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Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: 19-May-2001

Edition: Late

Section: Spectrum


Page: 8

Wordcount: 3224

Drawing blood

Elizabeth Farrelly, Elizabeth Farrelly is an urban consultant and writer.

Human Scale in Architecture, George Molnar’s Sydney, is at the City Exhibition Space, Level 4 Customs House until July.

Australia’s brilliant tradition of cartooning has made rocking the establishment boat a seriously funny business, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.

“Drawing,” said the late George Molnar, “is the discovery of the line, the invisible line, that makes things come to life. That’s what I’m trying to do all the time.” Molnar, who was trained as an architect but became one of Sydney’s best-loved cartoonists, drew constantly, even in the theatre. His extraordinary hand-eye facility, stylish draftsmanship, acute perception, unabashed honesty and wry, civilised, insightful humour marked him out.

Even now, these qualities resonate through the galleries of the City Exhibition Space at Customs House, where his work is on show. As John Douglas Pringle, Molnar’s editor, patron and friend, once observed: “That elegant line, those bold contrasts of black and white, the sheer beauty of his composition quite apart from the wit and point of his cartoons were irresistibly attractive.”

Molnar grew up in an era when to study architecture you had to be able to draw, and if you could draw, architecture was what you studied. These days, by contrast, drawing has been dropped not only from architecture’s prerequisites but almost entirely from its curriculum as well. In cartooning, too, as Michael Fitzjames regretfully notes, “real-life pencil-holding artists” are increasingly replaced by computer-based collage techniques.

Many shrug complacently at this, arguing that the lost art of wielding a pencil effectively is more than compensated for by the extra facility of its on-screen counterpart. Why laboriously sketch a proposal if you can flip it around in full 3-D colour with a few simple commands? But, as generations of drawing tutors have rhythmically chanted, correct drawing is correct seeing. Molnar’s exquisite, effortless linework is inextricably linked to the acuity of his insight.

Of all social criticism, cartooning is the form at once most accessible and most incisive, aiming its combination of line and wit directly at the funny-spot that separates the intellect from the emotions.

As satirists, cartoonists are inevitably fringe dwellers, occupying more neatly and naturally than any other modern profession certainly more than poets or philosophers the role that Socrates described for himself: of a stinging gadfly on the rump of the social animal. And although they tend to be highly intelligent and articulate, fearlessly candid, refreshingly downbeat and shamelessly non-tribal, cartoonists don’t necessarily survive.

It’s a dangerous job. Humour can soften. Equally, as both Patrick Cook and Michael Leunig have discovered to their cost, it can, in disarming its target, intensify both the wound and the backlash. Molnar, operating within the minefield of architectural politics, survived longer than most possibly because his drawings, with no loss of candour, tended more to irony than to sarcasm, and more to charm than to confrontation.

Political cartooning has a distinguished lineage, always spiked with danger, starting with Pieter Breughel the Elder (c1525-69) or possibly even Martin Luther (1483-1546), who made satirical woodcuts contrasting Christ’s attitudes to the power-classes with those of the papacy.

It began in earnest, though, with Austrian immigrant Joseph Keppler’s establishment of the weekly Puck magazine in New York in 1871. Drawing on Keppler’s new-found network of writers and artists based in the Big Bagel’s German quarter including a young reporter named Joseph Pulitzer Puck burnished the skills of illustrated satire in the fire of political ideology. Keppler recognised, too, the significance of photography for political cartooning, both in mass-producing images by 1880 Puck enjoyed a circulation of 85,000 and, just as importantly, in rendering the faces of politics familiar to a mass audience.

By then, Sydney had its own venue for political cartoons. Satirical magazines such as Launceston’s Cornwall Chronicle (from 1835), the Adelaide Month Almanack (from 1850) and the Melbourne Punch (from 1855) already existed. But The Sydney Bulletin, founded on the Puck model in 1880, was the first to use political cartoons in a news context. Its ardent “Australia-for-Australians” nationalism during the lead-up to Federation, and its deployment of cartoons in this cause, contributed to its remarkable reach in Sydney around the turn of the century.

But things really started to change for The Sydney Bulletin with the 1883 arrival of THE American cartoonist Livingston Hopkins. His cartoons were incisive and influential but, perhaps more importantly, he brought with him Australia’s first photo-engraving equipment, making daily cartoons possible for the first time.

