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November 25, 2002
Michael Leunig in front of a thousand people
When I was a kid, I was embarrassed to live in Melbourne. For a long time it seemed an awkward city, uncool and unlovely. But even at the height of my embarrassment, I was always delighted with one local institution, the artist Michael Leunig. For all its failings, Melbourne produced the world's most endearing cartoonist.
He's ours. And no, you can't have him.
About six years ago I saw Leunig do a book launch at Gleebooks in Sydney. At the time he wasn't comfortable making public appearances, and certainly not public appearances in Sydney, a city he's not known for liking. He was so nervous that at one point he began hyperventilating. A hundred or so people watched in mounting concern as he stopped speaking and started gasping for breath. After what seemed an eternity he eventually recovered enough to keep going, but it was a primal thing to watch. What stood out was Leunig's determination to get through an experience he found terrifying, and the generous patience of the audience. The man is so loved that his audience were quite happy to wait for him. Forever, if need be.
Last night an audience ten times bigger packed into the Astor Theatre to pay tribute to their cartoonist. It was an enormous relief to see a relaxed Michael Leunig walk on stage. The man has come a long way, in every sense, and it was a pleasure to see him breathing normally in front of a vast, adoring audience.
The compere was Red Symons, another local creative force. Red asked for a Leunig treatment of a standard idea in comedy: a man walking down a street with a banana peel and manhole. Leunig was clearly unprepared for this request, but happily obliged. First he drew a nose, and then he chatted for a little bit, and then he drew an eye, and chatted for a little more. In between regular bits of chat, he eventually drew a little man wearing a cape, with a duck wandering about nearby and an angel looking down from above. The banana peel sat on the ground, largely hidden amongst a few strands of flowers. There was no punchline, no real point. Leunig simply provided us with a typical assembly of his characters, and it was enough.
No: it was more than enough. Along the way came a moment of magic. Having drawn his little man, Leunig went on to add a single tear to his face. As the pen marked the paper hundreds of people let out an audible sob.
As they say in the classics: imagine that. Imagine holding such power: to draw such a tiny thing, and provoke such a strong reaction.
But that's Michael Leunig's art. His is the poetry of the little person. His is the one gentle voice in a world of shouting. He started drawing tiny cartoons thirty years ago, and still he keeps at it. Slowly, the world turns towards him. Six years ago, a hundred people. Last night, a thousand. I was proud to be there, in the company of a great artist, shedding my own tear in tribute.Posted by Sean Hegarty at 11:06 PM in the Reviews category | Comments (3)
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