Once a satirist, always a satirist

Once a satirist, always a satirist
Rhonda Dredge

Cartoonist Michael Leunig was apparently recently axed from The Age for making an anti-vax jibe at the state government for its handling of the pandemic.

The job of a political satirist is to tackle controversial events and there’s no denying that mandatory vaccination has been divisive.

But there are other ways of looking at political issues than tackling them head on.

Michael Nicholson, in one of his lockdown paintings, The birdseed of time, demonstrates how other species have benefitted while humans have been off fighting the virus.

In an amusing depiction of our COVID times, the hourglass is broken, and the birds are in charge, a happy circumstance for a native species not as addicted to progress as humans.

The North Melbourne resident has a strong sense of the ridiculous, which should make his presence at an upcoming group show at the Meat Market gallery worth a look.

Michael is naturally upset about Leunig’s demotion from political commentary to lifestyle. “The media is a funny animal,” he said, but he didn’t want to buy into the debate directly.

The offending cartoon, posted by Leunig on Instragram, shows a small, bewildered figure cowering before a giant syringe protruding from a tank and references Tiananmen Square.

The point is that visual gags are different to political messages. Mr Nicholson should know. He’s an expert, as one of the team behind Rubbery Figures, a pioneering political satire screened on the ABC in the ‘80s.

The series lampooned the political events of the day using animation and puppets, focusing on ridiculing the appearance of the politicians themselves.

“My brother made the puppet,” Michael said. “The front two rooms were editing suites. We were doing six to eight films a week.”

The team did animations then inserted puppets caricatures of Hawke, Keating and Bjelke-Peterson into them. “We did one of Gorbachev walking into the Kremlin, then we cut to the puppet and scattered Lux soap, so it looked like snow.”

The skits of old still inform Michael’s paintings which are piled up in the hall of his Victorian house in Melrose St. With 45 destined for the exhibition, there’s not much hanging space.

Michael also wrote for Graham Kennedy, Bert Newton and Ernie Sigley back in the day. The difference is that not all of his paintings have a punch line.

Mountain Climber shows a woman helping her husband out of a volcano, Surf Beach a gunman on a surfboard and Tipped Over Vase a man climbing stairs behind a bunch of flowers.

He still remembers some of the lines from his stand-up comic era when jibes were the currency. Nunawading, where Channel 10 moved, was said to be “Aboriginal for no ratings”.

In one of Michael’s recent works, Matthew Flinders is arriving on a boat. The date is 1802. The moon looks like a spaceship. An indigenous warrior is looking out on the scene mouthing the word “gybe” in a speech bubble.

Michael makes a distinction from the American word jibe. “Gybe is English for turning a boat,” he said.

The politics is more subtle than the jibes of old, but Michael can’t help himself. Once a satirist always a satirist.

Group Show, New North Melbourne Museum of Modern Art, Meat Market, December 3-13 •

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