Phil May, the Leeds-born cartoonist and later staffer at Punch, worked at the Bulletin between 1885 and 1890 producing a number of memorable images including the huge “Asian octopus” overpowering Australia, which became one of the White Australia Policy’s lasting symbols. Norman Lindsay, the most celebrated black-and-white artist of his era, worked at the Bulletin for a time.

Then, by invitation in 1909, the New Zealand cartoonist David Low arrived. He was 18. Low, whom Alan Moir describes as “the 20th century’s greatest political cartoonist”, drew for the Bulletin for 10 years before moving to London in 1919. It was a lonely move, but Low found support in his friendship with the other great Fleet Street cartoonist of the time, Australian Will Dyson. Dyson, another ex-Bulletin staffer then working for London’s Daily Herald, warned Low that it would “take him 10 years to learn English”. In fact, Low’s fearless intelligence allowed him to use his outsider status as an augur, burrowing deeply into the English establishment.

Low was widely celebrated in London before being persuaded in 1929 to join the Evening Standard, newly purchased by the extravagantly conservative, cigar-munching Canadian Lord Beaverbrook. So revered was Low, however, that he was allowed to express his own, often radical political views without inhibition. In 1934 Low created the everlasting Colonel Blimp character, the perfect vehicle for lampooning a complacent, paternalistic and xenophobic British system.

Low’s vehement criticism of Hitler and Mussolini through the 1930s resulted in his being attacked as a warmonger in Britain, and in his work being banned in both Germany and Italy. Any cartoonist afflicted by a sense of ineffectuality should be heartened by the fact that, as was revealed after the war, the German government had in 1937 formally requested its British counterparts to “have discussions with the notorious Low” in

order to end his attacks. These, needless to say, continued unabated.

Down under’s two-way contribution to the cartooning scene continues today, with two of America’s best-known cartoonists being Australian-born Pat Oliphant, who won the 1966 Pulitzer, and Paul Rigby, who produces the daily editorial cartoon for the New York Post.

In interwar Sydney, despite the brain drain overseas, political cartooning continued to flourish. Smith’s Weekly, an illustrated broadsheet, had been founded in 1919 by a group including Clyde Packer and J.F. Archibald, and in 1924 the world’s first Black and White Artists’ Club was formed, its early members including Jim Russell, creator of Ginger Meggs, May Gibbs (Bib and Bub) and Stan Cross (Dad and Dave). Cross, credited with Australia’s funniest cartoon ever “for gor’sake stop laughing; this is serious” (1933) is the namesake of Australia’s cartooning awards, the Stanleys.

The Sydney of 1939 in which George Molnar, architect, arrived was a significant player in a rich cartooning tradition. Molnar was not yet a cartoonist, but he was much taken by the architectural and anti-planning cartoons of Osbert Lancaster in London’s Architectural Review and, while never an iconoclast, already strongly opposed all forms of totalitarianism and enforced collectivism.

Equipped with an elegant hand, a classical education and a deal of personal charm, Molnar was, like his drawings, gentlemanly, formal, a bit studied perhaps but warm, wry, unafraid and immensely civilised conspicuously from another world. Having lived until then in Nagyvarad, a Hungarian village that suffered a forced change of language and identity in being ceded to Romania under the 1918 Treaty of Versailles, Molnar knew the effects of war.

Australia was an option recommended by the Royal Institute of British Architects and Molnar was met by the University of Sydney architecture professor A.S. Hook, who took him to work in Canberra, which was virtually nonexistent at the time. Molnar’s Sydney life began in 1941 as a draftsman for the ministry of munitions: his cartooning career started accidentally in 1945 when a friend, cartoonist Bernard Hesling, asked for help drawing a bear. In exchange, Hesling showed Molnar’s drawings to his editor at The Daily Telegraph.

In the same year Molnar was invited into a parallel career as an architecture lecturer at the University of Sydney, but it was cartooning that booked his place in history. Molnar drew for the Telegraph until J.D. Pringle, arriving from London in 1952 to edit the Herald, determined to poach Molnar in a bid to remedy his paper’s ugliness.

Molnar loved cartooning; its funny-serious contradiction suited him nicely. “Cartooning,” he said, “is a very serious pastime which should be treated as a pastime,” adding, “I have great fun.”

