Michael Leunig has made teapots, ducks, crescent moons, fish and flowers an enduring fixture in the Australian cultural landscape. Perhaps best known for his cartoons, which feature regularly in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Leunig’s latest collection of artwork, Holy Fool, instead draws heavily from his other works: paintings, etchings, mixed-media collages and sculptures.
Leunig’s work is always whimsical and introspective and Holy Fool is no different. The collection examines an idea contained in most of Leunig’s work—that of the holy fool itself, which he describes as “a character who does not conform to social norms of behaviour … but is regarded as having a compensating divine blessing or inspiration”. This fool, genderless, with a bulbous nose, lidless eyes and expressive mouth has become iconic of Leunig’s work, making his style one of the most recognisable in the country.
Holy Fool is profoundly spiritual, and there are many points when Leunig’s Anglican upbringing can be seen in his art. A Christian religious influence is explicit in a number of works contained here, but especially in Do this in remembrance of me, an acrylic painting of one fool, sitting, drinking from a bowl offered by another fool, kneeling. In true Leunig style, a duck balances delicately on top of the kneeling fool’s head.
Of course, Leunig’s primary audience isn’t Christians in particular, but there are themes contained in Holy Fool which are especially interesting to people of Christian faith. In its examination of the character of the holy fool, Leunig’s book echoes Jesus’ reminder that “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
The wide-eyed fool is sometimes joyous, sometimes melancholic, but always bears a life-filled spirit that shines through every page. The fool is inseparable from the form of Leunig’s art itself; both are at once simple and profound, innocent and wise. As a result, Holy Fool is not just beautiful, but also challenging. Herein lies the example for Christians and the institutional church—to be holy fools, all of us.