his notice of military conscription sent to him from the Australian government in 1965.

He pursued a successful career as a factory labourer and meatworker where he nurtured his art and philosophy before beginning work as a political cartoonist for a daily newspaper in Melbourne in 1969. The Penguin Leunig, his first book of collected cartoons, was published in 1974 and since then has produced twenty-three more collections including books of newspaper columns, poetry and prayer.

A watershed came in Leunig’s daily cartooning work following the 9/11 atrocity. His cartoon commentary bitterly opposed the war and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, a position that put him at odds with editors, commentators and various hostile or militarist elements in Australian society; an experience that left Leunig feeling more disillusioned and alienated from his culture than he had felt during the time of his youthful opposition to the Vietnam war.

Distracted and embittered by the destructive, polarized cultural climate and the morbidity of the dire political events during this time his work showed a decline in the more lyrical or gentle themes and he stopped drawing his whimsical characters Mr. Curly and Vasco Pyjama. Throughout this period however, the odd duck made a forlorn appearance and the moon hung faithfully in the skies of his drawings; remote, simple, soulful and as mystical as ever.

Michael Leunig still appears regularly in the Melbourne Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. He archives his works at this website.

And now, thanks to his incredible generosity, his delicate poignant creations grace the pages of SheepOverboard

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