But while he knew that “a cartoon is supposed to be funny,” Molnar reflected also that “I don’t think by nature I am a funny man.” Many of those who passed through his hands as architecture students including Douglas Snelling, John Andrews, Peter Johnson, Graham Thorp and the subsequently infamous Peter Hall as well as Geoff Atherden, creator of Mother and Son tend to support this view, remembering Molnar as a lovable but very formal and dignified man, permanently three-pieced and bow-tied, whom even the rambunctious students of the ’60s always addressed as Mister. Sydney, complete with carbuncles, was Molnar’s subject, his muse. “I love Sydney,” he said. “It is full of exciting ugliness. I also like people. These are my two main interests, buildings and people. And just tooling around Sydney is my most important pastime.” Pastime or not, Molnar believed that cartooning was important, that cartoons “do somehow make an impression on the public”.

His reluctance to elevate cartooning beyond pastime status was no doubt due in part to the apparent ease with which he did it. His cartoons usually started “with an idea of the incongruity of a situation”, encapsulated in a sentence or a picture. After that it was fairly quick. Unlike David Low, for whom making a cartoon usually took “three full days. Two days spent in labour and one in removing the appearance of labour”, Molnar would take no more than “an hour or so to think of the cartoon and an hour or less to draw it up”. In this way he would produce two or (usually) three sketch options, of which the editor would choose one to develop and publish.

Regarding subject matter, Molnar was omnivorous, energetically exploiting particular events and abstract issues, universal themes as well as domestic trivia. The ’50s in Sydney are often seen as a time of conformist sterility suburban, sexist and stiflingly narrow. But this is only part of the picture. Regarding the built environment, at least, Sydney’s postwar intellectual debate was alive and jousting, with regular contributions through the ’50s and ’60s from professors H. Ingham Ashworth, F.E.A. Towndrow, Denis Winston and Leslie Wilkinson, as well as Walter Bunning, Nigel Ashton, Harry Seidler, Graham Thorp, Don Gazzard, Jack Mundey and Hugh Stretton, not to mention the eloquent Pringle himself.

It’s hard to find a comparable public intelligentsia in Sydney today, outside the dinner-party circuit, our academics cowed as they are by overload and our critics by threat of litigation. Sydney is the poorer for this loss.

Controversies of the time included Sydney’s explosive move to a high-rise city centre; the construction of the Cahill Expressway; the Askin Government’s proposed redevelopment of Woolloomooloo; the embryonic heritage movement; the first Green Ban over The Rocks; the removal of trams from city streets; ministerial destruction of the green belt around Sydney; the extension of Elizabeth Street, creating Chifley Square; the proposed demolition of the QVB; the road through the Domain. Above all, though, was the Opera House.

Molnar’s intervention in the Opera House debate was particularly timely and decisive: without it, arguably, Utzon’s masterwork would not exist.

It all started not with a cartoon, for once, but in his teaching life. A fifth-year student design study for an opera house on the then-official site, corner of Liverpool and College Streets (now occupied by a hotel), demonstrated conclusively that the site was too small for anything much bigger than a cinema, and less than half the size of the none-too-large Paris Opera. In 1954 Molnar wrote a Herald article to this effect. Then, once the new site was determined, a second Molnar essay argued strongly for the proposal, controversial in itself, to hold an international competition for the design.

Molnar, in fact, entered the competition himself, proposing a rather staid, art deco steamship lookalike with little of his usual elan-on-paper. When Joern Utzon won, Molnar conceded with classic elegance that “steam gave way to sail. Rightly, I think.”

Later, though, the Opera House debacle became one of the few issues ever to make Molnar really angry, giving rise to a number of caustic cartoons such as the one showing dust-coated bureaucrats manfully resisting the temptation to turn the empty shell into a car park as well as Molnar’s eventual resignation from the Royal Institute of Architects in disgust at its supine attitude to Utzon’s dismissal.

Molnar is best remembered for his architecture and planning cartoons, and his trademark use of black to add drama and contrast betrays his architectural origins. More than half of his drawings, though, focused on other issues, many of them still current including politics, finance, art, education, the Vietnam War, the Barrier Reef, nudism, airport noise (“give me the figures in voters not decibels!”), police corruption and ABC partiality.

One of my favourites is gently ad hominem: a diplomatic gathering of some kind, from which a very tall, distinguished couple stands out. In the foreground two delegates arrange: “I’ll meet you at three under the Whitlams.”

