Bruce Petty

Known and loved for his expansive mind-maps that loop towards all four edges of the page, Bruce Petty is not only one of Australia’s foremost political cartoonists, he is a visual thinker who has invented unique forms to probe the social and political issues of our time. His drawings of the machine as a metaphor for human relations remain some of the most distinctive images of Australian life of the ’60s and ’70s, and as a filmmaker he continues to experiment with a unique blend of animation, satire and documentary.

With more than a dozen books to his name and just as many films, plus a flush of awards including the Oscar awarded to Leisure in 1976, the 85-year-old is a regular contributor to The Age and is working on a documentary on the shape of the 21st century city. ARTIST PROFILE spoke to Petty.

How did you begin your career?
When I was 20 I’d been working on my dad’s orchard. We both knew I should be having a go at something else. Over in Box Hill the Owen brothers were doing cell animation and 16mm film. This was before television, in the ’50s. They needed somebody to do the fill-ins for shorts and advertisements. The one I worked on was Careful Koala, a safety film for kids. I did the script. I thought it was terrific, a great chance. It was a pretty terrible film but that’s how I got interested in animation.

This company also had a commercial art studio in Melbourne and that was even more exciting. Suddenly I got a grounding in Garamond, Bodoni, Sans Serif, which didn’t do any harm at all. It was all handcrafted then.

There was a guy there who said “There’s a film down at the New Theatre you should go and see – Battleship Potemkin”. I’d never heard of Battleship Potemkin or avant-garde even, but I had a look and suddenly saw a whole world I didn’t know anything about. Another time he asked “Have you ever read Candide?” So we all in the studio started reading it without quite knowing what it was about, but knowing there’s a lot of areas of the brain you could investigate.

Had you always drawn?
I think I liked drawing. I can’t remember being obsessive about drawing. Nor was I much good. I remember doing the old Disney imitations and then UPA came in with a different-shaped line and that was a huge discussion area. I must say I was more interested in humour than drawing.

And animation preceded cartooning?
Yes. Early on I made an experimental film with cells and paint, a tedious process. Painting and thinking and turning the plates over. So I devised this apparatus, a Bolex camera which was a single frame hanging over a glass plate, lit from underneath because if you light it from the top it’s too hot and your pens dry up. I did a thing called Australian History. It was about seven minutes long.

How did you become a political cartoonist?
When I had been at that studio in Melbourne with those really bright people, a lot of them were going to London. It seemed like a pretty easy thing to do so I went across with some scribbly nonsense.
I thought James Thurber was interesting – that simple outline. So I thought that’s a possibility; maybe that’s the modern language. The other one was Feliks Topolski who did those drawings of the aristocracy just with scribbling – I couldn’t believe that. Saul Steinberg in New York I thought had an amazing précis of a human. He used the decorations people pad on their shoes, their clothes, their cufflinks … so I went to London with all that.

Now in London in ’58 there was a lot of politics. Hungary in ’56, the Cold War and nuclear weapons … it suddenly occurred to me that you’ve got to know about what we all do collectively – issues of equity and injustice. I knew that if I could draw in a square with black-and-white, it was something I should have a go at.

When I came back to Australia after six years I finally got a job at the Daily Mirror with Rupert Murdoch. I must say Rupert in those days had some vision that papers should be doing the politics of the day and that was black power and women’s lib, it was hugely sociological and political. He sensed that and wanted a paper to do it and I sort of fitted it.

When you sit down to make your drawings and tie all that complexity together, how do you approach the task? Is it a matter of reading and thinking and waiting or do you come at it quickly with a plan of attack?
I’ve always had a feeling you’ve got to tie everything together. Everything fits somehow. Just recently I’ve been trying to draw what happened at Srebrenica, what was the Bosnia-Serb thing. I’m trying to put the history in and I have a feeling that if you explain it, it will look good. There will be an aesthetic. My dad was good at machinery and on the orchard we built a lot of machinery. If you do something here it’ll pull that lever, tip this over, and that’ll turn that. It’s a weird metaphor because it isn’t really what humans do but you can make it a metaphor for human behaviour.

Does the history, the story, always come first?
I can’t just draw for fun. It’s got to have some purpose and for me it’s how to make this complicated thing coherent. It’s words really. It’s all in a big book.

In recent years artworks combining drawing, animation and video have become commonplace in galleries and museums. Has this led people to see your body of graphic, animated and film work in a different light?
Yeah … I don’t quite know where my lot fits. In the era when I was doing six political cartoons a week it was pretty absorbing and I don’t know if there were any aesthetics in those drawings. I’ve got a feeling that artists are slightly floundering around at the moment, looking for markets as much as anything, and the real art is just somewhere else – not in galleries. I think it’s happening somewhere but the market is so weird and dominant.

Kentridge has done what you’re suggesting, I think. He’s taken pretty primitive stuff, 16mm film overprinted, and turned it into a thoughtful contribution to image making and storytelling. I think artists ought to be able to contribute something that moves in some direction. Other cartoonists have, like Steadman and Leunig – his stuff looks like you want to have it on the wall for a while. So it can be done and it’s just fascinating to be roughly in the business.

In the ’60s and ’70s it must’ve seemed natural to take a political standpoint in your work but with massive changes in politics and the media since then, has it become harder to do that?
The politics of the day were quite different then from now. There was an expectation that governments could change things and then the corporate component of how governments work got so strong that they have become ineffectual.

The other thing now is digital technology: the speed of information and the quantity of imagery that we have access to. It’s so good. Digital imagery has been a big challenge. Fractals for instance. What do the old abstract artists do now that we have fractals? You could get a robot to do something that you’ve never seen before. It’s ridiculous in a way.

It’s also the frustration of being in a world that’s really enmeshed in abstracts. One of the big issues that you detect early is that politics is really about how you distribute wealth. Well, money has gone so weird … it’s gone into abstracts. Derivatives are inexplicable. There is a market in derivatives that we know nothing about. It’s got nothing to do with us and people are making fortunes and using their millions to build the apparatus for making more fortunes. I’ve had a lot of goes at trying to draw money and what’s happening to it.

In recent years you’ve made a number of feature-length films about global power structures using animation, real actors and documentary interviews. I imagine it’s not easy to produce them or get them distributed?
If you want to get into a cinema with a film you’re reliant on editors and commissioning bodies who know straight away that unless you doctor it up with some actors who are irresistible … if you haven’t got George Clooney or Reese Witherspoon in it, forget about it.

But there are so many tantalising things to do. I’ll be battling away with some dopey idea until they drag me away to the clinic. I’ll be amazed if some of the kids that know this digital stuff and can paint and can think and have ideas, don’t come up with something. All the young artists have a huge adventure and it’s going to move along because they’re aware of this frustration, I think. Whether I can contribute any more or not, I’m going to have a go because it’s all I can do.

Images courtesy the artist


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