1927 - 2005 | NSW, Hungary | Political cartoonist
George Molnar was a sponsored migrant from what was then Hungary in 1939. As an outsider he mocked the absurdities and contradictions of Australian post-war life, firstly in the Daily Telegraph and then for 28 years in the Sydney Morning Herald until 1984. He helped set the tone for the times. As professor of architecture at both Sydney and NSW universities he dedicated himself to the preservation of Victorian and Georgian architecture in the uncontrolled development of the 60s and 70s, thereby helping create the conservation movement which led to ”green bans”.
George Molnar once observed that cartoons were just his way of expressing himself as an architect. Indeed it was architecture that opened a series of propitious doors that led to an unlikely career as one of Australia’s finest political cartoonists.
Having graduated in architecture and engineering from Budapest Technical University, the young Molnar practised in his home town of Oradea (previously Nagyvarad, ceded to Romania under the 1920 Treaty of Trianon) before setting sail for Sydney via London. His metaphorical suitcase was packed with experience of post war poverty, displacement and urban renewal, as well as a classical education that embraced both the arts and the sciences.
Molnar’s first job designing private houses in the barely-there new capital of Canberra allowed him to indulge his Bauhaus-aligned modernist sensibilities. His second job as a draftsman at the Ministry of Munitions – where as an “enemy alien” he stamped “most secret” onto his drawings of tanks and armoured ships – left him with an indelible scepticism of bureaucracy and centralised power. It was here too that his friendship with fellow draftsman and Daily Telegraph cartoonist Bernard Hesling led Molnar to stumble into the world of political cartooning.
Well over 6ft tall and fluent in four languages, the sartorially splendid and urbane Molnar cut a striking figure. A cultured and intellectual man, in today’s parochial, pejorative vernacular he might be called “un-Australian”. He was accused of as much in the Australian parliament, where during one House of Representatives question time in 1945, Prime Minister Chifley was asked to respond to a claim that one of Molnar’s early cartoons attacked the "Parliamentary system of government in this country and attempted to bring the national legislature into contempt''. Abuse from fellow cartoonists, along with charges of “reffo” and “fascist” from other quarters, have long been forgotten in the wake of a prolific and virtuosic cartooning career.
Molnar worked at the Telegraph from 1945, before being poached in 1954 by Sydney Morning Herald editor John Pringle. He would remain there for around 3500 cartoons and five subsequent editors (though his friendship with Pringle endured). In the tradition of his luminaries Osbert Lancaster, Ronald Searle and Saul Steinberg, Molnar’s cartoons are highly structured and beautifully composed arrangements of clean, continuous lines and finely balanced, boldly contrasting black solids.
His favoured subject and muse was Sydney, which, sans driver’s license, he observed through a devout pedestrian’s lens. The foibles and idiosyncrasies of its people, its architecture and its officialdom were interrogated and laid bare with trademark wry erudition. Molnar’s sustained, penetrating social critique and interpretation of the contemporary environment, exemplified in his weekly “Insubstantial Pageant” cartoons, provide an enduring and peerless snapshot of Sydney’s post-war zeitgeist.
It was an era of national prosperity and growth, characterised by social and political upheaval, intellectual debate, and a commitment to high culture. Molnar’s contributions to social and architectural reform extended beyond the cartoons that he drew for the Herald and a raft of other publications including Punch, The Times, the Observer, Time and Life.
He maintained a parallel career as a lecturer and Associate Professor of Architecture at the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales respectively, all the while critiquing, reviewing and illustrating various books and articles. His tireless advocacy for “human-scale architecture”, and the preservation of Sydney’s architectural heritage and environmental fabric was, in retrospect, visionary; while without his essays to the Herald regarding the location and selection of a new opera house, J∅rn Utzon’s iconic building would likely never have seen the light of day.
It was often difficult to pinpoint Molnar’s political allegiance or affiliations on a given issue. Part activist, part reactionary, he lampooned and railed against zealotry and pretentiousness of all persuasions and in equal measure – as his contributions to the famously rival publications Quadrant and Nation can attest.
He strung up and dissected his victims with such charm and tact that his audience could but admire the precise and incisive nature of the reflection shown them. A true intellectual and didact, Molnar made complex ideas about society, architecture and planning accessible to a broad range of audiences across a diversity of media.
Cartooning was his primary artform up until his retirement from the Herald in 1984, though his love of watercolours began in the 1970s and would become his preferred medium in later life. Elegantly drawn and rendered in a representational style reminiscent of the tableaux of William Hogarth and Thomas Rowlandson, a Molnar watercolour presents as a cartoon of sorts, punctuated with pithy captions and infused with his familiar wry wit. His final series was less satirical and more nostalgically poignant - exhibited two weeks after his death in 1998 at Tusculum, Sydney, these last paintings portray memories of his childhood in Hungary.
In a country that prides itself on the strength of its black-and-white illustration tradition, Molnar was arguably the finest Australian newspaper cartoonist of his generation and one of the greatest of any era.
His OBE (1971) and AO (1988) gongs acknowledge his unique and substantial contribution to journalism and architecture. As cartoonist, architect, critic, teacher, writer, scholar, and artist, Molnar’s interventions in the public sphere variously inspired, influenced and illuminated Australian society. But perhaps George ‘Mo’ Molnar’s greatest legacy lies not so much in the ways he helped shape our culture, but the decency and integrity with which he went about doing so.
Lucien Leon lectures in media arts at the Australian National University. He is particularly interested in the impact of the internet on the Australian political cartooning tradition.
George Molnar in 1978. Courtesy of Fairfax
Molnar, 1970-1976: A Collection of Cartoons from the Sydney Morning Herald, George Molnar, George, John Fairfax & Sons, Sydney, 1976
Insubstantial Pageant. George Molnar, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1959