In the cut and daily thrust of Sydney politics, this very gentleness is sometimes despised as gentility, but the combination of vitality, incisiveness and tact that typified Molnar’s work also characterised the man. He was very keen on fitness, swimming every day and regularly playing squash with Nugget Coombs who, according to his wife Carol Molnar, would inflict fearful injuries, sending Molnar home covered in bruises and once to the eye hospital.

He was a fearless and uninhibited pedestrian, jaywalking as if invincible, but never learnt to drive, despite two failed attempts to progress beyond changing gears. After the last one, according to Carol, Molnar announced that “the instructor and I had a long talk and agreed that it would be better if I didn’t learn to drive, after all. Anyway, I think it’s silly you should have to stir the engine with a little stick.”

Self-deprecation of this kind is a great and civilising strength, bringing warmth to its audience and a kind of spiritual elasticity to its practitioner. Molnar was something of an expert. His self-caricature, chosen as the poster for the current exhibition, shows a grand statue, pompously ad locutio. At its base stands a small, bald, black-suited man (he was in fact unusually tall), unmistakably East European, with easel. The man is painting the blackbird perched insignificantly on the statue’s head.

Michael Leunig, another close-to-the-heart Australian cartoonist, defends his and by extension Molnar’s reluctance to participate in the “safe and easy traditional thing of lampooning politicians”. For one thing, unlike, say, architects, pollies never threaten back. You don’t disappear under hate mail or end up in court for being rude about the PM. And yet, Leunig notes, this is the applauded type of cartooning. Anything else is seen as not-quite-front-line, despite the fact that even national politics is less and less effectual in determining how our collective lives are shaped and where they are headed. More significant forces are at work and deserve examination including globalism, the media, and the ironies and contradictions of our own cultural selves.

“Human behaviour fascinates me,” says Leunig, “and the way we are responsible for our own fate not individually but as a culture.” Australians, he says, are famous for laughing at themselves, but too often this is a way of shrugging off the responsibility of a good serious look.

This court-jester role, then, is the cartoonist’s job. And a serious job it is. Like Molnar, Leunig doesn’t really try to be funny, and his work, although more famous, is loved like Molnar’s for being wry and touching. His gentle, harried, put-upon characters, and the traps and dilemmas into which they fall, have given him an almost spiritual role in people’s lives. People send Leunig their guilts and griefs, their deeply personal angers and joys.

This intimate-yet-pedestal status may explain in part the hurt and outrage the huge hate response generated by his now-notorious child-care cartoons. It makes the Patrick Cook v Harry Seidler case, or Leunig’s own trials for obscenity, pale by comparison.

But there’s also an authority thing. “People see cartoonists as if they’re making legislation,” says Leunig. “All I do is make cartoons.” He admits, though, that “it hurts to know that you have hurt people when you didn’t mean to. You intend something culturally, and people take it, and respond, personally. Sometimes you make a mistake, in the heat of the moment, with a deadline hanging. Sometimes I get angry and lose my judgment. I stumble into things.”

Leunig quotes Les Tanner, who described the job as being “the permanent voice of the opposition”. For all that, Leunig’s work is becoming less subversive, more small-c conservative. “I grew up in an era that wanted to rock the boat. I took great delight in doing that. But sometimes, if the world becomes desperately deranged and confused, you become interested in steadying that wildly rocking boat.”

Even now, though, there persists for Leunig the temptation to naughtiness, to say what is politically incorrect, because “that’s what people are whispering”. To give voice to this silent inner monologue, to say out loud what people are thinking and fearing, to touch on primal emotions and hang the consequences, is the cartoonist’s function, at once theological, psychological, philosophical, prophetic and therapeutic.

It is, says Leunig, the cartoonist’s privilege and responsibility to “go and forage on the great hillside of life and see what you can find there that is nourishing”. Dark and lonely work, as the bishop said, but someone has to do it. Let’s just hope a few lonely souls remember how to draw, as well.


THREE ILLUS: Poison pencils …

the cartoons of George Molnar, far right, were ironic rather than sarcastic.

David Low, depicted below in a self-portrait, used his outsider status in England to good effect.

Baby Play With Nice Ball?

was published three days after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Front-line cartooning …

Michael Leunig, above, believes political lampooning is too easy; he prefers to tackle social issues such as child care.


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